Dec. 15, 2014

Hayes Valley Who’s Who: Russell Pritchard and the Hayes Valley Art Coalition

History has a way of losing the individuals of movements to time; only a handful of pioneers and activists will make their way into the collective memory of an era and place. The transformation of Hayes Valley—from a neglected collection of eyesores bisected by the Central Freeway to a boutique shopping and dining district with national renown—is not immune to the tendency of those looking back to glaze over details in favor of a sweeping narrative.

It’s like discovering a treasure you weren’t looking for, then, to walk into an eclectic storefront on Hayes Street and find yourself discussing vintage home decor with someone who could be said to have literally made Hayes Valley what it is today. All of a sudden, each year following the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 has a shape and a gravity.

“My roots are in Canada. I grew up on a farm and both of my parents were as committed to their community as I am to mine,” starts Russell Pritchard, the owner of Zonal, a vintage and vintage-quality home furnishings store. “It was always emphasized that you work hard for the community you’re a part of.”

Pritchard decided to make the move from New York City to San Francisco in 1990 after a good friend announced that he was moving westward. “My friend told me he was moving to San Francisco, and without thinking I blurted out that I was going too,” Pritchard explains. “I figure once you make a commitment you’d better follow through!”

Pritchard remained bicoastal for a time while he continued his work in advertising and set design, but it wasn’t long before he decided that he wanted a permanent presence in The City. “I came to Hayes Valley to look at an apartment that didn’t end up being suitable. I did see some stores, however: Victorian Interiors, Modernology, and Bugatti, which is where my shop Zonal is now. I ended up renting an apartment above Marlena’s [ed. where Brass Tacks now lives] and started looking over Bugatti for its owner. One day out of the blue I asked him if he would sell his shop to me, and that’s when I started Zonal.”

The 500 block of Hayes Street was where Pritchard met Madeline Behrens-Brigham, his longtime friend and fellow neighborhood booster. Behrens-Brigham owned Modernology when Pritchard rolled into town, and they immediately found common ground in wanting to improve the community where they both found themselves setting down roots. “We were on the wrong side of the tracks, and by that I mean the wrong side of the freeway. There wasn’t much other than junk stores, check cashing places, and our couple of shops. After the earthquake damaged the overpass, we decided to advocate for tearing it down.” After several years of building support and meeting with Cal Trans, the agency governing the Central Freeway,  the overpass was demolished and Hayes Valley was made whole again.

Knocking down the Central Freeway was akin to opening a basement door that had been closed off for years. The neighborhood’s dark and musty corners became flooded with light and fresh perspective. People could finally see the potential of a place that had such close proximity to City Hall, the fine arts district, Alamo Square Park, and the Fillmore District. Hayes Valley rode the dot com boom and weathered the dot com bust, contracting at times but carried through by the small business owners and perennial residents who remained devoted to their parcel of San Francisco’s forty-nine square miles. “We’re very fortunate that when we founded the neighborhood association and the merchants association we had a shared vision for the neighborhood that continues to this day,” shares Pritchard.

So how did Pritchard get involved in the business of art? “I’ve always supported local artists in my store. I’ve hosted openings and represented local artists.” he says. “In 2007, two years after Patricia’s Green had officially opened, an installation by the San Francisco Arts Commission had been removed. We wanted to fill the empty space with another piece, but money from the Arts Commission had dried up. So, Madeline and I being who we are, decided that if they can’t do it, we can. That’s why we founded the Hayes Valley Art Coalition.”

The Hayes Valley Art Coalition doesn’t get as much play as the HVNA and the Merchants’ Association, but their contributions to the culture of Hayes Valley are significant. “The main need we try to address is ensuring that there is always artwork at Patricia’s Green.” The group vets, selects, and fundraises for each sculpture that is installed.

The Art Coalition is also committed to fostering an inclusive art community in Hayes Valley, which led to Behrens-Brigham and Pritchard on their latest series of pop-up galleries exclusively showcasing Hayes Valley artists. The pop-ups, first at 580 Hayes and now in a shipping container at Proxy, aren’t officially supported by the Art Coalition, but that detail overlooks the fact that it’s still Pritchard and Behrens-Brigham at the helm. “We just sort of identify something we want to get done and we’re not afraid of tackling any challenge,” says Pritchard. “Do it in a vacant storefront, like the 580 Hayes gallery? Sure. In a shipping container? Why not?”

And it’s the welcoming nature of the galleries that Pritchard and Behrens-Brigham are most proud of. “I’m so excited that we’ve captured such a large Hayes Valley artist community. We love the new residents—they’re a good shot of new energy.” Pritchard continues, “Take Proxy, for instance. When Douglas [Burnham] presented the concept, we embraced it. It’s exciting. We want to make Hayes Valley the best it can be, and we think the way to do that is through community collaboration.”

You can find the works of over thirty Hayes Valley artists (some of whom you’ll be able to read about later this week right here on this blog) at the pop-up gallery at PROXY. The gallery will be open daily through December 24th from 9am to 7pm.

Photo courtesy of Madeline Behrens-Brigham.