Lending art in the TL

A different view of the TL: Tenderloin art library curator Rick Darnell holds local artist Danny Manniche's donated photograph
All photos by Caitlin Donohue

Throughout the course of writing my feature story about the Tenderloin this week, which looks at the role art is playing in the gradually changing neighborhood, a couple of questions kept cycling back into the forefront of my mind. What should be the role of art in community-building? What kinds of art benefit the residents of a neighborhood? It's tough to categorically define the answers, but Rick Darnell and the North of Market Community Benefit District's plans for a TL art lending library come damn close to a perfect score.

The Tenderloin Art Lending Library (TALL)'s planned role in the community is double-fold: one, it will provide a boost to “outsider” artists in the Tenderloin, people who have never had their art displayed in a studio and may lack the career know how to make that happen, and two, their pieces wind up in the homes of people who otherwise would have few touches of beauty there -- at least not original works by creative minds. “A lot of artists never get discovered,” Darnell tells me, sitting in the basement room that the NOM-CBD has allocated to housing the library. Donated paintings lean against the walls around us, and a table is stacked with interesting metal sculptures behind my chair. 

His goal is to get this art into the homes of the Tenderloin's recently housed residents. The neighborhood is well known as a drop-off spot for released convicts, Darnell tells me, and has a high percentae of residents on parole and probation. Between the recently incarcerated and the participants of the City's “Care Not Cash” transitional housing program, you have a lot of people who need help making their new rooms homey. 

Paintings for and by the community line the walls at the Tenderloin Art Lending Library

Every three months TALL participants will be allowed to take a different piece of art for their space. Not everyone's used to having nice things though. Darnell anticipates the challenges that this will entail, and tells me that those hurdles are kind of the point.

“It's based on trust and sharing and a celebration of those two things,” he says. He's got a system worked out for participants that mess up their given canvass or sculpture: six months probation from the library if they sold it or destroyed it, but leniency if the damage was due to carelessness or misfortune. “If it's something like the dog eats it, we'll work with them to find another place in their house that would be better for the painting,” he says, adding that program volunteers will be prepared to make house visits to make this happen, or to involve less mobile residents. “We want to make this a good experience for them.”

Some of the pieces around us, Darnell tells me, were done by artists afraid to leave their own house, elderly artists, recovering addicts, current addicts. Many artists have volunteered their art – he shows me one small canvass covered in dynamic swooshes of primary colors that came from an artist in Colombia that saw his call for admissions online – but he gives priority to Tenderloin artists, who seem to be the ones that are most connected to the mission anyway. “The people who have the least to give, I've found, are the most generous,” he says.

Rick P. Lion's fantastical creations will soon be sitting in the living room of a recently housed, newly initiated art connoisseur 

Darnell knows what helps people get better: in addition to his years spent working with society's forgotten communities, he's been a part of them himself. “I've dealt with addiction, I've dealt with being homeless,” he tells me straight-forwardly. 

He's got no issue with recounting his story. An MFA recipient in dance and design from the integrative learning-based Bennington College, he traveled the country after graduation dancing with a troupe that performed in non-traditional venues and focused on social issues in their productions. 

But he fell into drug use, and in1989 tested positive for HIV. He moved directly into the Tenderloin when he got to San Francisco and hasn't left since, finding the expansive gay community “astounding.” He's been clean for years, and seems inordinately enthused for a guy that's been through a lot. “I'm just really happy to be here and doing this.”

Perhaps it was a no-brainer that someday Darnell connect his love of helping others in a tight spot with his love of art, given the role that it plays in his own mental clarity. “I draw something everyday,” he says. “I've drawn thousands of bullets, thousands of popper bottles. The shapes are really calming to me.” 

Until recently a long time employee of the Hospitality House, a resource center for homeless individuals around the corner from the NOM CBD that includes a drop-in arts studio, employment help, and a men's shelter, Darnell was hired at the Community Benefit District initially as a janitor. But the organization invested $15,000 in seed money so that he could flesh out his vision of a community enhancing arts program. Now he's in charge of outreach and general operations of the project. 

“It seems frivolous, like maybe I should be doing a food drive – but these are all sides of a well rounded person,” he reflects. Darnell initially considered starting a tool lending library, but changed his mind when he considered that the art exchange would give TL artists a chance to work on their craft, as well as gain some valuable artistic experience – pieces will be displayed in the gallery that gracefully inhabits the current lobby and front hallway of the NOM CBD. 

Community through art: Rick Darnell in front of the frame that will constitute an altar he and some veteran friends are completing for SomARTS Cultural Center's Dia de los Muertos exhibit

He envisions the library as a place where people can come and connect using the language of art. “You might come to have a salon community,” he suggests regarding residents' use of the future space. It'll be open Fridays and Saturdays from 12-3 p.m., starting with a kick-off party on Oct. 30. 

We chat briefly about some of the other recent arts development in the neighborhood. I first met Darnell at a fairly informal meeting of TL art types convened by the Tenderloin Economic Development Project's Elvin Padilla. In addition to the Darnell's presentation of his library, a representative of a well known theater discussed plans for expansion, possibly in the Tenderloin. Another performing arts organization announced they were looking for a TL address, and various art galleries discussed openings and future collaborations with each other. 

“A lot of people put endeavors in the Tenderloin because rent is cheap, and it's slowly changing the area,” Darnell tells me of people he refers to as “carpet baggers.” We talk about a comment he overheard from a gallery owner in the area after Rick announced his plans for the lending library to the group. The individual had muttered “I'd never lend anything to anyone in the Tenderloin.” “For good reason,” Rick continues “people are wary of homeless folk.”

But Darnell doesn't seem to be wary of the recently homeless folk he's passing out TALL fliers to and still collecting donations of art for. In fact, he seems stoked on his continuing role in their lives, and stoked for the day the library's circulation begins at the end of next month, when they'll eat light snacks and start making connections through art. 

“If there's anyplace that's open to this stuff,” he tell me “it's the Tenderloin.”


Tenderloin Art Lending Library Kick-Off Party

Oct. 30, 12-3 p.m., free

North of Market Community Benefit District

134A Golden Gate, SF