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After Alcatraz Blockbuster, Ai Weiwei and Cheryl Haines Team Up Again

How a blue-haired San Francisco gallerist and an international art star began their long-distance creative collaboration.

Curator and gallerist Cheryl Haines holds a poster promoting Ai Weiwei’s 2014 @Large show at Alcatraz.


Cheryl Haines doesn’t like to play favorites. “You can’t ask me which child I love the most,” she says. The curator and gallerist prides herself on nurturing relationships with all 25 of the artists she represents, whether that means spending an afternoon strolling through the bunkers of the Presidio with nature sculptor Andy Goldsworthy or flying to Iran to socialize with 92-year-old artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, whose retrospective just wrapped up at the Guggenheim. But there’s only one for whom she’s lugged four suitcases’ worth of Lego pieces 6,000 miles. Only one who’s inspired her to remodel her gallery. Only one to whom she’s “given” a prison. That is Ai Weiwei.

The Chinese dissident has become an international phenomenon, for his art and architecture—most notably his design for the 2008 Beijing Olympics’ Bird’s Nest stadium—as well as for his championing of human rights, which led to his years-long travel restriction by the Chinese government. (After battling controversial tax evasion charges for four years, Ai finally regained access to his passport last July.) Ai is notoriously busy, and since being freed, he’s almost omnipresent across the globe—in Paris one moment for his most recent exhibition opening, at Le Bon Marché, and on the Greek isle of Lesbos the next, raising awareness of the plight of Syrian refugees. Yet to some extent he seems like a local artist in the Bay Area, a feat largely due to Haines.

The curator has brought Ai’s work to San Francisco three times in the past six years, and will do so again this month with a show at the Haines Gallery in Union Square (for which they are renovating the space—“at Ai’s request,” Haines says). So how did a San Francisco gallerist get one of the world’s most important contemporary artists on speed dial? Simple: She paid him a visit.

Haines and Ai at the artist’s Beijing studio in June 2014.

Photo: Jan Stürmann/For-Site Foundation

Haines first met Ai in 2007 as part of a research tour through China to visit with contemporary artists. She scheduled an appointment for a studio visit, and, as Haines puts it, “The second I met him, I knew there was some special connection between us.” They talked for hours, and not just about his work or his stance on human rights but about “philosophy and life. It was truly one of the most thrilling studio visits I’ve ever had. He was at once very quiet, very introspective, but at the same time had incredibly commanding presence.”

The stars seemed to align: Ai was spending the majority of his time in Beijing, and Haines was visiting frequently to research the country’s contemporary art. “We became friends before anything else,” Haines says. In fact, three years passed before Haines actually exhibited his work, in Presidio Habitats, the inaugural exhibition of her not-for-profit For-Site Foundation. The show prompted participating artists to create a natural habitat for an animal species currently or formerly residing in the Presidio. Ai’s contribution was nine blue-and-white porcelain screech owl homes, hung from a cypress tree. “It was amazing, the way he captured the essence of this structure for this modest bird,” Haines says. She had expected an artist of Ai’s stature to choose a more potent animal, like a grizzly bear. “But no, he chose this beautiful, charming little bird. That’s the thing about Ai: He’s such a powerful man—his work and his words are so impactful, but he also has this delicacy and kindness about him.”

Haines became a gallery representative of Ai’s, collaborating on shows across the globe, selling his work, and exhibiting it in her gallery space. “We just began to work together seamlessly, and there was a tremendous amount of trust between us. So when I had the opportunity to create a project in a very complex national park site”—the infamous island of Alcatraz—“he was one of the artists who came to mind.”

Haines’s “What if I brought you a prison?” offer to Weiwei is now immortalized on the Internet. (It was the curiosity-piquing lead for many of the 223 media stories covering the 2014 show, @Large.) The exhibit attracted almost 900,000 visitors over its eight-month span and gained Ai even more notoriety—he wasn’t free to set foot on the island before or during the exhibition. Haines traveled to Beijing six times in the 12 months leading up to the show, hauled the aforementioned suitcases full of Legos across the Pacific, and composed carefully worded emails so as not to raise suspicions. And they pulled it off, to international acclaim.

Of course, what makes their relationship tick isn’t international recognition, although that seems to be a by-product of anything Ai touches. “Art dealers seldom help Weiwei’s career any longer—usually, it’s the other way around,” says art critic Jeff Kelley, who introduced Haines to Ai in 2007. “Cheryl, however, seems to engage Ai in a way that he trusts. Her long commitment to discerning an ‘art of place’ probably piques his interest in public places that are already filled with social and political meaning.”

As for their next show, which opens April 28, Haines is skittish about divulging details, stating that it’s constantly evolving, as seems to be de rigueur for an Ai show. But it’s certain to be a very intense collaboration. “We discuss the idea, look at the space together, think about what of his recent work is most interesting to him,” she says. “I will give him my opinion, but he makes the decision.” Ultimately, if having an international art star constantly showing in our backyard means taking a blind leap of faith, we’ll gladly accept that. “It’s like catching the tiger by the tail,” says Haines.


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