Housed in a basement of a San Francisco Chinatown laundromat, Et al. gallery is the place to find underground culture and emergent conceptual art. As a gallery, they are hands-off in working with artists and encourage un-choreographed collaboration for group shows. The results allow half-ideas to hang beside established artworks. This kind of experimental freedom puts Et al. on the map, a space sought after by artists looking to make new works for new audiences.
Co-founders Aaron Harbour and Jackie Im founded Et al. with artist Facundo Argañaraz in 2013 as an art space where the three could collaborate on art ideas and exhibit the work of friends. Argañaraz has since chosen to focus on his art, while Habour and Im continue to use the space as a catalyst to curate more experimental shows with more diverse artists. The hidden location, paired with their emphasis on unbridled creative license, appeal to art students and curators alike as a refreshing change from prescribed art world gatherings.
"Any first visit to our space was always going to be a surprise, walking down a dim hallway and down a flight of stairs gives us a head start building the kind of unpredictable programing we are most interested in. We are far from professionals at what we do; we think about this de/professionalization quite a bit, our curatorial freedom and artists’ needs," Harbour tells The Creators Project.
Since its opening, the gallery has hosted about 28 shows, ranging from the The Sims portraits of New York artist Jacky Connolly, to San Francisco artist Cybele Lyle's show The Moon is Slowly Rising, an investigation into architecture and queer spaces, to Oakland artist Chris Duncan's exploration of race, and visual artist Anthony Discenza's Trouble Sleeping, for which where the artist took the concept of the solo show and unraveled it to host five different shows over the duration of his exhibit. It was described as a place where "objects hovered between being artworks and just objects to drift into and out of the space (like a missing cat poster or a stage prop of a dismembered hand)."
Im and Harbour maintain that the result is far more important than whatever their expectations as curators may be. Harbour says, “We look for the right balance between intent and realization, concept and craft. We operate mostly by choosing practices and not works, allowing artists to produce exactly the type of exhibitions they want to produce. We like work where the answers aren’t clear, that create ambiguity. More often than not, the works we exhibit are unknown to us until the artist arrives with them at the space.”
San Francisco is an increasingly expensive city to live and work in, let alone be an art professional in. Commercial spaces are expensive to rent for galleries, and the cost of living continues to price artists out of keeping studios and making art their singular source of income. Harbour and Im are resourceful and creative with how they approach the opportunity to maintain Et al. as a gallery. They both have full time jobs during the day: Im as an associate curator for the San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries, while Harbour manages a local community college radio station. They are a couple that lives together in a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland to help to keep their costs of living down. In the hours between their jobs and running the gallery, they each manage to write about artists they are fascinated by for art publications.
“At any point in time, we have numerous projects moving at once. Each day we push them forward, even if it’s only a tiny bit. We continue to add on other things like helping an artist with an application or writing a short piece for publication, etc. Despite that, we still manage to binge watch Rick and Morty, or catch a movie, or hang out with our cat. We’re both very lucky with day jobs that allow us time to do what we do, and we can’t help but fill that time with projects,” says Harbour.
As curators, they continue to maintain a healthy dialogue with international artists. It makes perfect sense that Et al. is experiencing a boom and having quite a growth spurt. Later this month, Et al. will open a satellite gallery within the new and ambitious Minnesota Street Project (MSP), where entrepreneurs Deborah and Andy Rappaport are looking to innovate the traditional gallery model to offer affordable spaces for art galleries and artists. MSP hopes to heighten support for the arts in a city struggling to retain its homegrown talent. Located in the Dogpatch district, MSP will house about 13 galleries with a wide range of missions and aesthetics within 100,000 square feet. Et al. will use their new space to promote exhibits in collaboration with international galleries. The inaugural show, Closing, is organized by Cooper Cole Gallery of Toronto, and features the works of artists Bjorn Copeland and Georgia Dickie.
Julie Casemore, the director of MSP was hopeful and persistent in getting Et al. to take on gallery space because of the duo’s success in making Chinatown a new art destination, their commitment to multiple projects, and their resourceful approaches to fundraising. She says she admired, “the unique proposal to use the 1275 Minnesota St. [space] to host other galleries’ programs in San Francisco; The hospitality and visionary approach to the San Francisco gallery scene. I’d been a fan of their gallery in Chinatown, and how they identified that neighborhood as a place they could grow their gallery. They successfully grew a following in a neighborhood where galleries hadn’t ventured, and other galleries followed.”
This year will mark an important landmark for San Francisco’s art scene. You have philanthropists and emergent curators working toward the same goal, to make the city an arts destination with a living and thriving scene. Habour and Im are steadfast in making this happen with Et al. He says, “Artists and curators are stubborn, we’ll show work in a closet or a bathroom or an alleyway. We love living here and we are intent on making the Bay Area the place we want to be and there are a lot of people here who share in that endeavor.”