The plan was…to give folks from all over a reason to visit San Jose and, at the same time, to provide locals more opportunities for connecting with the global cultural scene.
Connecting artists and art lovers from the Bay Area and beyond
It was a lovely Sunday afternoon at the house of Anne Sconberg and Mark Henderson—the brainpower, along with partner Georgie Huff, behind Anne and Mark’s Art Party. The house itself, purchased in 2007, was instrumental to the start of the Art Party. After the title documents were signed, friends and family expected a fun housewarming. But they didn’t expect what came next. Creatives that they are, Anne and Mark did more than place wine on the bar and cheese on the table. Instead, they boarded up the windows of their new (though still empty) house, took down the chandeliers, put up track lighting, and invited family, friends, and friends of friends to come and hang their art on the walls. In the guise of a housewarming, with the aim to reconnect with old friends and to make new ones, the evening turned out to be the very first Anne and Mark’s Art Party.
This first San Jose event wasn’t Anne’s first art-themed housewarming initiative. Raised in Salinas, Anne moved to the Bay Area to attend Stanford. After graduating with a degree in English (and having taken many art classes along the way), Anne felt the wide world of adventure calling her name. Over time, she made her home in cities as far flung as New York, Paris, Adelaide, London, and Madrid. Each time she moved, she was eager to meet new people, and art seemed to be a great catalyst for making that connection. Her very first art-inspired housewarming was a release party for a filmmaker in Paris, where she was an apprentice for a fashion photographer while looking into attending film school herself.
Mark is no stranger to art either. Born in the UK, he grew up in New England, but later returned to the UK to attend college and study ceramics. The art of creating with his hands is still a major force in his life—no matter the project—which benefits the Art Party, as well. Then, to the creative synergy of Mark and Anne is added the practical business acumen of the third partner, Georgie Huff. Officially titled “Head of Everything” (everything, that is, but the art), she’s the catalyst that helps make the parties a reality.
More than 250 people attended that first party in the new house in San Jose. And about a year later, they wanted more. The house was in full remodel mode, yet with little hesitation Anne and Mark boarded up the windows once again. This time, though, they asked each first-year artist to nominate a new artist to participate so as to keep to the original intent of connecting with new people and building the community.
Year two of the Art Party spanned two houses about a block apart, with art cars lining the street between the houses. Inside one of the houses, a shaky staircase gave way to an empty and mysterious attic, which Anne and Mark, curators par excellence, thought perfect for a “Love Lounge,” a place for artists to exhibit secret, yet cherished, art pieces that would otherwise never be officially shown.
Ben Alexy, one of the original artists invited to that first party, still faithfully participates each year—though the size of his work never fails to challenge. That first year, Anne was mesmerized by his depiction of cows, a painting eight feet high and eighteen feet wide. She loved the work and thought it just the thing to show her ranching family that she’d not lost touch with her roots just yet. The largest living room wall that year measured eighteen feet, three inches wide. The omens were clear: this was where the oversized cows would hang. Two years later, Ben’s work stood at roughly ten feet high and twenty feet wide. No indoor wall was big enough, so Mark expanded the Art Party beyond the house and into an additional gallery tent in the yard. Over the years, Anne says, Mark has often adjusted the venue to accommodate Ben’s work.
The 2009 edition of the party also marked the introduction of fire as an integral element. An impressive flamethrower performance spurred Sam Liccardo (years before he was to become mayor of San Jose) to approach Mark to ask him whether he had adequate insurance coverage for the event. The following two years saw an expansion of the festivities into a 20,000-plus-square-foot warehouse, inspiring an influx of volunteers (some known to Anne and Mark, some not) offering to help in whatever way they could. The Art Party had become a true community icon, and people were hungry for more.
In 2013, Anne enrolled in a public planning and private development class at San Jose State. As it happens, her project for the class was to redevelop the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds. The creative possibilities of the grounds weren’t lost on her, and before long, the fairgrounds were being considered as the next Art Party venue. One year later, Anne, Mark, and Georgie took over the 34,000-square-foot venue with surrounding grounds and turned it into magic. The number of participating artists continued to grow through the annual nominating process. Fire and art cars had become a staple. The overwhelming stream of new ideas was fabulous, yet an increase in both funding and human power were needed to make them happen.
Anne and Mark see themselves as both innocent and ignorant for taking on the fairgrounds project. To pull it off, they relied on a widening circle of support—from the Kickstarter campaign for the new walls to the new curatorial team (Marc D’Estout, Tobin Wynne Keller, and Susan Leask) to the many and sometimes last-minute volunteers—and survived for months on two to four hours of sleep. And this fall, they’re doing it all over again.
At the moment, the official Art Party website has registered visits from 2,969 cities in 137 countries, and that is exactly the evolution Anne, Mark, and Georgie first envisioned for the party. The plan was never to limit participation and attendance to Bay Area residents, but rather to give folks from all over a reason to visit San Jose and, at the same time, to provide locals more opportunities for connecting with the global cultural scene. This year, party organizers have received applications from Russia to India, as well as one from a facilitator for artists in the Syrian refugee community. The sky’s the limit…except that it isn’t, not as long as the Art Party is not financially sustained and supported by a more elaborate team. For Anne and Mark, in the meantime, the Art Party has become a way of life, year-round. They forsake dinners out, movies at theaters, and other activities in favor of date nights at home so as to save every dollar possible for the next Art Party.
The Art Party’s mission has always been to attract the best talent and the most interesting people from the Bay Area and beyond—and to share that creative joy with all. Each year, the Art Party community gathers to celebrate art, music, fashion, the spoken word, fire, film, dance, and spectacle. The venue is always changing; the formats vary. And the 2016 edition promises more of the same, another dazzling evening of fun. Care to join in?
Written by Sieglinde Van Damme
Photography by Daniel Garcia
This article originally appeared in Issue 8.3 Show