Richmond Art Center Curator Jan Wurm Talks Art Shop

Even though the Richmond gem has been around for almost 80 years, it doesn’t get the credit or respect it deserves. Meet the newest director of exhibitions and curator of the art, Jan Wurm.


Jan Wurm is a Berkeley painter, teacher, and arts advocate now at the Richmond Art Center.

Photo by Lin Hsieh

Richmond Art Center, the East Bay’s oldest and largest art center, is less well known in Bay Area art circles and by the general populace than it should be. Founded in 1936 and located since 1951 in Richmond’s Civic Center complex, it has operated continuously for nearly 80 years, serving the local community with impressive facilities and an extensive arts education program. It has showcased such celebrated local treasures as the sculptors Stephen DeStaebler, Bella Feldman, Wanxin Zhang, Mildred Howard, and the painter Richard Diebenkorn. A David Park works-on-paper show and a multimedia group show of contemporary figuration are slated.

The art center’s recently appointed director of exhibitions and curator of art is the Berkeley painter, teacher, and arts advocate Jan Wurm, who studied with Diebenkorn at UCLA in the 1960s and curated Closely Considered–Diebenkorn in Berkeley in 2014. Here’s what came up in a recent interview about the Richmond Art Center.

On its history: “Next year will be our 80th anniversary. This was the vision of one woman, Hazel Salmi, who got together some art materials, got on her bicycle, and started riding around to the schools and working with kids. She drummed up support, she was persistent, she saw this through over the years, she grew the programs.”

On thinking long-term: “It’s really essential to keep in mind our goal, to create something greater than us, something that is really important and special and will feed the souls and spirits of all the follow-ups.

“What fed us artists was all the art that went before us, so we benefited from all the struggles of so many people through history. That perspective, it helps you to do things where you not necessarily getting immediate rewards.

“Somewhere, some place in the future, it’s going to have an impact. Our history is so rich. Diebenkorn was shown here, year after year, in the annuals; there were eight annuals, and he participated in seven of them.” Wurm noted that the David Park show “will look historically at the absolute individual vision that he had—his commitment to the figure and humanism—and how that inspired and changed a whole direction of Bay Area art from Bay Area Figuration into the next generation of painting, sculpture, photography, video, and performance, right up through to the present. So we want to have that continuity and see where it has led us.”

On serving the art community: “We’re here for our members. We guarantee that every year, they will have an opportunity to show their work,” she said, singling out the annual members show as rich and varied. “We have the West Contra Costa Unified School District; we have the most fabulous high-school artists showing. We have younger students from our own programs here showing. We have art camps in the summer and concerts during the year. This place is alive; it’s vibrant.”

On reaching contemporary audiences: “We’re making videos and putting them online so teachers can view them and will have a way of presenting work to the children visiting the center. Take the Mildred Howard exhibition, for instance, a really good example of being able to have an exhibition being understood at many different levels. This is kind of the Montessori approach, I think: that you can learn and relearn on different levels and with different depth the same material.

“We have a video that documents the entire conversation that I had with her. Then I went in with Rebecca Gonzales and her iPhone and stood in front on Mildred’s pieces and talked about them in terms easily understood by anyone 8, 9, 10, 11 years old. We don’t all process, learn, respond in the same way. Music works for many people. Some prefer actually doing things themselves: Give them a pencil, a crayon, a brush in their hand, and they understand. For someone else, hearing somebody else’s experience of the work is what allows them to start thinking about it. We’re all very different.”

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