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San Francisco's smallest gallery invites patrons to take a peek

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A man looks in the peephole at Savernack Street.
Aaron Mendelson/KQED
A man looks in the peephole at Savernack Street.

The San Francisco art scene is pretty huge, but in the Mission District there's one gallery that is decidedly smaller. So small that it can't actually host visitors.

The San Francisco art scene is pretty huge, but in the Mission District there's one gallery that is decidedly smaller. So small that it can't actually host visitors. The collection can only be viewed in one pretty unusual manner. Reporter Aaron Mendelson has the story.

Among the art galleries in San Francisco’s Mission District, Savernack Street is different. It’s a few blocks from the main thoroughfares, features just one piece of art per month and doesn’t allow patrons to come inside. At Savernack Street, visitors can view the art only through a peephole.

That peephole is at the center of a light green door. The door sits on a quiet stretch of 24th Street, right next to Highway 101, and it can be easy to miss. To peer inside, passers-by flip on a light switch next to the door.

“When we see peepholes on doors, we assume that they’re going in the other direction,” said Carrie Katz, who owns and curates the gallery.  She says her gallery attracts the attention of people walking their dogs, or coming and going from a nearby hospital. Those viewers “have either the thrill or anxiety of being a voyeur,” she says.

A recent Savernack Street exhibit featured a work by photographer Jo Babcock. At the opening on a sunny Saturday afternoon, people chatted on the street in front of the gallery. They sipped tea, snacked on pretzels and took turns looking in at Babcock’s installation.

His exhibit recalls photography darkrooms, with a red light, ticking black timer and the sounds of bubbling water. Babcock calls it "a little tribute to all those hours that photographers have spent in the darkroom.”

Javier Vera came to see Babcock’s art but found himself frustrated by the gallery. “I was expecting an open gallery you can go inside and see some of (Babcock’s) work exposed, just as in any other gallery," he said. "I never expected it to be a peephole.” Vera was surprised that the exhibition opening was on a sidewalk.

Katz said that reactions like Vera’s are part of the point. She designed the gallery to provoke a range of responses. Savernack Street is as much a piece of art as the installations inside. The gallery’s name refers to Savernake Road in London—there is no Savernack Street in San Francisco.

To understand the gallery, it helps to go behind the peephole. Visitors to the gallery have no idea what’s inside the building, beyond what they can see from the peephole.

Before the Babcock exhibit, Katz stood behind the green door getting ready. She gestured toward the exhibit and said, “We are looking at what nobody else can see, except for me, the curator and the artists who do the exhibit.”

This hallway is the only part of the building that Katz rents. The darkroom exhibit is mounted on the inside of the door, right on the other side of the peephole. It’s about 1 foot by 1 foot, and just a foot deep. Earlier exhibits have been even smaller. One by Lee Hunter looked like a huge installation from the peephole, but Katz could pick it up in one hand.

This hallway is all Katz can afford, she said. For her, it’s “a practical issue about how much square footage in San Francisco costs right now.” The cost of living forced Katz to get creative with the size of her gallery, and make a statement about San Francisco’s high rents along the way.

In San Francisco’s rental market, the nation’s most expensive, Katz said, “You have to be resourceful to find unused spaces and unusual spaces.”

She plans to continue with monthly exhibitions at Savernack Street. But Katz is already planning her next gallery, and it’s even smaller. How small? The new gallery is inside a wristwatch.

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