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.



InterviewsAriel Cooper