TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, New Mexico — The 801 gallery, in the city of Truth or Consequences (known as T or C), sits across from a chain-link fenced cemetery. “There’s never any traffic,” the owner, Darryl Smith, proudly told Hyperallergic.
801, named for its street address, is packed with work by many of the Bay Area’s best-known artists. There’s a print by Tauba Auerbach, a skateboard Margaret Kilgallen painted for a friend, and an example of Mark Bradford’s early butcher paper experiments. A canvas by Alicia McCarthy hangs over bottle sculptures stenciled by Barry McGee, and early photo work by Cheryl Dunn lines the space’s hallway. Smith has a story behind every piece in the gallery, many of which he acquired after giving a young art student their very first show.
Smith’s story begins in San Francisco, where he moved to in the 1980s to study at California’s oldest art school: the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). Though, or perhaps because, he dropped out after a few years, the experience changed his life. Smith fell in with a group of artists later canonized as the Bay Area Mission School.
When he and fellow artist Laurie Lazer decided to open the Luggage Store Gallery in the Tenderloin in 1987, they became the first gallerists to exhibit many of their friends. The DIY community space, deeply integrated in the community it was representing, became a focal node for a number of the city’s burgeoning art movements.
In 1998, following Luggage Store’s impressive curation, the director of SFAI’s Walter and McBean gallery asked Smith and Lazer to select an unknown artist from Southern California for a solo show. After visiting studios and haunting Los Angeles art schools, they met a young man named Mark Bradford. His 1998 show Floss helped establish Bradford and, in turn, established the Luggage Store. The collaboration with SFAI “changed a lot for us,” Smith recalls, “he blew up.”
Working alongside SFAI, the Luggage Store became a community space that gave many art students their first show. It didn’t offer much money or institutional recognition, but it gave young people, just starting out, a first real moment of recognition. They have gone on to exhibit many of San Francisco’s most renowned contemporary artists.
After years of collaboration, SFAI announced in March that it could be closing permanently due to financial troubles accelerated by COVID-19. Although alumni, community members, and benefactors have raised over $3 million dollars to keep SFAI precariously open, the future looks grim.
The emphasis on technology and efficiency that has come to characterize San Francisco’s economy now hovers over plans for art education. The city’s commitment to its creative community is growing ever weaker, as the skyline’s newest addition, the phallic $1.1 billion Salesforce Tower, showcases “video art” on its top six floors, and the city’s largest art museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), is being criticized by community arts groups for censoring Black voices.
Even after years of rising rent, eviction battles, community displacement, and an undeniable shift in San Francisco’s population, Smith isn’t giving up on the city. He characterizes the move to Truth or Consequences earlier this year as “a link, not a break” — more about sharing the work of artists he helped support in San Francisco than a fresh start, especially since Smith and Lazer will continue running Luggage Store.
That said, gentrification is a growing problem in regions of New Mexico, and the opening of art spaces (particularly in Santa Fe) has often been a cause. Smith, who has been visiting Truth or Consequences for 20 years, says he’s noticed a new wave of artists and creative people moving to the town. Longtime establishments, like Olin West’s Mud Mountain art gallery and Delmas Howe’s studio, are being joined by new spaces. Smith says he is wary of gentrification, which has forced many artists, especially Black artists and artists of color, out of San Francisco, and is being intentional about his work in Truth or Consequences. When it is safe to do so, he plans to begin exhibiting local artists at 801, with a focus on Indigenous artists, self-taught artists, and Black artists.
801 is the only house on the block not enclosed by privacy fencing. Before the pandemic, people were welcome to just walk in, and they often did. There’s a seesaw, a collection of sculptures, and a neon pink sign that reads “Tell your Stories Here,” by artist Mary Conrad. As the future of art in San Francisco feels ever more precarious, Smith’s collection, made public, is a striking time capsule.
“When I’m not here,” Smith leads me around the garden, “I leave a key with a neighbor so that anyone passing through can visit the gallery.”
In 2001, just before she died, the artist Margaret Kilgallen painted the Luggage Store’s rolling metal door. San Francisco’s public works department tagged it as vandalism and Smith narrowly managed to haul the door off the street before the city had it destroyed.
Smith now plans to bring Kilgallen’s final mural to 801’s sculpture garden, where it will face the Rio Grande and be visible to whoever happens to be passing through town.
Depending on the status of the COVID-19 pandemic, 801 gallery will open by appointment starting this August.