20 year anniversary of the Joyce Gordon Gallery: artistic curator Eric Murphy speaks

Joyce-Gordon-and-Hiroko-To-at-my-Reawaken-Uso-Y-Cultura-exhibit, 20 year anniversary of the Joyce Gordon Gallery: artistic curator Eric Murphy speaks, Featured World News & Views
Joyce Gordon and Hiroko To at Reawaken Uso Y Cultura exhibit

by Minister of Information JR Valrey

In the visual arts world, the much talked about Joyce Gordon Gallery is a major jewel within the streets of Oakland and the Bay Area. The gallery’s walls and floors over the decades have been decorated by many internationally known painters, artists and sculptors. In September, the gallery will kick off its 20th anniversary celebration with a number of festive artistic events in celebration of downtown Oakland’s first few Black owned art galleries. Eric Murphy, the curator for the Joyce Gordon Art Gallery, sat with the San Francisco Bay View newspaper for this exclusive interview about an upcoming monumental celebration of an important pillar within our community, the legendary Joyce Gordon Gallery.

JR Valrey: What is the story behind how the Joyce Gordon Gallery started? When?

Eric Murphy: Joyce Gordon secured 406 14th St. in downtown Oakland from Geoffrey Pete (landlord) in March 2003. Her first exhibit was September 2003, with a group of 17 artists, including her close friend, Sibylle Szagger-Redford, who introduced her to her boyfriend at the time, Academy Award-winning actor Robert Redford, who did the opening ceremony of her first exhibit. Other artists include Aziz Diagne, David Ruth, the late Pauletta Chanco and more. She was a hairstylist and traveled doing hair shows, which opened her up to various galleries and museums that led to her interest in opening an art gallery. She was the only gallery open in that part of downtown Oakland at the time.

To learn more on the first show and how she started, go to: https://www.backstage.com/magazine/article/joyce-gordon-gallery-opens-oakland-36352/ and https://openspace.sfmoma.org/2013/10/then-is-now-joyce-gordon-gallerys-ten-year-anniversary-exhibit/.

JR Valrey: When and how did you become an art curator? 

Eric Murphy: It began around 2001 just before 9/11. A judge from Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse reached out to me to fill his juror room with artwork. So I used my connection to artists at Pro Arts Gallery since 1999. Later our property managers in Old Oakland at the time reached out to Pro Art Gallery to do quarterly rotation of artwork in their board room. They ended up with an empty storefront on Broadway between Eighth and Ninth Street. Our Program Manager Svea Lin Soll and Executive Director Betty Nobue Kano’s hands were too full and asked if I would like to curate the empty store front from Old Oakland Properties. 

I took on the project for a couple of years showcasing artists like Fulani Carter and the late Oding Muata. I began doing other independent curatorial work like rotating exhibits at Spice Monkey Restaurant on 17th and Webster Street, June Steingart Gallery at Laney College, “Reawaken Uso y Cultura” (Style and Culture), a multi-ethnic exhibit at the State Building in downtown Oakland addressing the need for more artists of color to be more visible in Oakland. I also returned back to Pro Arts Gallery after my 11-year tenure as a guest curator for their 2 x 2 Solos exhibit with artist Lordy Rodriguez funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation and other locations. 

List-of-Oaklands-Sister-Cities, 20 year anniversary of the Joyce Gordon Gallery: artistic curator Eric Murphy speaks, Featured World News & Views
List of Oakland’s Sister Cities.

In 2012, I organized the first official artists exchange project, years after my friend Dan Fonts did one away version in Fukuoka back in the ‘80s in celebration of Oakland, California, and Fukuoka, Japan, for their 50th anniversary as sister cities. It was hosted and made possible through OFSCA (Oakland Fukuoka Sister City Association). I was representing artists at the time and included Emmy Award winning watercolor and mixed media artist James Gayles for Oakland and my photographer artist Hiroko To, who is from Fukuoka and returned to Fukuoka, Japan, after studying photography at Laney College in Oakland. 

me-and-Penny-Harncharnvej, 20 year anniversary of the Joyce Gordon Gallery: artistic curator Eric Murphy speaks, Featured World News & Views
Eric Murphy and Penny Harncharnvej.

My other artist, Penny Harncharnvej served as an artist assistant to James Gayles as a fellow watercolor and mix media artist. She worked with the students in Fukuoka, Japan, for a workshop exchange project learning James Gayles watercolor techniques, which led to a permanent installation in a library and store in Fukuoka, Japan. The exhibit was at the Fukuoka City Museum and continued a few months later in August at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. This celebration included the mayors of both cities, Jean Quan of Oakland and Mayor Sōichirō Takashima of Fukuoka, and city officials as delegates.

JR Valrey: What made you as a curator come to the Joyce Gordon Gallery from Pro Arts?

Eric Murphy: Going back to the exhibit I put together at the State Building “Reawaken: Uso y Cultura” under the supervision of the late Diane Love, Joyce Gordon came by to see and support the exhibit. One of my artists, who recruited me as a volunteer at Pro Arts in 1999, Gabriel Navar who had work in the exhibit brought by his mentor, the late Mel Ramos (one of the original Pop artists who started out early showing with Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein amongst others in the ‘60s). Our mutual artist, sculptor friend, Woody Johnson pitched the idea to Joyce that she should do a mentor/mentee exhibit at her gallery. She said she loved the idea and he should curate it. Woody just wanted to see it happen but had no interest in curating it so I did later in 2012 during my first year at Joyce Gordon Gallery. 

Prior to this, I‘ve shown my photographs at Joyce Gordon Gallery around 2008 or 2009, while representing my first artist, Hiroko To, who was also in the holiday art exhibit. When Pro Arts moved to Frank H. Ogawa plaza in 2010. Joyce came into the gallery when I was still working there and said she was happy we moved down the street and pitched this idea of having a Midtown collective of galleries promoting that area since so much attention was focused in Uptown. I loved her idea and during that time we always talked about working together in some type of capacity, not knowing it would turn out to be this opportunity.

After leaving Pro Art Gallery in 2010 and representing four visual artists, I searched for a space to start my own gallery. Popup spaces were really becoming more of a thing at that time and I took advantage of this wave and went back to my stomping grounds in Old Oakland where I started out. I reached out to the property managers of Old Oakland Properties to secure the very space I started out in, which was 461 Ninth St. where Pro Arts was. Everything was looking promising and I am about to fill out a contract to use the space as a pop-up just to have my dreams crushed due to an early prospect that already proposed to use that address and a couple others nearby and signed off to lease the spaces before I had a chance to make my mark. It was a blessing in disguise because right around that same time, Joyce was deciding on new steps of operating her gallery. I reached out to her to collaborate, and that is how I got started as the gallery curator of Joyce Gordon Gallery.

My first exhibit was called “SheRose of Our Time” that included female artists like Karen Seneferu, who I met along with Malik Seneferu during my Pro Arts days. I paired her up with Kemba Shakur of Urban Relief, who I discovered through the Oakland Museum, titling her as a modern day John Muir. The Oakland Museum of California sponsored the exhibit by loaning their video installation displays and dvd player. 

sheRose-FLyer-draft-WEB-1, 20 year anniversary of the Joyce Gordon Gallery: artistic curator Eric Murphy speaks, Featured World News & Views
Painting by Gabriel Navar

“SheRose of Our Time” not only was a Women’s Herstory exhibit but it went further to highlight women founders of different art movements. I got then Mayor Jean Quan to sign these “Joyce Award” documents as certificates honoring these women. We honored Joyce Gordon as the gallery owner, Betty Nobue Kano and Flo Oy Wong as founders of Asian American Women Artists Association (AAWAA), Kemba Shakur for her work with Urban Relief and more. 

Later that year, I curated “Pay it Forward” the mentor/mentee exhibit pitched by Woody Johnson to Joyce Gordon back during my show at the State Building. It features the late pop icon Mel Ramos, Sacramento native and Oakland resident, and Gabriel Navar, his mentee.

JR Valrey: What is the importance of having Black owned art galleries, especially with it being in Oakland?

Eric Murphy: The importance of having Black owned galleries as with any creative Black owned space is the blessing to showcase and tell our own stories and show artwork that reflect our image and expression. Joyce Gordon Gallery shows artists of every color, creed and background with emphasis on African American artists. She doesn’t like it to be called a “Black gallery” as in only showing Black artists. She doesn’t have an issue with other galleries and spaces only featuring Black creatives as she always supports them. However, because the gallery originally represented all with emphasis on Black artists, it is just called Black owned. 

Having Black owned galleries in Oakland is important because we are rarely represented especially in a city where I saw a richness of Black and BIPOC artists and galleries when I started back in 1999, like Thelma Harris, the late Samuel’s Gallery in Jack London village I use to visit prior to my start at Pro Arts Gallery in 1999 and Stone Ridge Gallery that use to be across from Everett and Jones in the Jack London area just to name a few; emphasis on few.

JR Valrey: What is planned for the 20th anniversary celebration of the Joyce Gordon Gallery? When and where are the festivities being held?

Eric Murphy: Oh boy, you done started something with these questions. No, seriously, it is going to be an epic event and exhibition. We have 17 individual artists, one collectors’ group  – the African American Quilt Guild of Oakland honoring the late Marion Coleman, a couple of photographers representing a program that started prior to my arrival at Joyce Gordon Gallery called “Glimpses in Time” that was curated by Darren Pollard, and a couple artists from the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series we hosted that was organized across the country by artists Andre Guichard from Chicago along with Russell Simmons’ brother, Danny Simmons. This makes it a total of 20 to represent 20 years. Eleven of them, I am proud to be a part of helping to run the gallery as gallery curator and gallery director come September 2023 as Joyce retires from that position.

The basic theme is a sequel to our 10th anniversary exhibit in 2013 but this exhibit has more meaning as it is a retrospective and sample taste of what the gallery has showcased over the 20 years and a tribute to our past artists no long physically present: Stevens Jay Carter, Pauletta Chanco, Marion Coleman and Mel Ramos.

The opening reception will feature performances by Oakland resident, Zimbabwe native, Piwai and our resident DJ, DJ Tekneek. It will include a poetry event hosted by Kim McMillon, a book signing by our sculptor Chukes on his current series titled “Identity Theft” in response to our culture of course and two artist talks in October so far. Folks can get updates and RSVP at https://JGG20TH.eventbrite.com.

All of these happenings will take place at Joyce Gordon Gallery, 406 14th St. in downtown Oakland near 12th Street Bart.

JR Valrey: Why is it important to celebrate such a milestone in the local Black visual artists community?

Eric Murphy: This celebration is so important because it is not just the gallery’s history but it is Oakland’s history and should be celebrated as such. It is rare for any gallery to celebrate 20 years let alone Black owned in a building of a Black owned legend and landlord, Geoffrey Pete. This is a positive statement to a community in a city that publicly is showcased negatively so often. 

JR Valrey: Who are currently some of your favorite local Black visual artists? Why?

Eric Murphy: Karen and Malik Seneferu – I’ve known them since 2000 or 2001 and to me they are a dynamic creative family and King and Queen of the Bay in the way with their presence. So inspiring to see that every time.

  • Kehinde Wiley – not local though he studied art in SF but still – I am a fan of artists who know how to merge time periods and challenge typical narratives
  • James Gayles – I love age defying elders who are still growing and at the top of their game too with a youthful spirit and no end to being highly creative in sight
  • Richard Mayhew – for the same reasons as James Gayles
  • David Bruce Graves – for his brilliant way of mixing digital and a tactile approach to creating his paintings
  • Joshua Mays – for his Afro Futuristic mind, detailed portraits and murals

JR Valrey: As a curator, what do you look for in a collection of pieces that inspires you to want to bring an artist to the gallery for a show?

Eric Murphy: As a contrarian, I often look for new styles of imagery and techniques and new storytelling, though it is not required. As a curator, it is my job to tell a story of their stories, so it helps if we are similar types of storytellers. For group shows, the artwork can be different but have some continuity in terms of subject matter, color or technique etc. This is rooted in my days of curating at the Wiley Manuel Courthouse on Seventh Street in 2001. I was tasked with pulling a bunch of different artists’ works together to fit in various rooms inside of one big room. 

JR Valrey: What kinds of things do you have to study to be a curator?

Eric Murphy: Actually I am partially an autodidact. I started off as a volunteer at Pro Arts Gallery under the guidance of Betty Nobue Kano, who was the ED at the time I started in 1999. Being around so many artists of the Bay Area at that time, I developed the taste as a curator. Later working with Joyce Gordon, whose background is in interior design, I developed the ability to focus even more on aesthetics, balance and color etc. 

Over the years of this experience and some studies of gallery management at Laney College, I delved more into research and interviewing artists and doing studio visits to get a better understanding of their techniques and stories. At that point you begin to explain their work as if you were the artists, which helps with collectors and patrons who want to know more about the works we are showing. Also, studying books on art about works similar to the ones we are showing and future prospective artists.

JR Valrey: How could people get more info on what’s going on at the Joyce Gordon Gallery for the 20th anniversary?

Eric Murphy: Again, visit https://JGG20TH.eventbrite.com as we add more events and updates.  

JR Valrey, journalist, author, filmmaker and founder of Black New World Media, is also the editor in chief of the San Francisco Bay View newspaper. He teaches the Community Journalism class twice a week at the San Francisco Bay View newspaper office.

Facebook pics from our project in Fukuoka, Japan – April/May 2012


ReAwaken Uso Y Cultura


Facebook Photos from the event:


Facebook photos for my first exhibit at Joyce Gordon Gallery (SheRose of Our Time)


JR Valrey, journalist, author, filmmaker and founder of Black New World Media, is also the editor in chief of the San Francisco Bay View newspaper. He teaches the Community Journalism class twice a week at the San Francisco Bay View newspaper office.