Walnut Creek’s Bedford Gallery seeks to fill big, creative shoes
By Lou Fancher
Moving swiftly past initial surprise at ways the digital age is impacting museums and art galleries and how they engage visitors, the Bedford Gallery in downtown Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts is an active change agent. There is momentum with a message behind not only the current exhibit, “The Great Wave: Contemporary Art About the Ocean,” but in the legacy established by the gallery’s recently departed head curator, Carrie Lederer.
After 25 years of presenting leading local, national and international contemporary art, including art indicative of cultural trends, innovative ideas, new media, historic genres and renowned artists of the past like painter Frida Kahlo — the July 2018 “World of Frida” exhibit drew more than 12,000 visitors — Lederer stepped down to return to her private art practice full-time.
In an interview, interim curator Emilee Enders says the search for Lederer’s successor falls under the purview of the city of Walnut Creek’s Arts and Recreation Director and human resources department. The Bedford Gallery is run by the city of Walnut Creek. Enders identifies the gallery’s three primary achievements under Lederer’s visionary leadership as “a robust volunteer program with emphasis on arts education and thoughtful, boundary-pushing exhibitions.” Enders says highlights during the Bedford’s recent history were the Kahlo exhibit’s wide appeal and that of the “Tradition Interrupted” exhibit exploring media from fiber to ceramic and involving global cultural investigations.
Asked about the intentions of the gallery as it conducts a search for and welcomes new leadership, Enders writes in a email, “We always welcome new ideas and perspectives at the Bedford. In this next year, I know the gallery will continue to present thoughtful, educational exhibitions and fun, innovative programming for our audience. Our tour program will provide enriching youth and adult tours and our guild and docent volunteers will continue to offer invaluable help teaching students and visitors about the gallery and our exhibitions.”
The workshops at which visitors learn new skills or gain unique insights into artists’ process and practices will continue, as will the annual Craft Fest that features more than 35 local crafters. School tours that have 3,500 children visiting the gallery each year and gallery members’ access to special events and outings are carrying on uninterrupted. “The Bedford is always in search of new and exciting programming and artists who push boundaries by working in inventive media,” says Enders.
Invention expressed as prompts for action is a direction artists have taken throughout history, but recently Ann Trinca has noticed an up-swelling urgency, says the guest curator in selecting work included in “The Great Wave” exhibit. “Artists have always been movers and shakers, the first to adopt activism. Today, there’s a lot of artists commenting on politics and issues, almost to the extreme that you don’t see art that’s not mission-driven.”
As a launch pad, the exhibit uses an iconic 180-year-old image created by Japanese ukiyo-e art genre master Katsushika Hokusai in his woodblock print “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” The contemporary artists all live near a coastal shore and in their works respond to and extend the symbolic image to comment on the increasing dangers of rising sea levels. Encouraging greater climate awareness and inspiring hope through action is the exhibit’s mandate.
“Hokusai was making art about the environment before it was a ‘thing,’ ” says Trinca. “His image has become a symbol for raising awareness of ocean warming now.”
Admittedly, many of the artists do not think of themselves as “environmental artists,” but Trinca says climate change has moved to a cultural forefront and as an exhibit theme, the ocean is highly relatable, and artists often turn to it for subject matter.
“The fascinating thing is the chance to think about your own relationship with the ocean. It’s integral with our existence. What are we doing to the ocean? In reverse of that, what happens to us because of rising sea levels?” Trinca asks.
At the gallery, physical cards are available for visitors to tell their stories about how climate change is affecting their lives. The cards are just one way engagement is built into modern museums and galleries. Trinca, an arts consultant with 18 years’ experience curating and marketing Bay Area art exhibits, says her job is to find “the zeitgeist” by attending other shows, reading reviews and looking at artwork other curators are noticing.
“It’s also pop culture and making exhibitions accessible to the most amount of people. If you get too heady or esoteric it scares people away,” she says. “Making art more ubiquitous in people’s lives is what I am looking to do as a curator.”
Artwork in the “Wave” show expands beyond ubiquity to timelessness and to pieces dependent on the visitors to make complete. Artist Peter Hassen for Discovery Project buried 100 stone Buddha heads along the Pacific coast. “Someone is going to find them someday,” says Trinca. “What’s going to happen when they pop up on the beach? It’s a challenge to see what that person does next.”
In Liz Hickok’s installation, “Ground Waters,” a 360-degree video of a cityscape shows a town filling up with fluid and drowning. Crystals form and replace structures as the fluid resides. An iPad allows the viewer to move through the scene, zoom in and out and control perspective. Artist team Hughen/Starkweather’s (Amanda Hughen and Jennifer Starkweather’s) “The Climate Narratives Project” weaves together drawings based on interviews collected from people affected by climate events into textiles. Physical cards invite visitors to share their stories, and the project’s website offers further involvement.
“I like to say that art is never complete until someone sees it,” says Trinca. “Carrie did an amazing job introducing the East Bay and Walnut Creek to new genres presented in fresh, fun atmospheres.” Offering relatable art with connections to contemporary sports, food, nature, street culture and everyday lives, Trinca says, is “like gathering all of what is the Bay Area together.”
That’s exactly what Lederer’s fans feel she brought to the Bedford for 25 years and what remains on view there.