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Radical Convergence At Post-Modern Museum

The cover of the SF Weekly’s Fall Arts Guide (9/5-11) trumpeted “Radical CLASSICAL — local chamber musicians are leading a global revolution.” The featured string quartet, Classical Revolution, looking more like informally dressed jazz musicians than classical violinist, bass fiddler, and harpsichord player, kicked off its month long, genre-busting Bay Area tour last week as part of “Friday Nights at the deYoung.”

The group’s “revolutionary” mission is bringing classical music out of the concert hall to untraditional venues, including but not limited to grand spaces like the toney post-modern museum in Golden Gate Park. On this particular Friday night, as part of the museum’s monthly popular-cum-populist evening program (a mélange that included participatory print-making, book-binding, and bicycle-flag making), the classical quartet and Wilsey Court audience got something more radical than they bargained for.

Inside the revolving door entrance closest to the museum’s outdoor fountain, at around 6:45, faint chanting could be heard deep in the museum’s interior, over light strains of classical strings. Chanting grew louder as a large throng of marchers approached: “No justice, no peace! No justice, no peace!” Sidling past the chanters, to hear the musicians on the platform at the other end of the atrium, we were startled to realize that the unscheduled protest group — whose chanting previously has been restricted to the streets — had occupied the privately-owned non-profit museum!

Members of SEIU and supporters, variously estimated at 100 to 300 strong, had coalesced in solidarity with museum staff — artisans, technicians, retail workers, and others -- who have been frustrated for nearly a year in their efforts to negotiate a contract with COFAM (Corporation of Fine Arts Museums, which includes the deYoung and Palace of Legion of Honor) in order to retain jobs, job classifications, wages, and healthcare benefits. The deYoung is eliminating positions of some workers who’ve put in decades there and are approaching retirement, asking others to pay more of their health insurance premiums, and restructuring job classifications into tiers with low pay and unequal benefits — potentially undermining solidarity. (Meanwhile, COFAM’s unrestricted assets have increased, according to SEIU, by $19.6 million.)

Soon, supporters including clergy and union members from other Bay Area museums filled the entrance portion of the vast atrium, which resounded with the labor and civil rights classic, “We Shall Overcome.” Museum security staff shunted bystanders to the sidelines, making way for city police — who’d massed near the stage — to file in gradually, in lines of 8 to 10. With plastic cuffs strung through the front of their belts and long batons strung at back, a confrontation seemed imminent.

Simultaneously, at stage-side, urgently rising phrases of Beethoven’s quartet No. 4, opus 18 in C minor (Allegro ma non tanto—“fast but not too fast”), accentuated the tension, as shrill chants punctuated the score’s quiet beats with escalating dissonance. By now, two main entrances had been closed off, and visitors who wanted to exit were advised to leave by the café patio doors. Singing reverberated, a determined counterpoint to Beethoven: “We’re fighting for our contract, we shall not be moved.” Then chanting: “Justice for the workers, arrest the CEO.”

A museum security guard, still cordial as he herded me away a second time from the potential line of clash, reassured that no violence would ensue, and that there were cameras running everywhere. The city police were hip: their support staff belongs to SEIU; only those who sat down would be arrested.

In the end (less than an hour had passed), police escorted nineteen cuffed protestors — walking at measured intervals and flanked by two police each -- past the still playing quartet to the café exit, and outside to white vans waiting curbside. The evening’s MC thanked the audience for its patience (“This is really San Francisco”) and the quartet played on. The exit was rhythmic and decorous as befit the spiffy venue itself.

We followed, as the music switched to Mendelssohn. In front of the museum, I spoke briefly to an SEIU member, now holding her purple and yellow t-shirt, part of the exiting stream of unionists; she caught me up on the contract dispute (I’d been away earlier in August when articles appeared).

This was, in fact, one of the most radical museum events I’ve attended in years — as militant political culture broke through aesthetic rhetoric. The impact was both real and surreal: neo-radical chic meets labor-on-the-march, unrehearsed, in real time. Allegro ma non tanto.

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