Leveraging Strengths, Moving Forward: Elena Gross and Kimberley Acebo Arteche Interviewed

L – R: Kim Acebo Arteche, Kerri Hurtado (BAC Board President), Artist David Huffman, Elena Gross at David Huffman’s Oakland studio. Courtesy Kimberley Acebo Arteche.

In May 2022, Berkeley Art Center (BAC) announced that Elena Gross would join the organization as co-director. Gross, who guided San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora’s Emerging Artist program to glorious fruition, will share directorial responsibilities with artist and educator Kimberly Acebo Arteche.

By appointing two young art administrators of color co-directors, BAC acknowledges and undermines institutional practice that has long modeled solo, usually white cis men of means as senior representatives. While major regional art institutions struggle to address equity and systemic workplace racism, Elena and Kim’s collaboration is one of the most exciting, and heartening, recent developments in the Bay Area arts scene. 

The following interview, which took place at BAC in early August, touches on how the co-directors approach collaboration, creating meaningful life-work balance, and how BAC welcomes diverse audiences. —Roula Seikaly

Roula Seikaly: Could you tell us what you do in the art world, and what led you to be Co-Directors at Berkeley Art Center? 

Kimberley Acebo Arteche: I’m Kim. First and foremost, I’m an artist and educator. Those two identities really inform what I bring to leadership. I think, historically, a lot of arts administrators were on a path to be an artist and shifted, often forgetting to include the experience of the artist in leadership and decision making.

In my experience as an educator, specifically teaching Ethnic Studies with Pinay Educational Partnerships (PEP), creating a pipeline of leaders within our community is essential. A lot of the folks that I taught with are arts administrators in more culturally specific organizations. They are also mayors, industry leaders, academics, and community organizers. I’m mindful of what it means to bring radical love. I think deeply about the theory, and how it’s not put into practice or context of the art world or arts communities, and how I can put that into action at BAC.

Kimberley Acebo Archete.

Elena Gross: I’m Elena Gross, and I identify primarily as a writer, and recently and reluctantly as a curator. Some of that reluctance fits in thinking about what it means to curate, to care for, in a personal and institutional context. I arrived here, through many professional positions, by striving to serve and working directly with artists. That could be by providing space, or financial opportunities for example. How do we make that happen from the start, and make it successful? 

RS: You accepted the co-director position one year ago, Kim. Could you describe the experience? 

KAA: There were a lot of things that I was balancing when I came in: being a really visible young woman of color in a historically white organization; knowing that I would experience microaggressions. While I knew that dynamic was present, I focused instead on my leadership and impacting organizational culture, and having really deep dialogues around race, equity, and capitalism culture within arts nonprofits with our board members and program committee.

As Daniel Nevers (former co-director) and I became more visible, he was mindful of his role and our respective identities: a queer white man and a young woman of color. There was a lot of care and mentorship in that, which I really appreciated. At the same time, I didn’t want to be shielded from the whiteness that happens here. I was very aware of that as Elena came on board. I want this to be a collaborative experience as co-directors, not a senior and junior dynamic. 

RS: Did you feel prepared when Elena accepted the position? 

KAA: Definitely. I had to remind myself that I’ve worked in arts nonprofits directorial positions for a while, and the sophomoric bravery that I had back then. There are things I’ll have to share with Elena, but I’m holding space so that we can figure out what makes the most sense for both of us, rather than worrying about a legacy that has been left for us.

Elena Gross at the Holding Ceremony opening at BAC.

RS: Elena, why is it important for you to be co-director at Berkeley Arts Center right now? 

EG: At first, the opportunity here excited and scared me. I’ve feared leadership, and internalized this belief that I’m incapable of it. And in part, it comes from not seeing leadership models that fully resonate with me. There are many leaders I’ve had, or mentors I’ve worked with, who have admirable leadership qualities, but none that resemble the leader I want to be. So, I internalized that as being a me problem. 

RS: How do you resolve that?

EG: By looking at nonprofits in the arts ecosystem, and who has access to training, mentorship, and leadership. What does it mean to give those opportunities, but not fully support the people so as to be successful in their jobs? Looking at BAC, I didn’t see any of those traps. Once I got over some of the initial self-doubt, I saw it as a really exciting opportunity to create the kind of leadership that I always wanted and needed. 

RS: What makes BAC a place that people should spend time looking at art?

KAA: I think about the different kinds of BAC visitors. My favorite are the people or communities that say, “I didn’t know this was here. This feels like such an oasis. It’s so peaceful.” I want to continue to make more opportunities for our communities to feel welcome here, and that our exhibitions and programs are relevant to their experiences. Yes, it’s a wealthy neighborhood. It’s also a historically redline neighborhood. We know our communities would not normally post up here. So, it feels like even that act of making sure that our communities feel welcome and safe here is a huge victory for me.

EG: When you hear “Berkeley Art Center,” people probably think it’s the Berkeley Art Museum (BAMPFA), which it’s not. Once you realize that, then you probably have expectations of what you’re gonna see: landscapes, flower paintings, a lot of water colors. It feels dated and insular and maybe unwelcoming. Exploding that notion is a high priority. 

Berkeley Art Center. Courtesy Berkeley Art Center.

RS: As two gender expansive people of color who share a directorial position, you’re cutting new ground in institutional practice. Is there a concern that this model will be seen as a novelty?

KAA: We have so many goals. It’s about shifting the culture here. Internally, we’re mindful of work life balance. That’s not prevalent nor encouraged in nonprofits. We want to focus on mentorship and artist support and the choices that change institutional culture, but not to the point that we burn out. Also, we’re trying to shift the fundraising model here. So many historically white art spaces have relied on patronage and donor cultivation. We’re not. That’s not our vibe, and somehow that’s “radical.” We want to engage the community meaningfully. I want people to support Berkeley Art Center because they’re interested in supporting our art ecosystem, and invested in our leadership model. 

EG: Traditional directorship can be very ego driven. One of the downsides of that, practically speaking, is that when a director leaves the organization, it has to be built from the ground up by whomever replaces them. It’s not sustainable, and it’s time we acknowledge that there are other ways of doing things. I think this co-directorial model, beyond novelty, does away with ego and the individual representing an organization. An institution should be relationship driven. It should represent many perspectives and many voices.

RS: What does collaboration mean to you individually? How do you see that at play here as co-directors at BAC? 

KAA: I think it means understanding and being in sync with the folks I’m collaborating with, so that we’re all shining and making space for each other to shine. I think most of it is the built empathy, and knowing what each of us is good at. What is Elena great at? What am I great at? What can we do together? What are our volunteers really great at? Collaboration means letting go of ego, and moving forward together.

EG: Collaboration is about leveraging everyone’s strengths. That’s us as directors, our volunteers, the board, the programming, everyone who is involved in this project. I see collaboration as natural forms like hives or colonies, something generative, that supports and protects as we work together. It’s life sustaining work. 

Suspended Matter, installation view, October 30, 2021 – January 15, 2022. Berkeley Art Center. Courtesy Berkeley Art Center.

RS: What are the challenges you see facing the Bay Area arts community?

KAA: There are so many things. In school, we’re trained to work alone in a studio, which I think goes back to the note about collaboration, and we forget that we really need other people to help us with things. I think the work that we do is holistic, taking into consideration factors like where can artists afford to live? Where does funding come from to make the work? Where are our artists getting affordable studios? The Bay Area is such an anomaly because there is so much wealth here, but it’s not accessible to the cultural workers who make living here so enjoyable. 

EG: I think we’re all operating from a scarcity mindset; there isn’t enough space, money, and opportunity. Intellectually, we know that that is not true. There’s plenty of money here, but even for the people who are holding the pots of money, they’re operating from a mindset of “We can only give to this organization, this amount, this one time.” 

I think that the Bay Area needs more of everything, more artists, and more and different art spaces. It doesn’t all have to be SFMOMAs and de Youngs, Berkeley Art Centers, and galleries. We need diversity in makers and funding sources. It feels like the Bay Area has become more restrictive in the eight years I’ve been here.

I look at things like the Roll Up Project and people making use of storefronts and mobile devices as a means of art making and as building community. There are new foundations popping up that are granting money to artists and arts organizations. I do hope that some of that much needed rain is coming to the Bay Area.

Photograph of Artist-in-Resident, Angelica Trimble-Yanu. Courtesy Berkeley Art Center.

RS: What are you optimistic about? What are you excited about either as far as it relates to BAC or other projects you’re working on? 

KAA: I’m really excited about all of the artists that we’re working with, and for how our historic audience will take it in and digest it. We’re hosting artist residencies in the fall to emphasize how important space and time and resources are to artistic practice. We’re questioning how art is presented in a particular way. It’s not only about the finished or framed piece hung on the wall. We want visitors to understand that it actually does take a lot of work and leadership. And maybe stop complaining when it’s not like what they wanted to see when they come in here.

RS: What are you excited about, Elena?

EG: With the pandemic and so many unknowns in the last two years, I think we have room to experiment. I think the fact that nobody knows what’s going to happen is actually a better place to be in.

RS: Can you say more about the residencies?

KAA: We’re inviting the artists in to hold space with us as we build and develop our leadership here. I think the residencies will deeply inform the way we decide to move forward, how we work with artists or other presenters staging projects here. 

EG: It shakes up certain expectations, and power dynamics. So much of our programming is curatorially driven. This opportunity completely shakes up that model by allowing the process to be artist driven. And I think a lot of organizations, certainly many where I’ve worked, have a mission element that purports to be artist-led or focused on process. What we’re doing with the residencies will really test that. What does it look like when the art or an artist leads? What does it feel and look like to surrender that institutional control? What happens when the dynamic we’re all accustomed to shifts? Let’s see.

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