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The Wonderland Project: Of the People, By the People, For the People

Zero budget. A few last-minute grants. All pro-bono work. Welcome to Wonderland, a month-long, multi-site art exhibition in the Tenderloin. Curated by Bay Area native Lance Fung, this project is the result of a collaborative effort between the neighborhood’s residents, nonprofits and city organizations like the North of Market Community Benefit District and groundbreaking local, national and international artist teams. More than just an art exhibit, this project is a platform for social engagement in true grass-roots fashion. Make no mistake—Lance states very clearly that the Wonderland Project is no attempt to gentrify a vital SF neighborhood. It’s simply, in the vein of all his work, a chance to stimulate the existing community from the ground up. Without further ado, a few words about the project by Lance Fung himself.

Wonderland is an interesting word choice in the Tenderloin context. Can you elaborate on this concept?
For me, it is a fairly ambiguous yet loaded word. It conjures up images of many things—from an amusement park to an adult theater. I like that contradiction and I believe that both life and the Tenderloin fall into that description. The word also has a timeless feeling—it can be past, present and future—which is something this exhibit is trying to examine and be a part of. 

Of all the neighborhoods in San Francisco, why did you choose the Tenderloin for this project?
It's a center of diversity—homelessness, crime, prostitution, drugs, no income, low income, immigrant families, senior citizens, artists and writers all coexist in this hugely interesting micro-culture. 

How did you choose the artists involved in this collaboration?
It started as the natural extension of an MFA course I was teaching at the SF Art Institute. The work was so good I decided to embellish—now students and professors from all three of SF's art schools are participating. I invited my contacts in the art world who I thought would be interested. Then, local artists came about it through word-of-mouth and the project really started to grow organically. Now Wonderland includes almost 80 artists—from established to self-taught to SRO (single resident occupancy) residents, street people, immigrants youth and more. This is exactly what I wanted to happen—it's not just people I know. It's authentic and truly of the community.

How have the residents of this neighborhood reacted to and interacted with Wonderland?
Residents are talking. They said, "Do something in this neighborhood. Please. Do it with us and by us." They've actively engaged and have voiced their opinions from the start. This project is so embedded within the fabric of the community and the work is truly coming from the people. So far we've heard nothing negative from within the TL, but I'm sure we will. How can you not?

Was there any concern on your part that some of the art might seem voyeuristic or exploitative?
This project has been a hotbed of issues from the start. I had no idea that doing site-specific work in the TL would would trigger so many emotions and fears, both from the inside and out. I had to be aware of the local sensitivity and figure out how to avoid amplifying a mythology about a group of people. There will be artists that walk the line and people will judge which ones were successful and which ones weren't, but the main objective was that these artists, from the TL and from outside the TL, engage with organizations in the neighborhood, thus avoiding this sense of outsiders peeping in and illustrating a false perception.

This show lasts for one month only. How will the community continue to engage in positive change once Wonderland is gone?
We're encouraging artists to continue working together in the community. We're hoping this will initiate monthly programming amongst the residents and organizations within the TL. And if all goes well, we will look into bringing the project back next year. We really want to continue what we've started because we've only hit the tip of the iceberg. There are so few opportunities for locals to be part of the contemporary art world and I want Wonderland to help bridge that gap.

Describe what you think the Tenderloin will be like in 5-10 years.
Not so physically different from what it is now. I would hope that the wonderful variety of ethnicities, ages and lifestyles unique to the TL remain while the economic disparity and illegal activity diminish. I hope that it becomes less of a place to be avoided and more of a destination for dining, entertainment and art. I am not for gentrification but rather creating a standard of safety and cleanliness that we should all demand. The TL is a place in the city that provides affordable housing for those who otherwise could not make a home here. I hope that, with the help of city officials and social leaders, the residents of this neighborhood will be able to see their home with an increased sense of ownership and pride, transforming the spirit of the TL without forcing anyone out.

The exhibition runs from 10/17-11/15, with a symposium on 10/18, and is free and open to the public. Check the Wonderland Project's website for the list of locations, times, artists and more.