Beyond the walls, becoming Pier 24 Photography

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Associate Director Allie Haeusslein, photographer Ed Templeton, and Director Christopher McCall work on spacing photographs, ©Thomas Bollier

A visit to the Diane Arbus retrospective Revelations, hosted by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2003, inspired the purchase of Andrew and Mary Pilara’s first photograph: a small silver gelatin print from Arbus' stirring Untitled series. A little over a decade later, the Pilara Foundation’s breath-taking exhibition space – Pier 24 Photography – has grown to become the largest venue devoted exclusively to photography in the United States. Associate Director Allie Haeusslein outlines how this private collection has evolved in the public realm, as well as the symbiotic working relationship between its founders and its new custodians.

My first impression of Pier 24 Photography was that of the people that worked there. After finishing graduate school, I returned home to San Francisco to work at a local gallery. During that time, I connected with Pier 24’s Director, Christopher McCall, who ultimately offered me a position. After an initial dinner with the team to discuss my role, I was completely sold! Their enthusiasm for the space and aspirations for its future were both infectious and exhilarating.

Andy and Pilara initially had no aspirations to build something that would be shared with the public, but as the collection outgrew the walls of their home, Andy and Mary decided to pursue a venue for the collection. As a San Francisco native, Andy was especially excited by the idea of being able to contribute to an already vibrant arts community in the Bay Area. After months of searching, they came across Pier 24, a former warehouse that had been abandoned for close to thirty years. They had tremendous foresight to be able to look at the building as it was and imagine what it could be. After three years of renovations, Pier 24 Photography opened to the public in the spring of 2010.

Associate Director Allie Haeusslein installs photographs by Corine Vermeulen, ©Thomas Bollier

When Pilaras first began collecting, photographer Neil Selkirk offered them a word of advice: “photography, like food, should be consumed through the gut.” This idea has guided much of the couple’s approach to collecting, which is primarily rooted in emotional, visceral connections to the work. While the collection has grown to almost 5,500 pieces, the process of making new acquisitions remains rooted in the same principles. Now, however, this process also involves discussions among our core team of four about potential works for the collection. Each work that is brought to the table is subsequently presented to the Pilaras, who value our instincts as to what might make strong additions to the collection. Inspiration and ideas can come from anywhere—Andy, for example, often comes into meetings bearing the latest issues of the Financial Times or The New York Times Magazine, with the images that excite him bookmarked.

Unlike most traditional institutions—whose collections reflect years of various institutional mandates— Pier 24 Photography’s collection has been amassed by one couple from a passionate and personal perspective. The Pilaras attach great importance to the individual’s experience at Pier 24 Photography. This is demonstrated in many ways, but especially in how visitors interact with our space. Visits are organised by appointment to manage the number of people in the space each session, ensuring each visitor has the opportunity to engage with the works in an intimate, quiet environment. We also have a team of trained docents who circulate during each appointment session and are available to answer questions about the works on view, the organization, or the building’s history.

Associate Director Allie Haeusslein installs photographs by Corine Vermeulen, ©Thomas Bollier

Associate Director Allie Haeusslein installs photographs by Corine Vermeulen, ©Thomas Bollier

Our goal is not to create a collection that spans the entire history of the medium, but rather to expand upon threads within the collection. While we will continue our focus on core themes—such as portraiture, Bay Area-based photographers and vernacular material—we also maintain an openness to contemporary developments in photography and to regions or concepts that we might not have previously explored. Our primary concern is that our exhibitions reflect an in-depth exploration of an artist’s thinking or working process, and that they thoughtfully illustrate the history of a place or particular moment in time.

We usually discuss the themes and artists for new exhibitions about nine months to a year before they open —a timeline typically shorter than that of our museum colleagues. Our exhibitions are rooted in the foundation’s collection, which is primarily comprised of mid-twentieth century American photography. That said, we also prioritize the inclusion of vernacular images from the collection and emerging photographers. By integrating this everyday material—be it mugshots, embroidered postcards or American press photographs from the 1920s and 30s—into our exhibitions, an unexpected counterpoint is added alongside the artistic works on view. New conversations and connections also emerge through the integration of emerging and well-establised photographers in the same space.

Associate Director Allie Haeusslein, photographer Ed Templeton, and Director Christopher McCall work on spacing photographs, ©Thomas Bollier

Allie Haeusslein is the Associate Director at Pier 24 Photography in San Francisco, one of the largest space in the world dedicated to photography. Haeusslein is involved in all facets of the organization’s operations including exhibitions, publications, and public programs. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Aperture, ART21 Magazine, British Journal of Photography, and Foam Magazine. She contributed one of the two essays for Chris McCaw’s 2012 monograph, Sunburn. Her interview with Meghann Riepenhoff was featured in the 2015 publication, Littoral Drift.

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