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Mission 17 gallery exhibits edgy avant-garde art

Bonne Marie Bautista

Mission 17, the brainchild of former Mills professor Clark Buckner, is a “not for profit center for research in aesthetics.” But don’t let the big words scare you off; assistant director and Mills College alumna Elaine Santos (2005) says the gallery does not have typical art scene snobbery.

“We’re not pretentious. This is a place people can come and hang out and enjoy the art,” said Santos, who runs the day-to-day operations of the gallery.

Buckner, who currently teaches at the San Francisco Art Institute, started the gallery as an outgrowth of open studios at the neighboring Blue Studios. “We had the space and I was just trying to support Bay Area arts. My engagement in art is decidedly local,” he said.

The gallery focuses on site-specific and installation pieces. “We invite people to produce work that they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to produce otherwise, that engages the studio, the architecture and the neighborhood. We like art that has an experiential quality to it,” said Buckner.

The gallery is currently showing “Emergence,” a video and sound installations by Mills alum and former professor David Kwan. “Mission 17 does not have the same commercial pressures [as other galleries],” said Kwan. “Artists can show work that is a little more process based.”

Other artists agreed. Eileen Starr Moderbacher, a painter who has shown in two of the annual juried shows and will have a solo exhibition in February, said Mission 17 draws “a more alternative crowd, a younger crowd more willing to grapple with an (artistic) concept.”

While she has shown in shows all over the world and will have paintings at the upcoming and important art show, “Art Basel” in Miami Beach, she says Mission 17 is an excellent match for her work. “People have to get to know it. It’s kind of edgy. People have to be willing to take a bit of a risk,” she said.

Though some Mission 17 artists are established, like Moderbacher, the gallery also serves “as an important stepping-stone for emerging and mid-career artists in the Bay Area,” said Moderbacher.

“The gallery serves an important role as an alternative space to big institutions. It shows a lot of really out there, cutting-edge work,” said conceptual artist Michael Zheng who has shown at Mission 17 as well as having been on the jury for a show at the gallery.

Since 2003, when the gallery started, Mission 17 has become more and more professional, said Buckner.

“Before, it was the space, the postcards and the cheese, and I did all the work.”

As his teaching responsibilities increased, and he “learned all that he was going to learn,” from curating shows, Buckner said he faced a choice: “Do I close it or do I try to establish it as an institution?”

He hired Santos to develop the gallery into a more independent entity. Santos worked on a grant-writing program. “And it worked,” he said. Two weeks ago, Mission 17 received its first grant from the Phyllis Wattis Foundation.

Mission 17 has also begun a modest publishing arm and will be creating catalogues for the art they show.

Mission 17 has a large internship program that allows students interested in the art world and art curation to take on leading roles.

“The nice thing about the gallery is that it is a really great way for students to get involved in the San Francisco art scene,” said David Kwan. He called the gallery approachable and receptive to new ideas. “It would be incredibly difficult for a student to help curate a show at a commercial gallery,” he said.

Mission 17’s fourth annual juried show, entitled “I.O.U.” features 22 artists working with a variety of mediums and will open Dec. 14.

“It’s fairly different from our other shows,” said Santos,

“It is way bigger, (and) a lot more varied.”

Buckner said the juried show has a general theme of debt but that “we look at the work and how it informs the theme. We don’t try to get the work to conform to the theme.”

Ultimately, said Buckner, Mission 17 “is interested in a good conversation. We give people a chance to do something exceptional.”