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Art Activist, Gallerist & Co-Creator of Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz: Local Legend Cheryl Haines

Updated: Apr 13, 2017 10:28
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@ Large Ai Wei Wei on Alcatraz Party on the Rock(photo credit

Cheryl Haines is the curator, gallerist, and executive director responsible for putting the work of China’s most famous artist, inside of America’s most famous prison on Alcatraz Island.  Her project with the artist and activist Ai Weiwei has been visited by some 500,000 people since it began in the fall and her other public art installations have been seen by millions over the years.  She’s been involved in the SF art game since the 1970’s, representing and raising money for artists, and generally acting to bring more art to public places in our city.  I sat down with Cheryl near her gallery in Union Square, and talked about her For-Site Foundation, the sf art scene, and what it was like to work with one of the most internationally recognized artist in the world.

If I’m a new artist, what does it take to get into an art Gallery here in San Francisco?

“Well every gallery has a different criteria…it’s kind of an egocentric business because each gallerist has their own aesthetic criteria, they have their own way to promote an artists’ career, we all really have our own personal styles, so I can’t speak for other galleries…but in my gallery, we’re very much interested in artists that have a very unique statement, that have a very strong conceptual underpinning to their work, a developed materiality and refined aesthetic.

On her own gallery in San Francisco

One of the reasons I wanted to open a gallery was I felt that working with an artists and just trying to place their work was too ‘transactional’ for me, I really wanted to have an exhibition space so I could show the work to the public…believing it would be much more helpful to the artist’s careers.

How does the San Francisco art scene compare to others, say New York for example?

I’d say that traditionally, what stands out in San Francisco is that the not-for-profit arts organization have been a little stronger and more engaging than the for profit gallery scene…there are so many good not-for-profits that are doing alternative work, everything from Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to SF Camera Work to Headlands Center For the Arts…

Favorite Museum in SF? 

Contemporary Jewish Museum…wonderful institution, very smart and creative programming.

How is the art business in your for-profit gallery different than in your not-for-profit foundation?

The distinction is that the gallery is for profit enterprise, and we represent artists over a long period of time and we invest in their careers, we try to place their work in museum collections and do whatever we can to ensure their legacy over time.  For-Site (non-profit) is very different because we are very project based, and we don’t necessarily develop very long term relationships with artists, each project can feature a different artists and site-specific in nature.”


Photo tweeted by @lorenbaxter. There’s a great following of visitors to the Ai Weiwei experience through the hastag #AiWeiweiAlcatraz.  Ai himself tweets often @aiww

The For-Site Foundation’s most famous short term project is @Large Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz (ends April 26th, 2015).  It features portraits of 176 political prisoners from Edward Snowden to Nelson Mandela all dubbed “prisoners of conscience” by amnesty international.  These portraits (famously constructed with Legos) and other art installations are housed in the former prison’s psych ward, hospital and cell blocks.  It is a unique experience that speaks to the value of free speech, and namely what it means to have it taken away from you.  Ai is famously a prisoner in his own country, the Chinese government took away his passport after snatching hime at an airport and ‘detaining’ him for 81 days in 2011.  They claimed it was for ‘tax evasion’ but everyone knew it was because the government was afraid his art was a challenge to state power.  Since Ai could not leave China, Cheryl brought renderings of the prison to him, Ai’s studio designed and produced the art, and Cheryl’s team installed them.

How did you come up with the idea to put Ai Weiwei’s activist art on Alcatraz?

“It wasn’t until I was with Weiwei in his Studio after his detainment, and we were talking, and he seemed quite internal, rather quiet, and I think his experience in detention was extremely difficult, the sense of isolation he felt …so I asked him if there was any small thing I could do for him as his friend, we had become friends over the years, and he said yes, ‘you can bring my art to a broader audience’ and at that moment it clicked, I thought ‘ok’, this is the answer.

What’s Ai Weiwei like?

He’s a fascinating man, one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met…he’s very clear about his ideas and his position on things.  He has very high ideals and is utterly committed to doing the right thing, he’s sacrificing a great deal in his life to carry on his art and activism.

Have you noticed a difference between Ai now as apposed before his detainment by the Chinese Government?

Though continuing his vocal criticism of the Chinese government, he’s far more reserved now, he cannot leave China because the government has control of his passport. But before the arrest he was equally outspoken, it’s who he is.

ai-haines-beijing-jsCheryl with Ai, in China  (photo credit

What’s his art studio like?

Really interesting studio arrangement where he has a number of very talented architects and designers that come from all over the world, and he mentors them for a time.

Did you have any trouble with customs getting in and out of China?

No, and I’m pretty aggressive when I go, I wear “Free Ai Weiwei” buttons on my clothes and it’s clear why I’m there.

Are you afraid of being on a Chinese Secret Service watch list for having so much contact with such a controversial person in China?

I’m not, I’m really not, I don’t think it works that way…I went to China 6 separate times for this project (without incident)

So is China progressing in that way? Being less repressive to free speech?

China is changing very fast, but although they’re progressing socially in some ways, their human rights stance has not benefited from that.

Ai Weiwei, Refraction, 2014 (installation view, New Industries Building, Alcatraz)

 Depicted here is an imprisoned birds wing, constructed using solar cooking materials from Tibet (photo credit 

There’s a particular part of the @Large experience that really caught my eye, where patrons can actually write to the prisoners featured in the exhibition, how did that come about?

It was the artist’s idea (Weiwei) It’s called ‘Yours Truly’, it features ‘Prisoners of Conscience’ from almost 30 nations, and from that list we selected people from 20 nations to send postcards to, we worked very closely with Amnesty International to make sure the prisoners we are sending postcards to will not be endangered by them.  This is clearly the ‘call to action’ for this project…the postcards carry the national birds and flowers of the repressive nations we’re addressing, on the reverse are the addresses of the prisoners of conscience in prison.  People have seen the faces of these prisoners, heard music song and poetry by detained creatives, they’ve seen art works that are symbols of flight and freedom, and detainment and repression.  This is their chance to feel activated to join the conversation.

yourstrulyPart of being an activist is calling people to action. Patrons share their experience on twitter via the hashtag #AiWeiweiAlcatraz.  Above  shares a letter to a prisoner in Lao.

How did the fundraising for the Ai Weiwei project Work?

We raised 4 million dollars, there were a few major contributors and a variety of mid-level supporters, we sought to cast a broad net to include a range of people did with everything from Kickstarter to major supporters…Primarily San Francisco based supporters but also from Europe, New York, and the Midwest.

How many people have seen the show so far?

We’ve had around 500,000 visitors already (after 4 months) We’ve, mailed 48,000 postcards so far…it has a life beyond the island…some of the families of the prisoners are getting in touch with us, they’re are finding ways to get the messages to the prisoners….’Yours Truly’ is such an important part of the project, I’m actually going to Egypt and Iran this spring to meet some of the prisoners’ families…just to find out more, and assure them that we are doing everything we can to promote their circumstance.

faces carlainsf

photo by @carlainsf via Twitter #

Are you intimidated about going to Iran especially to meet with the families of political dissidents?

No, if you follow the rules you’re fine…but as an American you have to go on a tour, you can’t just go to business meanings you have to be supervised.

So it’s a bit like going to North Korea in that the government supervises your every move

Yes at all times, I actually visited Iran a couple years ago, it’s fine as long as you respect the rules and the culture.

For the Goldsworthy art installations in the Presidio, it’s a very open and unguided experience, where as at Alcatraz there is information posted everywhere, mobile content, and For-Site employees stationed everywhere to answer questions.  How are these places different for you as the curator?

I think it’s specific to the work and artist.  In the Presidio I like the idea that people simply come upon art in the landscape, there’s certain element of discovery, a personal element to discovery, that forces you to engage intellectually and aesthetically to figure out ‘what this experience is’, it’s a different experience to simply reading a plaque and move on…The Ai weiwei exhibit is slightly different because there is such a dense layering of information…the messages behind the work are so important…human rights, freedom of expression, our individual responsibility and the role that communication plays in creating a just society, those are issues that you need a bit of information to start the engine…one of the first things that is taken from these prisoners is their access to communication and information…

On Alcatraz the exhibit gives the visitor the freedoms the prisoners on display do not have, For-Site insisted there be free wifi on the island, written and downloadable content throughout, as well as many hired guides to answer any questions and encourage dialogue.


 The Spire by Goldsworthy in the SF Presidio brought to you by the For-Site Foundation and the Presidio Trust.  (photo credit

Has tech money affected the arts in SF?

That money hasn’t really trickled down yet, the arts are often the last part of the community to attract young money.  No if anything it’s made it much more difficult for artists and creatives to afford to live here…and not just the art world, anyone who work for a not-for-profit…it’s quite sad, they are being priced out.

A friend of mine (P Segal) has started the SF Art House Project to create affordable housing for creative people in order to keep artists and creative types in the city, the housing would be built on top of studios and galleries where artist could work and create their art and in some cases businesses around their art.

That’s great, I applaud the vision.

What else is up and coming for your Foundation (For-Site)?

We are putting out a book based on the ‘Yours Truly’ exhibit containing the postcards sent by visitors to the prisoners of conscience.

Do you have any advice to young artists? 

Walk that line between patient and proactive.  Get out a lot, into the community, see what other people are making and showing, meet other artists, form a community, do critiques of one another’s work.   Meet other young artists, be social, be known.  Don’t be fully singular in your pursuit.  If you’re just waiting in your studio waiting for someone to trip over you it’s probably not going to happen.”

The Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz exhibit will last unit April 26th.  If you are like me and skeptical about visiting such a ‘touristy place’, now is really the best time to go.  It’s not nearly as crowded as in the summer months, and you’ve never seen Alcatraz like this, and of course never will again…

The exhibit is free once you get to the island, the cheapest tickets are $30 and you can get them at Alcatraz Cruises.  (Other vendors may try to package in different costs)  Oh, and I almost forgot, The audio tour of Alcatraz (the historical prison) is top-notch, it comes with your ticket price and holds up to the hype.

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