Curatorial Projects > Culture Catalyst (2018)

Excerpts from an interview with René Yañez, conducted by Kevin B. Chen and Jaime Cortez on March 21, 2018.

How did you first become part of the Neighborhood Arts Program (N.A.P.)?

The way that the N.A.P. started, Harold Zellerbach (former President of the San Francisco Arts Commission) wanted to pass a bond for the Louise Davies Symphony Hall, and people turned it down, so he took it as a mission to educate people about the arts, so he hired people, well, through Marin Snipper of the Arts Commission, they started N.A.P. So it was the Mission, it was me, Maruja Cid, Alejandro Murguia, Roberto Vargas, they were a part of it. Different neighborhoods were getting represented. I worked with Rolando Castellón and we opened up the Galeriá de la Raza on 14th Street, between Valencia and Guerrero. We were getting together, we had exhibits, and Rupert Garcia, he brought an exhibit from Cuba, which at the time was quite controversial, it was around ‘69 or ‘70. There was people getting together, we had the first Chicana/Latina art show there on 14th Street, and that brought in a whole new community too. And there was an audience, an obvious audience. We had openings, people were coming. So, we were there, got evicted, and I found a place on 24th Street. The N.A.P. liked the location, we got support from them. Ruth Asawa was in the Arts Commission, she really helped.

How long were you on the payroll for the N.A.P.?

Well, I was on the payroll for the N.A.P., then the CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) program came. I had already been working since like 1969-70 for the N.A.P. They were liking what I was doing because we had exhibits, we had music, we had free classes, teaching silkscreen, Ralph [Maradiaga] was teaching movie making, I was teaching color xerox, so there was a lot of activity. People were taking classes, well they were popular, the merchants liked it, and also working at the Galeriá, when I saw that there was money in City Hall, I organized 24th Street Merchants, I was vice-president. We did beautification projects, things like that.

What are some important legacies of the N.A.P.?

Well, I think they created a whole audience in the neighborhoods for art, they gave classes, performances, movies, theater, music classes, I would go and see music lessons being done in the Western Addition, or the Bayview, I was very impressed. Here were 20 kids learning how to play instuments, and the teacher with a lot of commitment. You know, CETA, it was OK money, but you weren’t getting rich [laughs]. But the commitment that you had was, you know, it was a full commitment, and it educated a lot of people for the arts in San Francisco. It also had an influence in Oakland and other places. People saw it as a model, for what was happening. SOMArts, they had the first Native American gallery there, then John Kreidler really liked what they were doing, so he moved them downtown where the foundation was, gave them a floor. John Kreidler was a big supporter, he really helped a lot of people, a lot of arts organizations. Because he would actually go and see the performances, go and see the exhibits. Before that, we was interning for the N.A.P., he also helped shaped the employment program. And then he got a job working in Oakland. I remember, because I knew people in Oakland and I helped him out getting some people doing some activities over there and so he started the N.A.P. in Alameda County. So there was a tremendous amount of activity, you can imagine — well, everyone was young, people had a lot of energy. Rupert was cranking out posters, Ralph was cranking out posters — we would get together and make a silkscreen poster calendar. We would sell it for a hundred dollars and people would complain, but there was like 13 silkscreen originals. So it was just a lot of activity.

Pioneering Chicano artist, curator, and community activist René Yañez is a well-known contributor to the arts of San Francisco, and is a founder of Galeriá de la Raza. In the early 1970s, he was one of the first curators in the United States to introduce Mexico’s Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos) as a contemporary focus and an important cultural celebration, and he curated one of the Bay Area’s first shows on Frida Kahlo.