.Montalvo Arts Center Moves Past James D. Phelan’s Legacy

A cultural battle against the legacy of white supremacist James D. Phelan

Montalvo is not Phelan it anymore.

For the first time since the onslaught of Covid-19, Montalvo Arts Center opened its vast Saratoga property to VIPs, trustees, artists and guests to celebrate Claiming Space: Refiguring the Body in Landscape, an outdoor group sculpture exhibition throughout the grounds of the Montalvo estate. 

“Claim” was the right word. For the opening reception, various poets were asked to engage with the sculptures, to claim the Montalvo space-time continuum from the pure vanilla legacy forged by James D. Phelan, effectively declaring the civic property as one of belonging for everyone of all colors and persuasions. This was long overdue.

Phelan’s story is more than well documented. As San Francisco mayor (1897-1902) and then US senator (1915 to 1921), he did some fantastic things. Eventually he built Villa Montalvo and lived there until he croaked in 1930.

However, were it up to Phelan and his white supremacist cohorts, California would have been a much blander place. Mind you, this is not some columnist recklessly tossing around the term “white supremacist.” That’s exactly who Phelan was. “Keep California White” was one of the slogans during his failed 1920 reelection campaign. He was a prime instigator of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and later helped start the Japanese Exclusion League of California, which led to the 1924 Immigration Act, the very purpose of which was to preserve white racial homogeneity across the US. He considered the Chinese to be evil, inferior people of non-assimilable character. To Phelan, the “Orientals” with their disciplined work ethic were even more dangerous to America than the Negroes. He actually said stuff like that. This wasn’t Archie Bunker with a can of Schlitz in his crotch. This was an estimable affluent patron of the arts. The white arts, of course.

None of which is any new discovery about Phelan. What is new, or at least fairly recent, is the heroic effort by Montalvo to finally acknowledge this history a little more creatively. And what better way to do that than to bring in a diverse group of Santa Clara County poets for an evening reception to officially open the Claiming Space exhibit, which runs until Oct. 15.

The sculptures included in Claiming Space are located at specific junctures throughout the Montalvo property, from the Villa patio to the hillside and down to the gardens below. As the reception unfolded, the poets took turns reading their words in front of the respective sculptures that inspired them, as the audience then moved from sculpture to sculpture, in order to listen to the poets. 

For example, down in the Italianate Garden, Pilar Agüero-Esparza’s work, Of Color, an eight-foot-tall, 20-foot-long serpentine structure of woven leather, featured various bands of color gradually weaving their way into the work, in complex fashion. Former Santa Clara County Poet Laureate Arlene Biala then stood in front of Pilar’s work and read a poem inspired by the sculpture.

Another highlight came in the form of current county poet laureate Tshaka Campbell, who spoke in response to Margaret Kemp’s audio sculpture, It’s All About Love: Mixtape for the Landscape, a durational recorded soundscape commissioned by the Lucas Artists Program at Montalvo. Kemp created 12 audio files that anyone can listen to via Montalvo’s website, but they were designed to be heard while following a specific path on the property, beginning with the speed bumps as one drives in. 

In one of the highlights of the reception, Campbell then stood atop the Villa stairs, at the microphone, in front of the building—which looked just plain cinematic from way down on the grass—and then recited his own spoken mix tape of poetry, as a direct engagement with Kemp’s work. It was spectacular to watch, especially as the attendees down on the grass scrambled to move closer and listen.

Of course, there were more poets. And dancers. And highfalutin philanthropists. Plus, salami, cheese, wine and green olives. As I would expect. Yet we have arrived at a glorious juncture in the Montalvo space-time continuum, in which the institution is finally taking an honest and elegantly creative look at the long white veil that shrouds its own history. It’s about time.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for this. There are also several other projects, like “Talking Roots, Trees of Witness” in development ( in collaboration with the confederation of Ohlone people and dance company Bandaloop’s founder) that are also part of Mantalvo‘s effort to move beyond Phelan. Way to go Montalvo.

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