Three exhibits at the de Saisset Museum tackle the subject of homelessness—from the Great Depression to our streets today.
Early in the fall run of exhibitions at SCU’s de Saisset Museum, a visitor approached me, asking why the museum was addressing the topic of homelessness. It was depressing, he said.
I serve as curator of exhibits and collections at the museum. At the time, I responded by referencing the museum’s mission (to educate the whole person through diverse exhibitions) and linking it to the cries for social justice contained within the works. But my answer bothered me. I later realized my response had lacked the simple directness behind a handwritten visitor’s note tacked to a comment board. “Begin with love,” it urged.
The three exhibits all focused on the theme of homelessness but from different perspectives: Hobos to Street People: Artists’ Responses to Homelessness from the New Deal to the Present, Between Struggle and Hope: Envisioning a Democratic Art in the 1930s, and This Camera Fights Fascism: The Photographs of David Bacon and Francisco Dominguez. Upon exiting, visitors were presented with a comment board and invited to respond to the following question: What can you do to help alleviate poverty in your community?
Originally intended as a parting thought, the board became an area for community response and dialogue. Handwritten notes with missives like “educate children” or “do with less and give more” covered the once-blank space. Included was the note saying, “Begin with love.”
I was happy the museum had chosen to tackle a difficult issue through such diverse collections. Exhibitions like Hobos to Street People provide new means of understanding, fresh perspectives on timeworn issues, and “safe” entry into difficult ideas.
The 1930s was one of the first times in American history that artists began to look at social issues and to respond overtly through their work. With unemployment at nearly 25 percent during the height of the Depression and thousands of people emigrating to California from the Midwest due to drought and loss of livelihood, artists found their political and social voices. They began to speak through photographs, prints, and mural projects, to highlight their concerns and call for change.
In the intervening decades, artists have continued this social engagement, using their work to spread messages and voice opinions about various subjects through the years. Today, as we revisit a socio-economic position that is not dissimilar from what this country faced in the 1930s, homelessness and poverty again rise to the forefront of artistic response.
American landscape photographer Richard Misrach once said in an interview that “beauty is an effective strategy to get someone’s attention. It engages people when they might otherwise look away.” I think this touches on the power of these exhibitions. Through the creation of engaging and beautiful works of art, the artists represented in Hobos to Street People and the corresponding shows find a new language with which to speak to us. Their images represent issues that still exist in our time and challenge us to make connections between past and present, to see the line of history that extends into the contemporary moment, and to dare to respond differently today than we did yesterday.
As one visitor wrote, “Thank you for portraying this important issue in such a powerful way. Let’s hope it incites and inspires action.” Let’s hope indeed.
The exhibits Between Struggle and Hope and This Camera Fights Fascism run at the de Saisset Museum through Feb. 5, 2012. See a list of all current exhibits here.