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Frankenart Mart Offers Hot-Dog-Based Economy 

Wednesday, Mar 19 2008

For the past two years, an experiment of sorts has been going on in the Inner Richmond. Above a storefront between Sixth and Seventh avenues on Balboa Street, a mostly residential block otherwise populated by tiny sushi and Thai food joints, a handpainted sign reads "Frankenart Mart." The self-defined "art space, project laboratory, gallery-type thing" takes its name not from Frankenstein — although the metaphor there is apt — but from hot dogs.

Frankenart's founder, Leslie Henslee, is a graduate of San Francisco State's interdisciplinary arts MFA program, where she studied roadside attractions and fast-food chains. "Part of my thesis was to start a hot dog cart that would sell art as well," she explains. "I took a business class in San Francisco. The more I got into it, the harder and harder it became. It's just very hard to get a hot dog permit for a cart here. It became a nightmare of logistics. Then I thought: 'Screw the cart, I'll just get a storefront.'"

On April Fool's Day in 2006, Frankenart opened its doors, and ever since then it has been challenging people to define it. It's a community art center — anyone can come in and make art during Thursday night's Arterrarium events, and that art will be displayed. But it ends up being more provocative than most community art centers because of Henslee's conceptual bent. Every three months, she sets up a theme that determines not just the art being made but also the character of the space. Last quarter, the theme was children's books. The show featured Henslee's two-minute handholding bench, which required you to sit and hold hands while being timed.

This kind of social experiment is Henslee's hot-dog-and-butter. From now through April 13, Frankenart's theme is "currency," and the entire storefront can be read as a commentary on the economics of art. Currency, of course, can mean any unit of exchange — most commonly, coins or paper money. It can also mean currentness, or general acceptance or use, as in "the currency of ideas." Taking all of these ideas in stride, the show exposes how we value art and artists and offers an amusing, thought-provoking lesson in commerce.

First of all, Henslee has established her own monetary system. It's based on the frank — not the Swiss franc, but the Frankenart frank — and the exchange rate fluctuates according to the price of a gallon of regular unleaded gas at the Arco station on Fell Street. Everything in the gallery is priced in franks. If you wish to convert your dollars into franks, you have to visit the bank, a small domed hut built of twigs. There, Henslee, as the banker, will happily dole out the rocks and pinecones that comprise the coinage.

You can also earn franks by making art. A wire rack against one wall contains seedling pots full of dirt, sand, or clay, tempting would-be artists to claim a plot and break ground. Once you've earned enough, you can purchase a Gummi hot dog, a leather wallet, some miniature stationery, a T-shirt, or one of the many works of art that hang on the walls.

Doing the actual work of making art gives you a real appreciation of its concrete value. At the same time, the fact that anyone can make the art makes you realize anew the subjectivity involved in pricing.

I asked Henslee if she saw Frankenart as a reaction against the normal gallery model, which tends to be elitist. "Of course," she says. "There's no artist that's not going to have to deal with that. I wanted to put art in a different place, and I really wasn't interested in a gallery museum career. I felt in some ways it was too safe for me. I wanted to be more vulnerable."

Henslee is vulnerable: she funds Frankenart via her day job (she does marketing at an architecture firm) and through donations. While stores-as-conceptual-art have been tried before — Gordon Matta-Clark's famous Food restaurant comes to mind, and Henslee cites Harrell Fletcher and Jon Rubin's Rockridge store space — most of them are short-lived. Henslee would like to see Frankenart succeed, but she has no business plan. "It's something I have to do, and I believe it's possible it could be sustainable in the long run," she says. "I'm not counting on it necessarily. All I know is this is what I have to do at this moment in time. It's insanely fulfilling."

As for hot dogs, they're free (veggie ones, too) some Sunday afternoons. Check the Web site for dates.

About The Author

Traci Vogel

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