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A living sculpture and a gymnasium-sized beehive: Bay Area creatives reimagine the museum

Visitors experience the exhibit “here • there • then • now” by Ann Hamilton at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin Headlands. | Thomas Ide/Courtesy Headlands Center for the Arts

The building at 500 Capp St. in the Mission is not just any old house. It’s a living sculpture, with light fixtures as earrings, an archive in a grotto and plaques labeling scrapes on the floor and walls. 

Conceptual artist David Ireland lived and worked in the 1886 Italianate style home for 34 years after purchasing it from accordion maker Paul Grubb. Upon Ireland’s death, preserving the house as a piece of his art became the personal mission of SFMOMA trustee Carlie Wilmans. 

“It’s like a jewel box,” said Lian Ladia, curator of exhibitions and programs at the 500 Capp Street Foundation

Exterior of The David Ireland House at 500 Capp St. in San Francisco | Henrik Kam/ Courtesy 500 Capp Street Foundation

Every guided tour of the house is unique and tells a different story, according to Ladia, so no two experiences of the space are the same. 

The house represents an alternative to the traditional museum experience, one that is sensorial and experiential—and also shared with the Headlands Center for the Arts across the Golden Gate Bridge, which 500 Capp references within its walls. 

Take the jars of honey nestled together on the mantle at 500 Capp. What looks like someone’s forgotten groceries is actually a reference to Semaphore, a work by artist (and beekeeper) Mark Thompson, which can be viewed at the Headlands Center for the Arts.

Mark Thompson poses with "Semaphore at the Gym" at Headlands Center for the Arts in the Marin Headlands. | Thomas Ide/Courtesy Headlands Center for the Arts

Semaphore transforms the gym at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito into an immersive experience on beekeeping. Speakers strategically placed throughout the amber-colored room give off a constant buzz that sounds different depending on where you are standing. 

Thompson recalled exploring the abandoned gym with a flashlight on New Year’s Day back in 1984, around the time of the founding of the art center, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

“There were dust tracks, dead birds and mummified mice,” Thompson said. “The only life was from the beehives outside.” 

Thompson’s current conceptual art installation in the gym is a nod to that first experience, creating an immersive feeling for the viewer. Throughout the space of the Headlands Center, there’s the opportunity to see art being created in real time—28 artists’ studios occupy the grounds. 

“It’s like a long field trip,” said Thompson of the ability for interdisciplinary artists to exchange inspiration during their residencies at the center. The artist likened the Bay Area to a spawning ground for artists, a generative space for ideas and experimentation. 

Across the way at the former military base-turned-artists’ haven, there’s another experiential art piece—one you can eat dinner in. 

Artworks are on display at the David Ireland House and garage exhibition space at 500 Capp St. in San Francisco. | Henrik Kam/Courtesy 500 Capp Street Foundation

Artist Ann Hamiliton turned the mess hall of the former military complex into a dining space for artists, complete with a curated collection of mismatched chairs and hand-decorated wallpaper. To make the circular references complete between the two institutions, Hamilton’s oversized scans of objects from Ireland’s archive hang in the Sausalito art center. 

“We are reconceptualizing art and what art is,” said Ladia.