Cheryl Haines is the Founder and Executive Director of FOR-SITE Foundation, principal of Haines Gallery in San Francisco, and focuses her efforts on the intersection of art, place, and purpose.  In our conversation, we discussed the importance of place in stimulating public introspection, and how she illuminates layers of human connection through her innovative projects that draw from the rich history of our landscape.




  Photography by Jan Sturmann

Photography by Jan Sturmann

Rimma Boshernitsan: What is a lesson your parents taught you that you carry into your current work?  

Cheryl Haines:
I’d say from an early age, my parents always taught me to question and to think independently. They taught me the value of community and that the generosity of spirit is incredibly important. Helping others is really why we’re here. Connection is human.

RB: How did your work with Haines Gallery evolve into the purpose-driven art you curate today?

CH: I opened Haines Gallery in 1987 and was working with a few artists at the time. I felt like I couldn’t do enough for them. One day I realized that what was lacking in my work was a connection to the public. I wasn’t giving the artist a public venue for their voices. I wanted to create a platform for art and a community of helping others.

From the very beginning, it was challenging to develop a successful financial model, but I think the reason it worked is because I didn’t follow any trends or fad or fashion. I mean, I’m well-informed about the international art market and who the successful artists are. I didn’t always choose to follow a straight path in what is recognized as the accepted model. I’ve always chosen artists that I personally believe in. I’ve always tried to connect the conceptual dots in a way that is sustainable for my own passions and intellectual interests. Though I care very much about sharing these ideas with the community, I’ve never really allowed the community to form them.

For me, having internal fortitude and a sense of commitment towards what’s important is critical in developing any business, whether it’s an art gallery, or a restaurant, or a high-tech firm. While this might be a slower process, I think it proves to be more sustainable over time.

RB: How does an emphasis on 'place' fit into your role as a curator? Can you share a bit about how this relationship informs your work with FOR-SITE?

Place informs it all, honestly. It’s funny how ‘art about place’ has become part of a lexicon. It’s been something that’s been part of our mantle for more than 20 years. In part, this type of language and practice of place-based art comes from living in San Francisco with such a diverse community.

My personal reflections on notions of place started when I began doing research on the Gold Rush. I discovered that it was one of, if not the most, diverse migration of peoples in human history. And it wasn’t due to a major famine or war or religious conflict -- people were called from all over the world to come here. Tracing how people have found their way and what this means for a particular area sparked my interest. I started seriously reflecting on the notion of place — physical, socio-political, psychological, geographic — and how it forms us as individuals.

This all informed my development of the FOR-SITE artist residency program in Nevada City. The foundation has 50-acres near the gorge of the South Yuba River, and is nestled up against the Sierra Foothills. We brought in Bay Area architect Michelle Kaufman to design the residences, mutable workshop and event space. I was immediately taken with the texture of it, not only the physical beauty, but the complications behind its very dark history. There was the eradication of the Native Americans and the violence of the mining camps. There is a residual darkness. You can see it in the landscape; there’s been quite a degradation of the landscape from the hydraulic mining, and there’s only a handful of Native American communities. It’s amazing to me how these things can coexist.

This awareness was combined with a very utopian, idealistic, back-to-the-earth, calm and spiritual existence in Nevada County and this tension has influenced the approach of our educational programs and the type of artists we invite for the residency program. There’s this incredible layering of natural and cultural history. It’s a very rich environment to invite artists to.

RB: At what point did you decide that the intersection of human rights and the arts resonated with you?

Activism can be a small gesture. It doesn’t have to be something grand. You don’t have to be a famous artist. You don’t have to be a major politician or a major philanthropist. A child can write a postcard and mail it and that’s just as important.

CH: I became quite involved with the Tibetan Human Rights Movement through Chaksampa, a Tibetan dance and opera company that I supported for many years as donor and board director. Through my position I gained a greater understanding of Tibetan culture: its history, the threat that it was under by the Chinese government, and the lack of international support they were receiving.

That was a turning point when I started considering the intersection of human rights and the arts. I wasn’t actively trying to meld the two interests or pursuits until just a few years ago when I started working with Ai Weiwei. Only then did I have access to a unique opportunity to combine my work as a curator and public presenter of projects with my interests in human rights.

RB: How would you say your awareness of ‘place’ guides your human-rights focused projects?

CH: We’ve only just started in many ways. Whether it’s Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz, using the lens of Alcatraz to talk about human rights, freedom of expression, the role that communication plays in creating a just society or it’s the World War II bunkers in the Headlands, at Fort Scott resoundant with presentations mining social injustice and “fear of other”.

Our latest exhibition at FOR-SITE, Sanctuary addresses the fear of “other” and the barriers that are being suggested to prevent immigration. The fact that it is placed in a nondenominational former chapel at a military base is crucial.  A place of repose of society and security - A suitable venue to unpack the issues surrounding refugee crisis of today.

RB: How do you personally engage with the public education aspects of your projects? Have there been any particular moments that have moved you?

I wanted the visitor to tell me how it’s affecting them, what they were thinking, what questions they had. I visit my projects often to seek greater understanding. Many times when people curate an exhibition, they’re done and they move on. I didn’t want to do that with this form of public engagement. The messages were too important.

@Large, Ai Wei Wei on Alcatraz provided a particularly fertile environment to interact with the visitor and learn from their experiences.  I would stand there quietly in the Yours Truly room, which contained postcards that we sent out to the Prisoners of Conscience in prisons around the world. A steady stream would come up to me and some of them would be crying, others would be children showing me their drawings saying, “I’m so happy to be able to do this.”

People would just hug me and say, “It’s one thing to go to a beautiful and impactful art exhibition, but if you walk away saying ‘What can I do? How do I address these overwhelming concerns about equality and freedom of expression and human rights around the world?’ You gave us a tool. You gave us an opportunity to engage ourselves, to pick somebody in Uzbekistan or China or the Congo and write to them and say congratulations for your courage. To say, ‘Thank you so much for standing up for your rights and all of our rights. We are thinking about you today.’”

RB: Can you say more about the Prisoners of Conscience project?

We sent out 94,000 postcards to Prisoners of Conscience in detention around the world after we’ve vetted it very carefully with Amnesty International to make sure that whichever people we were mailing to, it wouldn’t cause damage or it wouldn’t put them in any danger.

We heard back from Chelsea Manning. We heard back from John Kiriakou, the ex-CIA agent that out of the government on water boarding techniques. We heard back from a couple of the architects of Arab Spring, Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Domo. We heard back from Ibrahim Sharif from Bahrain and others that it was working and the communications were received.

The postcard project, Yours Truly, came from Weiwei’s father, Ai Qing. Not many people know this, but he was a very famous poet pre-cultural revolution of China, one of the most famous of his generation. When things started shifting politically there, he fell out of favor and he and his family were sent to a labor camp for 16 years in Northwest China near the Mongolian border where he was asked to clean public latrines. The entire process was incredibly demoralizing.

They lost everything. They were part of the intelligentsia. They were an important family. At one point, an anonymous postcard showed up in the mail on the anniversary of the publishing of one of his renowned poems. The postcard said, “Don’t worry, you have not been forgotten.” Weiwei remembers this story and shared it with me as the basis for Yours Truly.

RB: I keep getting goosebumps. This is amazing.

It is amazing. He remembered that postcard ever since. He’d never had a chance to address it before, but when this project started unfolding he full heartedly supported it. It is one thing to illuminate and honor people who are behind bars because of their political beliefs, yet it is different to actually reach out to them and tell them that they have not been forgotten. It is also a way to empower the individuals that visit the exhibit and write the postcard. Activism can be a small gesture. It doesn’t have to be something grand. You don’t have to be a famous artist. You don’t have to be a major politician or a major philanthropist. A child can write a postcard and mail it and that’s just as important.


RB: How do you spark such public dialogue through your work?

With @Large with Ai Weiwei, we had over 900,000 people visit the island. I would venture that maybe 25% of them at most were art world participants. Most of them were either tourists that were going to Alcatraz anyway and just happened upon this exhibition, or tourists that were going for both reasons.

By being accessible, we spark a public conversation around all these very important topics. We spark introspection. Weiwei inspired me. It is visible in his choice of Legos, for the Trace Project which was the Prisoners of Conscience that were displayed on the floor of the New Industry’s Building. For @ Large one of the many reasons he chose Legos was because it would be a material that would attract youth or the children that would come to the island. It would engage them in the art and poise them to ask questions.

Every project we do now, I think very carefully about how will young people be able to enter this conversation? What is it going to mean to them? How do we get them to ask questions about what’s being presented. It’s very important.

That’s the power of our work. It is the ability to walk that line between conceptual rigor, aesthetic refinement, and accessibility to all.



No Show* // an exploration of the human condition



Purpose: the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.

As a force that directs action and moves both individuals and nations, the sense of purpose is a curious facet of the human experience. In the finale of our first year of No Show* 2017, we gathered to analyze and identify this invisible, yet powerful experience that shapes human decision-making, collective direction, and organizational cohesion.

In typical No Show* fashion, we wanted to hear from diverse perspectives to develop a rich environment for inquiry and exploration. We invited founders, journalists, designers, architects, elders, and innovation consultants together to examine the role of purpose in our personal and professional experiences. We asked:

// How does purpose impact our interactions?

// What characteristics defines collective purpose vs. individual purpose?

// Is there collective purpose that our individual purpose furthers? Is there intergenerational purpose within our civilization?

// How do we shape opportunities for people to achieve their purpose in the future?

  Photo by Gershoni Creative

Photo by Gershoni Creative

Through reliving childhood dreams, and following circuitous paths in search of meaning, we developed insight. Purpose, we learned, is not a destination, but a sensation that guides us. Purpose is the accumulation of questions and answers, a continual process of external knowledge and self discovery leading to new milestones and new directions. It changes over time and can mean pursuing a risky endeavor in one moment, or resting in stillness in another. It is shaped by the innovations of the moment, with the current frontiers of possibility influencing the next generation’s perception of purpose for the future.


Over the course of 2017, this series on the Human Condition has covered topics such as: Nourishment, Belonging, Attraction, and Creation. We aim to use No Show as a space to grapple with issues that are central to the challenges society, in hopes of building a more connected, caring, and innovative future. Additional insights on each topic to follow.

Letter From the Editor // A Year of Human Connection

2018. We move forward into a year of action, applying the insight from 2017 to influence new perspectives, new ways of being.

Our work continues to lead us to push boundaries and discover new frontiers. This January we kicked off two new client projects: The first, The Future of Work: Artificial Intelligence, Human Intelligence, and Collaboration—an investigation of the growing diversity between automated systems and social processes to identify avenues for deeper human connection and engagement in the workplace. The second, The Future of Place-Making in Urban Environments, with the City of San Francisco. We are excited by the opportunity to further connectivity through intentional Dialogue, stimulating deeper civic engagement within public and private spaces. Both projects are vastly different from one another, yet both explore our relationship to the self, each other and our greater surroundings. 

Across all of our clients—from Fortune 500 companies to municipalities, universities, and startups—we work to influence future-forward perspectives that align with strategic paths for results.

After six-months of hosting executive dialogues on Belonging, we’re adding another topic to the fold: Purpose. Through an immersive experience and guided dialogue, these sessions help individuals and organizations contextualize their actions and create impact within the broader currents of our ever-changing society. If you’re curious or would like to send a colleague or a team member to one of our sessions, please connect with me.

The successful launch of No Show* last year is continuing to spark introspection and engagement through intentional cross-pollination and dialogue. A collaborative salon-style series with Gershoni Creative, No Show* brings together leaders and innovators across disciplines to gain cultural insight on unique experiences that shape ideas of the future. This year, we'll be expanding our collection of human data to tackle topics such as Ritual, Ethics, Impulse, & Transparency.

No Show* is a series open to the community—if you’d like to nominate an innovative mind to take part, please be in touch.

In 2017, I was asked to become a contributor to Women@Forbes focusing on the intersection of human connection and business. My articles can be found on my Blog@Forbes.  

Our communication will continue monthly, so be on the lookout for blog interviews with curious minds as well as insights from our No Show* series. For those of you who have been with us from the beginning, thank you! And to our new friends and followers, stay tuned for an exciting year!



No Show* // an exploration of the the human condition



Creation: the act of making, inventing, or producing

We spend our entire lives creating. From the moment we enter the world, we develop constructs, both physical and abstract, that express ourselves and define us. We create, we co-create, we destroy. Continuing our exploration of the human condition, DIALOGUE and Gershoni Creative gathered to investigate the nature of creation and how it impacts our lives in an ever-changing world.

We gathered to question how creation is influenced by the tools we have available, both in the physical sense, and in our imaginative sphere. To spark cross-pollination for deep, meaningful insight, we curated a group of leaders who engage in creation through a variety of avenues — a clown, an educator, a film-maker, designers, a molecular biologist, a color specialist — and asked:

// How do our environments shape our creative process?

// Is there something in our basic psychology that feeds our desire to create, or is it constructed?

// How do our visions and objectives confine or enhance our act of creation?

// Do society’s necessities demand particular acts of creation? What of our world has been created to meet urgent needs? What has been created to indulge desires?

  Photo credit: Gershoni Creative

Photo credit: Gershoni Creative

Through inquiry and reflection we developed insight, and further questions. Creation, we agreed, satisfies an existential angst of the human mind, and begins in a place of experimentation, a place to tinker and wonder. The freedom to be curious and the safety to make mistakes can bring out an unabashed, childlike wonder in creation. In acts of co-creation, we build new materials and can construct both novel experiences and products. And yes, our social and built environments influence the possibilities we see, and thus how we create. What type of conditions do we hope to erect for the future of creation?



Over the course of the year, this series on the Human Condition has covered topics such as: Nourishment, Belonging, Attraction, and with an upcoming one on Purpose. We aim to use No Show as a space to grapple with issues that are central to the challenges society, in hopes of building a more connected, caring, and innovative future. Additional insights on each topic to follow.




Ivy Ross is the Vice President of Design for Hardware Products at Google and has innovated team experiences and products across her ventures in fashion, jewelry, hardware, and user experience design. We sat down with her to explore the creative process, the role of intuition in business and innovation, and how human connection builds the landscape for collective potential.




Rimma Boshernitsan: Let's start with your childhood. What stands out as most formative?

Ivy Ross: I grew up in my father's house. He was an industrial designer and carefully designed every doorknob, every handle — everything. I grew up surrounded by details that broke conventional boundaries.

My father was very influential for me. He would encourage me to look at the subtleties of the world, to see beyond what it appears to be. He taught me how to abstract the tangible, to truly observe; not just objects, but people, too. I realized early on that there is design and intention in everything. I learned to notice the places where things connect, both within physical objects and in the way humans interact.

My father would take me to car shows when I was really young. I was so young and small that I was at eye level with the hubcaps. In examining how the hubcaps were made, how every hubcap was different, I would sink into a flow state. I would look at the way the spokes were connected, how it was polished, and how all the pieces came together so intentionally. I think that is why I became a metalsmith because it was the first thing that I spent so many hours deeply investigating.

My mother was a tap dancer and a violin player. She gave it all up for my father when they got married. Seeing this inspired me to say, “I don't ever want to be an acquisition.” I saw what she gave up and there were times when you could see in her eyes, what she wished she had.

RB: Your first professional design experience started in jewelry, or as you said, metalsmithing. How did this thread of interest develop throughout your childhood?

IR: As a kid, I would crawl into my dad’s office and play with different materials. I remember he had this chain-mail material. I took out my screwdriver and made a dress out of the chain mail metal. Some people were surprised, but I thought, “Here is this incredible material, what else could I do with it?” I just wanted to play with it, follow my curiosities. I wanted to see what would happen if I opened up the links and re-hooked them as I pleased. My exploration became a dress.

These early explorations continued to grow, and I was continually drawn towards becoming a jeweler because jewelry could be anything. Jewelry was used for magical reasons, such as talismans, and carries a rich history of decoration, adornment, and ritual. It could also be very graphic. I was intrigued by its richness and versatility.

RB: Do you still make jewelry?

IR: Not anymore. There are so many opportunities to explore, and when they present themselves I am become intrigued and must explore. For instance, I studied bio-geometry, taught by Dr. Karim, an architect and philosopher, and learned how shapes and forms express different energies. We worked with a pendulum to observe the difference of even the slightest shifts in angles, and how that would shift the energy given off. If I ever return to creating jewelry, I would be more conscious to incorporate specific geometry into all of the forms I invent.

RB: You’ve mentioned before how important intuition has been for your work, both as a designer and in your personal life. Have you always been intuitive?

IR: I think I have been. Once you see your intuition working for you — after you take that initial leap — you begin to develop the courage to live your entire life that way. It may seem illogical, but I’ve seen it work.

I breathe in both art and science. I am both logical and intuitive. So, of course, I go through pragmatic thinking, but after I have all the data, I have to trust the feeling in my body when I know things are true. It is a very certain sensation and while it can be frightening at first, I have learned to follow it.

Part of my intuition developed during my time in the fashion world. Fashion appears frivolous, but I have found it to be an intuitive cultural metrometer. It is often tied to the sociological currents of the moment, almost as a collective unconscious. When you're in the fashion business, you really have to listen to those currents to get a sense of what is coming, where materials should evolve to, and what people are going to be craving. To get there you have to take the facts, yes, but at the end of the day, you make intuitive calls.

RB: How has your sense of intuition changed the way you lead teams for innovation?

IR: My intuition allows me to see who people really are, what their talents are, and where their true gifts flourish. We often put people in organizational chart boxes, and we keep them there because they become an expert in the box we put them in. But we're all a product of our experiences, so as our experiences change, we change, and our talents grow. My sense of intuition has encouraged me to create situations or roles that allow people to shine in new ways, that in some cases, were very atypical.


I do this because true innovation cannot come from people being run through a routine process. Teams that push the edge of innovation are those that are designed to allow for creativity. And the best way for people to create is not when they are in the fight or flight zone, but rather when there is safety. It is then that the brain can be calm enough to explore.

I am reminded of a time I went into the Amazon jungle twenty-five years ago. I remember sitting on a log and looking down at what I thought was a vine covered in leaves, but as I continued examining the vine I realized that there were thousands of little ants carrying leaves on their back. The whole jungle was full of this extraordinary phenomenon. There was no machinery. There was no industrial revolution, but every species was taking care of their collective ecosystem. Everything was beautifully designed to do just that. I remember thinking, "Wow, if this is the model of life, why would we assume we know more than this?"

Moments like these throughout my life are what propelled me into developing the Project Platypus — a deep understanding that there is a different way for us to create that's more aligned with how nature creates.

RB: Would you mind telling us more about Project Platypus? What contributed to its development?

IR: Project Platypus developed in reaction to the burning need for genuine, playful, and thoughtful creation. In some ways, it started twenty years ago when I began studying sound vibration, prompted by common phrases like, “he's on the same wavelength” or “she's got good vibes.” I wondered if there was a scientific foundation to these sayings and experiences. I knew from working with teams that getting on the same “wavelength” enabled safe exploration, allowing people to get to new places together, to brainstorm creatively and truly innovate. I thought, “What if I could purposefully orchestrate a collective wavelength?”

This all informed my experiment with Project Platypus, which formally began while I was working at Mattel with approximately 300 people under me. I asked for twelve volunteers with whom I would start reinventing the creative process. At first, the entire project was ‘underground’ because I had to prove that it worked, even though I knew that it would before I even did it.

We utilized sound chairs designed to enable and enhance individual creativity by playing music encoded with binaural beats, the aural equivalent of an optical illusion, in an effort to affect an individual’s central nervous system. I knew that the times when I have my best ideas, the left and right half of my brain were working together, and so I thought, If the brain is a muscle, could we create an exercise to bring both halves of their brain together to increase creativity?

Creativity comes from trust and freedom and setting up trust between the two. The connection between people is what makes ideas spiral into a new place.

We then changed the conventional cycle. For instance, if we were given twelve weeks for our design period, I would portion off the first two weeks just to connect, create bonds of mutual trust and interest, and feed new input from a wide variety of disciplines into the system. I wanted to give the gift of human connection on the deepest level so they truly understood who they were creating with. Once the trust developed, we could be curious together and start asking questions that challenged our limits. Then we explored what solutions might be developed together.

RB:  Developing trust and connection has such a powerful ripple effect when such diverse minds come together. How have designed for this cross-pollination in your projects?  

IR: An example of Project Platypus in action is when we were working to develop a ‘funny’ toy. Instead of recycling all of our old systems, we tried to upend our process and restart with some of the deep questions underlying the product, for instance, “What is laughter? What is humor?” Within our initial two weeks of trust-building, I found a Professor of Laughter at UCLA, as well as Moisha the Clown, who taught people how to laugh in third world countries after war. I was aiming to curate an inflow to inspire the team with new information so that they could come out with new ideas. Because the bonds of trust had been developed and they had all learned together, there was no competition. It is in these moments that diversity within a team truly kicks in. You see that while every mind receives the same information, it is processed differently, has its own unique experiences, and is put through a distinct filter, which in turn collectively sparks something new.

Creativity comes from trust and freedom and setting up trust between the two. The connection between people is what makes ideas spiral into a new place.

RB: You frequently draw from new areas that inspire you. What are some of the underlying themes that connect your curiosities?

IR: The underlying theme of everything is human potential. Every curiosity is connected to my desire to understand the human condition and how we amplify our experience to become the best version of ourselves. What does well-being really look like in mind, body and spirit?

Happiness is following my curiosities enough to feel a sense of awe.

This question has propelled me to study everything, from biogeometry to energy medicine. I do not study these things because I want to be a doctor in energy medicine someday, but because by following my curiosities, I feel as though I am learning to put the mysteries of life together. In some ways I see my whole life as one big creative act.

My recent fascination is how powerful our thoughts are over our cells. My interest was prompted by a lecture I heard by Bruce Lipton, an American biologist, who was talking about epigenetics years ago. Yes, we have DNA, but that just means potential, right? Both positive and negative. Our lifestyle, our daily action, and our thoughts communicate to our cells and we change over time.

RB: What are the implications of this knowledge?

IR: I read an article 20 years ago that stuck with me. The most “genius” people in the field were interviewed — the most genius surgeon, lawyer, CEO — and what they all had in common was that they would spend time imagining the steps that would get them to the outcome they wanted in advance. For example, the surgeon would envision the steps of the surgery he was going to perform later that day while he was running in the morning, and the lawyer would see in his mind how he wanted the case to turn out.

It was clear that the act of imagining had an impact on the neuroplasticity of our brain. I've been fascinated ever since. I’m also smiling to myself right now because I see the connection; creative people imagine alternative possibilities. But the potential consequences of this understanding goes beyond simply being creative. We are beginning to explore how imagining possibilities has a true impact on how events unfold. You're creating new pathways of possibilities that bring a fresh approach to everything we do.

RB: It is exciting to imagine how this frontier will continue to unfold. To close, what is your idea of perfect happiness?

IR: Discovering something new or being in awe makes me happy. For me, ‘awe’ is when I discover a new aspect of an object, an interaction, a phenomenon. Its when I connect the dots. I'm similar to a little kid in that way. It can be very simple things or very complicated. Happiness is following my curiosities enough to feel a sense of awe. As long as I have those experiences, I can get through anything. I always feel like those moments of awe are inside of me.