Coming out of the basement

UC Davis Nelson Gallery curator Renny Pritikin transforms the museum into an experience

Renny Pritikin says when you walk into a museum, or his UC Davis Richard L. Nelson Gallery, you shouldn’t know what to expect.

Renny Pritikin says when you walk into a museum, or his UC Davis Richard L. Nelson Gallery, you shouldn’t know what to expect.

Photo By Louise Mitchell

Find out more about the Richard L. Nelson Gallery at

During the course of his long and distinguished career, Renny Pritikin, director of UC Davis’ Richard L. Nelson Gallery, has presided over some pretty wild scenes. Among them: electronic artists Matmos turning a gallery into a recording studio where the public could participate in creating music; a group show where one artist served dinner to other artists in the lobby; and a hip-hop-themed art show where one of the rappers stopped and said, “I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been in a museum before. I gotta say that this is amazing.”

Oh, and Pritikin is widely credited as being the guy who introduced the world to Ed Hardy.

Now, Pritikin will have a lot more room to work his magic: The Nelson Gallery relocated in January from its old “dank basement,” as he calls it, to a newly remodeled, state-of-the-art gallery inside the Richard Nelson Hall, a space nearly four times larger than the old one.

Pritikin, though, still has his eye on the prize: a museum near the Mondavi Center. UC Davis’ chancellor has committed $15 million to this future gallery, and Margrit Mondavi also has pledged an additional $2 million. The Crocker Art Museum’s multimillion-dollar expansion and the recession, however, have slowed down fundraising. But Pritikin is using this interim space to “build the credibility and visibility and energy of the Nelson Gallery.” He predicts that in “in three to seven years, we’ll have the building.”

As a founder of the influential New Langton Arts project in the mid-’70s; former chief curator of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; and, since 2004, director of the Nelson, Pritikin is known for his populist aesthetic. He says that, during his time at Yerba Buena, he “developed this notion that a museum shouldn’t just be a place to see art, but a place where you don’t know what the fuck is going to happen when you walk through the door.”

“Anything could happen. It could be a party. It could be something that could change your whole way of looking at life.”

The two current shows at the Nelson exemplify the duality of Pritikin’s high-low vision. There’s Josh Greene’s text-and-photo-based piece “Least Favorite,” in which the artist asks his family members to explain which of his many projects is their least favorite. The show veers from laugh-out-loud hilarious to squeamishly personal to poignant.

Greene is a prominent figure in the Bay Area-based social-practice movement, which Pritikin describes as “where artists don’t so much make objects as they set up social situations.”

“Untitled” by Deborah Butterfield, 1992, on display at UC Davis’ Nelson Gallery.

Photo By Louise Mitchell

In contrast to Greene’s art-school high jinks, Roberta Price’s show of ’60s-era photographs of communes in the Southwest lies firmly in with Pritikin’s egalitarian leanings. Price is an amateur photographer whose photos are rough and not always artfully composed. Her work explores the intersection of art and life: Is the documentation the art, or was the communal life being lived itself the work of art?

Pritikin said the show is “consistent with my interest in what’s generally called ‘visual culture’ or ‘material culture’—things that are visual but aren’t originally thought of as art.” He argues that “21st-century museums are going to have to take the blinders off about what is traditionally art and include more visual culture,” especially to appeal to young people.

In order to appeal to UCD students, and to increase general attendance, Pritikin, who has strong ties to the Bay Area art scene, has taken pains to acquaint himself with the Sacramento and Davis communities. Every other summer, most recently in 2010, he curates a biennale called Flatlanders, which showcases local artists, including Stephen Kaltenbach, Jack Ogden and Skinner.

When asked to name a few local favorites, he rubs his eyes wearily. “That’s not fair!” he protests—before elaborating.

First, he cites Nathan Cordero, a “not really younger but younger careerwise” artist who Pritikin invited to be in the Oakland Flatlanders show. “And I’m giving him a one-person show this summer, so I’m looking forward to that.”

Another favorite is Dave Lane, to whom Pritikin was introduced to by Chris Daubert. “[He] did a one-person show here a couple years ago, which was one of the best shows I’ve ever curated,” he recalls.

The coming year is a busy one for the Nelson Gallery: first, the UCD Master of Fine Arts show; then, a Cordero solo show called Are You Destined to Become Your Mother? which opens on July 7; and in the fall a one-man show with Chico McMurtry. “He’s going to have these white, vinyl bird wings flapping in the gallery with compressed air,” Pritikin promises of the latter exhibition.

So the new Nelson is a gallery on the move. Now, about that Ed Hardy connection:

A while ago, Pritikin says he was offered a gig as curator of the American representation at the Cuenca Biennale in Ecuador. “I ended up picking Don Ed Hardy,” he says, “so we went down to Ecuador together a couple of times and … found out we both are voracious readers, and so we did a show together in the oldest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere.” Pritikin remembers one of Hardy’s paintings, called “500 Dragons,” which “was very, very, very long, like 200 yards of Tyvek,” he says. “And he painted 500 dragons on it, and we wrapped it around the cathedral, so that was pretty cool.”

This was long before Hardy became rich and famous, at least outside of the tattoo world, Pritikin says. “It’s weird, too, because he’s the most modest, soft-spoken guy,” he remembers. “He’s not one of these macho tattoo types.

“Again, life is so strange.”