Jack Davis, 1940-2007

Car crash claims legendary facilitator of underground arts


Jack Davis was a relentless and often unheralded advocate for underfunded, outflanked, and ignored artists, community groups, social movements, and others shunted aside by mainstream venues and the art establishment.

Davis died Sept. 23 at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital in Valencia from injuries sustained in a car accident. He was born Nov. 16, 1940, in Phoenix, Ariz., and came to California to attend the University of Santa Clara and San Francisco State University in the late 1950s and '60s. He studied theater arts in Northern California, then was one of the directors and founding actors of the South Coast Repertory in Orange County. He married Judith Watson and returned to San Francisco in 1968.

Well known in the underground art world that he helped pioneer, Davis was a pivotal figure in the growth and public awareness of hundreds of uniquely San Francisco creative projects. For nearly 20 years he was director of the SomArts Cultural Center, which provides classrooms and work space for community-based programs and theater and gallery access to nascent and established artists.

But his contributions went far beyond SomArts. He and Rene Yáñez helped found CELLspace, a unique community and cultural center in the Mission. Davis was an early supporter of Burning Man and hosted its parties, meetings, and large-scale events at SomArts. He also provided technical support and counsel for the Day of the Dead and other San Francisco street events.

Under his leadership SomArts hosted myriad edgy and unconventional troupes and shows. Davis hosted early events by Survival Research Laboratories, which essentially created the machine-and-fire art scene that is now renowned around the world. Davis would often need to run interference with the Fire Department and other authorities who were concerned about the SRL's seemingly dangerous experimentation.

Davis assisted in the evolution of that scene at every step, recently providing support services so the Flaming Lotus Girls could bring their massive Serpent Mother project to the "Robodock" festival in Amsterdam last month. Other SomArts projects Davis facilitated include the offbeat Naughty Santa's Black Market, the Queer Arts Festival, Balinese shadow theater, DadaFest, the SF Electronic Music Festival, and the SF Indie Fest.

Davis also helped win national recognition for the alt-art movement by working with Eric Val Reuther, a panelist for and consultant to the National Endowment for the Arts, to bring many worthwhile (and underfunded) groups to the attention of the NEA. Davis also cofounded the Neighborhood Arts Program National Organizing Committee and helped set up its West Coast office in San Francisco.

Among the community-based groups Davis helped establish were the Bayview Opera House, the Native American Cultural Center, the Mission Cultural Center, and the Western Addition Cultural Center. He helped create a theater at Lone Mountain College, was director of Intersection for the Arts, and organized the San Francisco Blues Festival with Tom Mazzolini. In the summer Davis and his son Hayden and their friend Ernie Rivera built stages and performance areas for street fairs and other events.

As director of Intersection for the Arts, Davis hosted many unknown performers who went on to acclaim in the larger world of theater, including Diane di Prima, Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Carroll, Ntozake Shange, Bill Irwin, Paul Dresher, and Rinde Eckert. Other groups Davis supported include the SF Mime Troupe, the Farm, the Pickle Family Circus, Make a Circus, and Dance Mission.