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Queer Arts Resource--Online Gallery Starts to Click
By Richard Dodds
There's an art gallery based in Noe Valley visited by thousands of people from 50 countries every week. You can find its world headquarters in Barry Harrison's home on Chattanooga Street -- just off the kitchen next to the washer and dryer.
Harrison, 41, is the founder and director of Queer Arts Resource (QAR), an online gallery and reference center specializing in gay and lesbian visual arts. It is a polished, serious, and informative web site (www.queer-arts.org) that offers changing curated exhibitions of noted and emerging artists, along with essays by the curators, an international art calendar, message boards, an archive, and a book shop.
"We now have an openness that lets artists deal with their sexuality, and combining this with a medium of mass communication that dwarfs all others, you wind up with a very powerful tool," Harrison says.
Ironically, Harrison had never even surfed the web when he hit upon the idea for QAR in 1994. After moving to Noe Valley in 1990, he worked as an architect, a housecleaner, a bookkeeper, and a place-mat entrepreneur. But still he didn't know what he really wanted to do -- except that it was none of the above.
When he saw a class titled "Creating a Life Worth Living" offered at the Writing Parlor, he signed up. "It was quite helpful for me in getting rid of preconceptions," Harrison says. "The idea was to do an organic search through your past to help you find your future."
As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, the Rhode Island native majored in art history, earned a graduate degree in architecture, and then headed to New York to start a career. For 10 years he did the architect thing, and when he moved to San Francisco over "quality-of-life issues," he expected to be pushing the same pencils here.
But the right job didn't appear, and so he set out on "a fairly lengthy process of learning what I wanted to do with my life."
To make money, he became a housecleaner -- a humbling experience, but one that turned out to be more lucrative than architecture. Then, drawing upon his architectural know-how, he began designing and marketing placemats in the shape of the San Francisco skyline. Although they turned out to be popular, they weren't particularly profitable. But in the process, Harrison got a computer and taught himself bookkeeping -- yet another livelihood.
Around this time, he took the "creative living" class, which pointed him back to his love of art. He thought about opening a traditional gallery, "but it would have cost too much money." That's when he got the idea to use his computer for art instead of for bookkeeping.
"What we've spent on QAR wouldn't pay for one gallery show," he notes, "yet the impact we've had is much more than what we would have had with a small gallery in San Francisco."
The web site made its debut in the fall of 1996, and its popularity has steadily increased. "In our first month," Harrison says, "the site had 1,500 hits. In the most recent month, it had 172,000 hits."
In using the once-pejorative "queer" in the site's name, the neat and natty Harrison acknowledged that he wanted to be provocative. "But primarily we wanted it to be more inclusive. 'Queer' doesn't necessarily refer to one's sexual preferences," he says. "We're trying to concentrate on the artists' work rather than their sexual preferences."
The first show, "The Body Transformed," included works by three artists who took a mostly subjective approach to the topic.
San Francisco artist Daniel Goldstein, for example, put worn leather bench covers from the Muscle System Gym into plexiglass box-like frames to evoke the countless men who had strained and sweated upon them. The text accompanying his exhibit read, "These are images of the body, by the body, which like the Shroud of Turin, are transformed into a parable of mortality and eternal life."
"I wanted to deal with the [mistaken] notion that gay art is only about naked men," Harrison says.
The gallery calls its online shows "Siteworks." The current show, QAR's sixth, runs from June through September and is comprised of four exhibitions:
* "John O'Reilly: Bits and Pieces." O'Reilly, who drew attention at the 1995 Whitney Biennial, creates highly personal photo collages in which he frequently appears.
* "S. Brett Kaufman: Icons/Eyecons." Kaufman cuts and pastes images of such gay icons as Patti Smith, Harvey Milk, and Madonna into historical tableaux.
* "Queer Women and Religion." A group show featuring Barbara Kyne, Angela Marise Gleason, Valerie Jacobs, Petrouschka A.M. Zandvliet, and Lilith Adler examines the artists' search for spirituality amid alienation from the Judeo-Christian tradition.
* "Queer Impressions of Gustave Caillebotte." The French impressionist's suggestive works are reexamined for a gay sensibility.
Queer Arts Resource launches each new show with the cyber equivalent of a traditional gallery opening. Fans of QAR will gather from 6 to 8 p.m., June 24, at Internet Alfredo's, a cafe at 790A Brannan St., to view the new show on 10 high-speed computers while noshing on wine and cheese.
"The local artists and curators will be there," Harrison says. "It's turning into a real social thing."
The next step will be to turn QAR into a money-generating enterprise. Right now, the nonprofit is run by volunteers. "And there is a burnout factor."
QAR has received funding from the Horizons Foundation, and from a small number of members who pay $25 a year. Harrison hopes to line up some corporate underwriting, too. "We need to transition to a paid staff," he says, "and eventually there would be a salary for me."
When Harrison took the class "Creating a Life Worth Living," one of the questions posed to participants was, "How do you find meaning in your life and earn money doing it?"
So far, Harrison has only answered the first half of the question. The part about money is still up in the air.
He admits that his situation sometimes seems scary, especially since he recently quit his job as a bookkeeper. "But this experience has been so wonderful, on so many levels," he says.
"It has expanded my work view, not to mention my social life. It's been a fantastic process, and right now I'm just going with that. If I had to stop today, I would feel a greater sense of accomplishment than I did after 10 years as an architect."