“Education for Action: California Labor School, 1942-1957”

May 9, 2023 @ 10:00 am – 5:00 pm America/Los Angeles Timezone
Tenderloin Museum.
398 Eddy St.

SF once supported a Marxist labor school

  •  Updated 

From the San Francisco general strike of 1934, a major catalyst for national trade unionizing, to the recent UC Berkeley academic worker strike, the Bay Area has long been a hotbed of labor activism. Where this history intersects with the arts has been less apparent — but an exhibition at the Tenderloin Museum sheds new light. “Education for Action: California Labor School, 1942-1957,” presented in collaboration with the Labor Archives and Research Center at San Francisco State, focuses on the history of the eponymous trade school, which operated out of San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood and featured a robust arts program as a cornerstone of its education model.

Founded in 1942, the school started in a loft on Turk Street, but eventually occupied its own building at 240 Golden Gate Ave., today home to SEIU Local 87. The school was funded by over 100 unions to educate their growing membership, as an influx of workers from the American South entered the Bay Area to assist in the war effort’s shipbuilding and maritime industries. In addition, the school’s “cultural program” included classes in everything from drawing, sculpture and literature to choral singing and modern dance. A student there might have attended a W.E.B DuBois lecture, studied with Frank Lloyd Wright and Pete Seeger or had Maya Angelou for a classmate. And that’s to name only a few of the historical figures who passed through.

A slideshow of photographs and ephemera included in the exhibition at the Tenderloin Museum, courtesy of the Labor Archives, paint a vibrant picture of the school. The student body was evidently diverse, the moral imperative decidedly Marxist. An outdoor art exhibition might be mistaken for a rally; a philosophy class for a political forum. One brochure features an illustration of a man in overalls reading a book, alongside the slogan: “Education for victory.” A flyer advertising painting classes reminds potential students that “People are creative.” A poster boasting the slogan “Build democracy’s weapon,” features an illustration of a multiethnic group of adults and children brandishing books.

The exhibition also features a robust schedule of public programs. Just a handful include a Drag Story Hour with legendary drag performer Per Sia and joint performance by Rockin’ Solidarity Chorus and Freedom Songs Revival, both on Feb. 25, as well as a lecture, “Labor in the Loin,” on April 20, and a historical walking tour on the same subject on April 22. These, and more events to follow, carry out the spirit of education for action, with an emphasis on local artists and scholars.

Art is no stranger to politics, whether utilized blatantly in wartime propaganda posters or more subliminally in the fine arts. In a society segmented by class, and in which culture is often weaponized, there can’t be art for art’s sake — even the absence of overt politics. Art can change the way we see the world and shake us loose from our social mores. At the very least, it forces the viewer to see things through a different set of sensibilities than their own. Art making is always a political act in its insistence on a plurality of subjectivities. It is subversive even as an act of joy or a practice of unification despite, or in spite of, differences.

In 1948, the California Labor School (renamed as such in 1945) was designated a subversive organization by the U.S. attorney general, which led to the revocation of the school’s tax-exempt status and its eventual collapse under crippling debt in 1957. But the ultimate failure of the labor school was perhaps its greatest victory, proving many of the school’s core tenets. Solidarity can threaten hegemony. Creativity can threaten programmatic thought. Art can be dangerous.

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