Community and the Honeybee Ballet

The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is typically the first place I visit while in San Francisco. Small to mid-sized contemporary arts institutions often struggle to become part of their communities for myriad reasons. Some problems stem from preconceptions of Modern and Contemporary art and the inacessibility associated with these periods, which is perhaps unavoidable. However, this rarely accounts for the full problem, which often relates to a failure to directly engage the museum’s community. Bay Area Now 5, currently on view at the YBCA, is a very clear reminder of how well the Center succeeds at approaching and working within the San Francisco community.

Bay Area Now 5 is not flawless; it has highlights and misses. As an outsider to Bay Area art, I am not completely confident I left the exhibition knowing Bay Area art particularly well, but I did experience an overarching sense of place, as well as the sense that I, as an active viewer, was an important element to the exhibition. The visitor is invited into the conversation begun by Bay Area Now 5. The exhibition achieves this through the prominence of works with a community-oriented element. Overall, the art on view includes a broad sampling of different concepts and approaches that permeate the city. Unlike other exhibitions taking this approach such as the Whitney Biennial, Bay Area Now 5 uses the diversity of styles and media within its works to create an intimate connection likely best understood by those that live in the Bay Area.

Represented are examinations of contemporary art and faux sexuality (Edmundo de Marchena’s installation), environmental abstractions (The Au Layer/ Storm Reflecting in a Pool by Leslie Shows), political frustrations (Miniature Iraq War in Las Vegas by Brian Conley), and responses to the modernist traditions (Middle Sticks by Elaine Buckhholtz). Considering such timely values in contrast to the Chihuly blockbuster at the De Young provides a substantially different way for the general community of San Francisco to connect with art: through personal relevance and accessibility. Ultimately, in a way that less personal exhibitions can only strive towards through “targeted initiatives” and other approaches that can still be meaningful, but are often less direct experiences than what is found at the YBCA.

Honeybee Ballet, image from Bay Area Now 5, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Honeybee Ballet by Jonathon Keats (and its affiliated planting) embodies the value of Bay Area Now 5. Within the museum, the installation consists of an explanation of the project, a grid-like composition of flower pots containing cosmos plants positioned on a pier within the glassed-in center of the Yerba Buena Center and a Choreographic Map of the sites the Honeybee Ballet “performances” take place in San Francisco. This somewhat strange examination of the anthropomorphism humans thrust upon natural processes not only raises a plethora of questions about the relationships between control, understanding, and the general process of creativity; it also produces an unusual space for community interaction.

Jonathon Keats, Honeybee Ballet Choreographic Map, image from Bay Area Now 5, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Honeybee Ballet develops within the community through the plants’ and bees’ life cycles, which in turn, can be impacted by the state of that community. Though this and other projects including the Bay Area-focused tours Ground Scores, the YBCA makes the important move of bringing the museum into the community rather than trying exclusively to bring the community into the museum. While Keats’s project enables this through its inherent elements in a way that bringing a Goya “out into the community” would not be possible, there is something to be learned from the Yerba Buena Center’s endeavors. Perhaps works like Keats’s should be required of public institutions in some variable way beyond the offerings of abstract modernist sculptures that so many cities place in their urban centers as “public art” and that so often the non-arts educated public is not prepared to engage with in the absence of interpretive programming and materials. I am hardly an advocate for the dumbing-down effect so often witnessed in institutions, but Keats’s project demonstrates there is middle ground to be found when the value of such works is realized within a discipline so often buried beneath the desires for prestige and unapproachably narrow perspectives.