"I'm omnivorous. I appreciate popular culture and contemporary art, and really don't see much distinction between them. They just operate in different systems yet serve similarly as the voice of our times."
— René de Guzman
Interview by Dan Golden, Founder
René de Guzman is the Director of Exhibition Strategy and Senior Curator of Art at the Oakland Museum of California. De Guzman’s recent projects include the upcoming exhibition RESPECT: Hip-Hop Style & Wisdom opening March 24, 2018, exploring Hip-Hop as a positive social and cultural force, and the groundbreaking exhibition All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50 (2016), which drew record-breaking attendance for OMCA. He was also involved in curation for the Mission Scene section of Fertile Ground: Art and Community in California (2014) a collaborative exhibition with SFMOMA, an experience-based exhibition Vinyl: The Sound and Culture of Records (2014), major retrospectives Summoning Ghosts: The Art of Hung Liu (2013) and Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes (2012), Question Bridge: Black Males (2012), a media project on black male identity; and The Marvelous Museum: Orphans, Curiosities, and Treasures of the Oakland Museum of California (2010), an interdisciplinary installation by Mark Dion. De Guzman directed The Oakland Standard, an artistic innovation initiative that looks at new ways to engage audiences through creative practices. He joined the Museum in 2007 to complete renovation and reinstallation of the Gallery of California Art. Previously, de Guzman helped start Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) a multidisciplinary contemporary art center in San Francisco. During his 15-year tenure at YBCA, de Guzman provided early support for some of the Bay Area’s leading artists. He also recently taught as an Adjunct Professor in the graduate Curatorial Studies Program at the California College of the Arts. His career is marked by a commitment to community and artistic experimentation.
Dan Golden (DG): You have a new exhibit RESPECT: Hip-Hop Style & Wisdom about to open at Oakland Museum of California. Can you tell us a bit about the exhibition?
René de Guzman (RdG): RESPECT: Hip-Hop Style & Wisdom grew out of my previous work at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts where I did the show Hip-Hop by the Bay in 2001. That project introduced me to a generous community of Hip-Hop pioneers. It opened my eyes to the culture. The Yerba Buena show established an initial history of the Bay Area's contribution to mainstream Hip-Hop. The show at Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) looks at Hip-Hop more broadly, beyond it simply being a music genre. We're presenting it as a positive social and cultural force that drives business, politics, youth development, education, and community building. Hip-Hop is now a mature movement. RESPECT combines historic artifacts, contemporary art, popular culture, and first-person story telling. Objects include a low rider car, graffiti, skate decks, high fashion, conceptual photography, party flyers, gold chains, and curated playlists among many other things.
DG: Can you give readers who may be unfamiliar a bit of background on OMCA?
RdG: The Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) is a nearly 50-year-old museum whose mission is to inspire all Californians to create a more vibrant future for themselves and their communities. We do this through a progressive multidisciplinary approach to celebrate the many facets of California, with three galleries representing art, history, and natural sciences. Our collection is comprised of more than 1.9 million objects, which are often animated by innovative interpretative tools and interactive features. The Oakland Museum of California is also committed to examining topics and themes that are socially relevant and meaningful to the community through exhibitions, programs, and partnerships, including recent exhibitions Altered State: Marijuana in California, Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing and All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50.
DG: What are some of the challenges and opportunities of curating for an institution like OMCA?
RdG: The biggest challenge for me is aligning my taste for contemporary art and leading-edge culture with the educational mission of OMCA. This challenge, however, keeps you honest. You have to demonstrate how your interests and experiences benefit others. We have the opportunity here to grow an engaged multi-generational and multicultural audience for contemporary culture.
DG: What is a typical day like for you at the Museum?
RdG: A typical day begins with a commute to work from our rustic home to the urban space of Oakland. These daily transitions remind me of the range of lives people and communities have. Throughout the day, I read and write a lot of emails, and have way too many meetings. For lunch, lately, I like walking to Chinatown nearby for a pork bun snack. In between the emails and meetings, my days are punctuated by conversations with remarkable people, including artists, writers, performers, and activists.
DG: Prior to joining OMCA, you were a founding staff member at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for fifteen years. We’d love to hear a bit about your time at YBCA.
RdG: I was a founding staff member at YBCA. I came on board two years before the art center opened in 1992, a time when the organization rebuilt its relationship to the local arts community. The most important lessons include an understanding that contemporary art and politics are natural allies. Both are in the business of making freedom and space for the individual. I learned that the arts is a hard business. No one is entitled to anything. YBCA had to find its voice and remain confident in its point of view in order to build a community around it. I'm most proud of YBCA's legacy of enthusiasm and courage.
DG: Can you tell us a bit about your approach as a curator?
RdG: I'm a pretty unusual curator. I am a trained visual artist who came up through the artist space community. I'm therefore very comfortable working with living artists and see my value as creating opportunities within a large mainstream institution. I'm omnivorous. I appreciate popular culture and contemporary art, and really don't see much distinction between them. They just operate in different systems yet serve similarly as the voice of our times.
DG: This must be particularly exciting and challenging moment in the Bay Area, with all that’s going on in terms tech, finance, construction, etc. How do you see these elements affecting the arts community, in particular--and how has the landscape changed, in general from the mid-90s?
RdG: Needless to say, the Bay Area's economic Darwinism is impacting the arts community as badly as other working people. It's painful to see how much of a struggle living in the Bay Area has become. I try not to be nostalgic though I miss the days living in the Mission District in the '80s and '90s when the city was a charmed space for free thinkers, wild creativity, political agitation, and diversity. The hope is that a certain maturation happens that allows for a mutually supportive and holistic community throughout the Bay.
DG: What’s coming up next for you and the museum?
RdG: In 2019, OMCA will celebrate its 50th anniversary. We'll reflect upon the radical history of this Museum. We're considered by many to be "The People's Museum."
Friday Nights @ OMCA Block Party & Summer Season Launch, March 23, 2018, 5–10 pm.
This Friday Night will feature performances and activities in celebration of the special exhibition RESPECT: Hip-Hop Style & Wisdom, opening Saturday, March 24th. RESPECT will be on view until August 12, 2018.