Headlands Center for the Arts: Gary Sangster and the Art of Administration

HEADLANDS 2008 BENEFIT AUCTION, Thursday, June 12, 6pm – 9pm, Herbst International Exhibition Hall, The Presidio, San Francisco. For tickets: www.headlands.org/auction, email: auction@headlands.org, 415.331.2787 x33, $90 for Headlands Members, $100 for the General Public. Auction items include work by Chris Ballantyne, Thomas Campbell, Reed Danziger, KateEric, Amanda Hughen, Misako Inaoka, Packard Jennings, Lead Pencil Studio, Yoon Lee, Barry McGee, Leslie Shows, Shinique Smith, Hank Willis Thomas, William T. Wiley, and more.

Headlands Center for the Arts, 944 Fort Barry, Sausalito, CA 94965, (415) 331-2787
Check the website for upcoming public programs: www.headlands.org

What is Headlands Center for the Arts?

Clever collectors scan artists’ resumes for mention of Headlands Center for the Arts. The Center’s “alumni news” celebrates former residents who’ve participated in cutting edge exhibitions like the Venice Biennial, the Whitney Biennial, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts “Bay Area Now,” and at influential SF, NY, & LA galleries. Just being named as a finalist for the Headlands’ residency program is so prestigious that artists proudly list the Headlands Center’s annual January “Close Calls” exhibition on their CV’s.

Founded in 1987, Headlands has just entered her 20s. But what differentiates her from her older non-profit siblings (Intersection for the Arts founded 1965, New Langton Arts and Southern Exposure founded 1975), is not just the artist-in-residence program but the international roster of participants and the exquisite natural setting.

Headlands’s greatest strength, its location in a national park, is also its Achilles’ Heel: it’s not walking distance from 49 Geary. The facility itself is a cluster of whitewashed, 100-year old rustic military buildings in the quiet and foggy Marin Headlands. Because of its aspirational mission and other-worldly venue, Headlands is a hive of creativity where artists of every discipline come to cross-pollinate during their stays, while in their adjoining studios, or during meal times in the community mess hall, or on hikes in the irresistible coastal terrain that surrounds them.

There are other international residency programs for artists, but none sit in a bucolic national park minutes away from the most beautiful city in the world. Remarkably, artists are invited to explore their talent without making a commitment to a finished product. Headlands provides emerging and established artists with the valuable resources of time (usually three months) and studio space for open-ended investigation, experimentation, and collaboration - free from the usual imperative to create finished artistic “product.”

Additional inspiration comes from the facility itself, a living artwork in its own right, made up of four installations: the Ann Hamilton designed dining room; the David Ireland Conference Room and Lecture Hall; and the Bruce Tomb and John Randolph Latrine (yes, latrine). And the first site-specific commission in twenty years is being installed right now- a large scale planter box (which will grow herbs for the community kitchen) by Michael Swaine and Amy Franceschini, who received the SFMOMA SECA Award in 2006 for her conceptual art project reviving the Victory Garden from WWII.

Focus on Gary Sangster

Gary Sangster is the third Executive Director in the organization’s history. In the first two decades of its existence, Headlands established itself as an important incubator of local talent. Since Sangster’s arrival in 2005, Headlands has become more visible on both the local and international scenes. Walking through the pre-eminent North American art fair, The Armory Show, in New York last March, Sangster was continually recognized and greeted with cheer by international art world colleagues.

Beyond being well-known, what makes Sangster unique? In addition to decades of curating and teaching experience, Sangster participates. Gary can be found at happenings, fundraising events, and intimate gatherings all over town, usually wearing his disarming, trademark windbreaker and baseball cap. Despite his formal “Executive Director” title, he is engaging and gregarious with all, yet can always be counted on to lob in a trademark “tough question,” shaking up a dull art lecture during the Q&A session. Invariably his endearing Aussie accent warms his audience and he often ends up revealing a worthwhile art truth through his participation.

Steven Wolf of Steven Wolf Fine Arts explains Sangster’s universal appeal: “Gary's an intellectual. He's thoughtful and he’s an iconoclast… he's intellectually independent and open minded… about most of what goes on in the art world.”

Catching headwinds from efforts put in place before Sangster’s arrival, applications for the 2008 residency program jumped by 50% to a record 900+ applications. Due to funding and space limitations, only 50 were invited to participate- just 5% of total applicants. There are work/live accommodations for just over a dozen artists each season. These few resources are distributed each year to artists of every discipline: visual, literary, dance/performance, music, film video, even arts professionals.

Sangster’s 14-page CV lists experiences from over 30 years in the art world. The first half of his career was spent at Newcastle University, near Sydney, Australia. Sangster began as Assistant Professor of Art Education and ended up chairing the department of Art History and Theory, which may explain his signature “tough question” during art talk Q&A’s. After four years as director of Artspace in Sydney, followed by two years as chief curator of the National Gallery of New Zealand, Sangster came to the US.

Sangster gained valuable experience in the East before coming to Marin County: Curator of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York; Chief Curator of the Jersey City Museum; Executive Director of the Cleveland Center of Contemporary Art; Executive Director of the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore; Director and Dean of the Art Institute of Boston.

After all of those years at specialized institutions, Sangster came to Headlands with tremendously honed skills and has implemented innovative programs (like a recent panel discussion called “Uncharted Waters: Understanding the Emerging Art Market”), and reinvigorated favorites, like the three “open house” days each year when visitors can meet artists in their studio space.

Sangster is acutely aware that in this changing economy, non-profits can no longer rely exclusively on grants and private donations, and he is intent on associating Headlands with the for-profit community, to both expand its audience and develop new revenue streams.

Owen Seitel, Chair of Headlands’s board of directors, lists some of Sangster’s contributions since arriving: “…attracting and developing a dynamic and well-respected staff, better integrating Headlands into the San Francisco Bay Area community, and placing an emphasis on documenting our programs and getting the word out to the community at large.” High praise coming from founding partner of Idell & Seitel, LLP, a San Francisco firm that specializes in intellectual property law.

Under Sangster’s leadership, the newsletter has become more robust and detailed, packed with entertaining and accessible writing about the artists-in-residence. The website has also been beefed up to include an alumni database, a full-year calendar of events, and tons of information about how Headlands inspires its visiting artists.

Recent additions to the staff include Director of Development sharon maidenberg (legally spelled all lower case), whose resume includes development positions at New Langton Arts, Southern Exposure, and YBCA. Program Director Anuradha Vikram was in the first graduating class of the California College of the Arts’ Masters in Curatorial Studies program and one of her first jobs was Curatorial Assistant & Studio Manager of the Claes Oldenburg- Coosie van Bruggen Studio. Vikram has since established herself as a respected local curator, writer, and teacher.

In a move the Gen Y set can appreciate, Sangster struck up an innovative partnership with Timbuk2, the local manufacturer of chic messenger bags. Headlands artists will design a limited-edition line of bags, marketed internationally, and proceeds will support the Center.

How You Can Participate

Headlands’s range of programs open to the public have always included seasonal “open houses,” where fans can visit artists working in their studios and then join them for dinner, family-style, and then do the dishes together, too.

The Headlands auction takes place off-campus at parking-friendly Herbst International Exhibition Hall in the Presidio on Thursday, June 12. Buying art through the auction is a great way to begin or augment a fine art collection, thanks to the donations of many bold-faced-named Headlands alums. Introduce yourself to Gary and before you know it you’ll have signed up to be a member of the Center. Plan to sit next to him at the next Dinner Program.