The Sam Francis Fellowship will send artists abroad

By Bridgette M. Redman

The program’s inaugural Sam Francis Media Fellow is Tiana Williams, a filmmaker, researcher and activist archivist who will contribute to 18th Street’s Cultural Asset Mapping project. courtesy of 18th Street Arts Center & Sam Francis Foundation

In the 1950s, painter and printmaker Sam Francis left Santa Monica to take up residency in Paris. Soon after, he established residences in Tokyo, Mexico City and numerous cities around the globe. These journeys helped shape Francis into an artist who dominated the Santa Monica artistic community while achieving international prominence.

Francis’ travels were inspirational to him. Recognizing that, the Sam Francis Foundation extends this legacy to other American artists, giving them a chance to travel abroad and develop their work.

The foundation reached out to Santa Monica’s 18th Street Arts Center, Southern California’s largest artist residency center that has hosted approximately 35 artists a year from around the world for the past 30 years. Together, Sam Francis Foundation and 18th Street Arts Center created “Call to Dream,” an ongoing residency program.

“It’s a huge, important visionary thing that the foundation has done — to choose to send American artists abroad,” said Jan Williamson, executive director of 18th Street Arts Center.

“I have been in the residency business for a long time. To have the foundation focus on this for the sake of the artists, for their own professional development, is very visionary and forward-thinking. It’s pretty amazing. Other countries send their artists abroad all the time, the United States not so much.”

Capturing Santa Monica’s stories
Tiana Williams is the program’s inaugural Sam Francis Media Fellow. She will help curate the oral histories found in the Sam Francis archives and contribute to 18th Street’s Cultural Mapping 90404 project.

Williams recently graduated from UC Davis, where she worked on oral history projects involving the prison system and COVID-19 pauses and hiatuses – two things that prepared her to tackle the project.

“They have more than 100 interviews already done,” Williams said. “I’ll be looking at that and finding these interesting threads, weaving them together to form a few short documentaries and the cultural mapping project they already have underway.”

The Cultural Mapping 90404 project has been in progress for five years. Sue Bell Yank, deputy director of 18th Street Arts Center, said the foundation has amazing gems about Santa Monica that they want to add to their map. The map is a collection of oral histories from cultural assets in Santa Monica that can include people, places, organizations or events.

“One real lack in the map are the artists recognizing the importance of Santa Monica to the development of the arts scene and arts ecology,” Yank said. “I think because of gentrification, property values and the way the landscape has changed, there aren’t as many artists or art studios as there once were. That has moved farther east over time. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, it really was an amazing place where a lot of artists that are the icons of LA made their work.”
Debra Burchett-Lere, director of the Sam Francis Foundation, said the foundation realized right after Francis died they needed to document as much as they could of his colleagues who were still alive. Many were in Santa Monica, but others were from all over the world.

“We realized there was quite a lot that would relate to the Santa Monica-specific history and the role of Santa Monica in the development of the LA area art region,” Burchett-Lere said. “Sam lived in the Santa Monica Canyon, his main studio was on Broadway and he had another studio in Venice.”
It’s the type of work that Yank said they are excited to have Williams delve into because they want to find ways to create narratives around the oral histories.

“That is why I think Tiana is fantastic,” Yank said. “She really specializes in that work and we’re excited to have her dig into that and tell those stories in a way that is really respectful of the history that was in Santa Monica.”
Williams said she has been digging deep into the history of a man that she knew little about before she applied for the fellowship.

“I really do appreciate and emphasize the partnership, and how 18th Arts Street Center is so dedicated to curating and maintaining these histories,” Williams said. “I think it’s wonderful. The partnership is really important because they are bringing out these hidden histories that many people don’t know about. I’m excited to get down to the nitty-gritty.”

Planning for artists to go overseas
Williamson and Burchett-Lere are also paving the way for the artist residencies. Burchett-Lere said the foundation’s board wants to recreate their namesake’s experience for other artists.

“The experience of living and working in another environment and trying to learn the language just adds to your whole experience, and oftentimes, makes dramatic changes in your work,” Burchett-Lere said. “It affects your work on many levels as you become more attuned to how different people think in different cultures. You become an ambassador in many ways.”

When it came to finding a partner, Burchett-Lere said they wanted a connection with a Santa Monica-based organization to carry on Francis’ legacy and they knew that 18th Street Arts Center had a lot of experience with residencies. The 18th Street Arts Center was eager to partner as it gave them the opportunity to expand their program and send people overseas.

“This is a particularly unique residency for us,” Williamson said. “The way we are structuring it is an American artist will go abroad to the host city and then an artist from that city will come to Santa Monica, so these two artists will form a relationship in each other’s home country, which deepens the possibility for collaboration, for an exchange of ideas, and for relationship building between artistic communities, because artists are part of a community where they live.”

Williamson said the arts ecology is very different in Paris, Tokyo and Mexico City, so they are taking their time in building long-term relationships with organizations in each host city and determining who the partners abroad will be. Both organizations have deep relationships in all the cities.

The partnership came at a time when the foundation was planning several other events, including an exhibition of Francis and his Japanese contemporaries that opens at LACMA this spring, other exhibitions in France coming up in the next year, and a biography through UC Berkeley that will be published next October. They are also granting three scholarships to three schools.

“It just seemed to us that this was the time to develop the residency program if we’re going to do it because of the nature of the international exhibitions that are coming up,” Burchett-Lere said. “Those might be good opportunities to piggyback on those different projects and maybe allow for some possibilities for talks, symposiums or workshops in different cities. We wanted one other kind of larger project that we could focus on that would allow artists to travel.”

With so much of art focused on production or the end project, Williamson said that beauty of what the foundation is doing is that it emphasizes the artist’s professional development and what they need to do to become artists, and to develop their artistic sense and style.

“There is a big disconnect in our culture about where art comes from and who you help to foster its creation,” Williamson said. “It’s important to support individual artists as they have the special tools and natural inclination and skills to dream and imagine new futures that have never been imagined before. That’s what propels culture and society forward.”

It’s why the residency creates the ability for artists to move around, meet other people and become exposed to new ideas. It offers artists an incubation period in which the focus is not on production.

“It makes us all stronger,” Williamson said. “It makes our society and our community stronger. It supports the unseen labor that people don’t recognize as a really important part of the creative process. They see the end project, the object or the collected works or the performance and they forget all of the thought and research that went into that.”

The first residency exchange kicks off in 2022 with the first artist going to Paris. The artist will be selected through a series of nominations with a panel of experts making the final decision.

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