In the late 1960s, San Francisco was the epicenter of counterculture. Thousands of people converged on the city for gatherings of like-minded people who shunned mainstream society and embraced the free-thinking progressive nature of the hippie movement. During that time, the intersection of art, music and drug use was potent. Out of that, a new art form flourished: psychedelic rock and roll posters.
A new art center in San Francisco will feature those posters starting Saturday. The “Art of Consciousness” exhibit at the Haight Street Art Center runs through September and will display 90 posters from 1965-1967. Rare and never-before-seen posters from the most popular and regarded poster artists at the time — the Big Five — Alton Kelley, Stanley Mouse, Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso and Wes Wilson — will be among the posters shown.
The exhibit has some notable selections, including the poster for the last Beatles concert and a legendary Grateful Dead poster — called Hawaiian Aoxomoxoa —for a concert series in Hawaii that was eventually canceled. Legend has it, the posters for the shows were burned and only 20-25 of the original remain.
Psychedelic rock posters with trippy designs, bright colors and kaleidoscopic imagesserved as a way to advertise a gig, but they alsoconnected fans to bands like the Grateful Dead, the Beatles and The Family Dogg.
“What these posters amount to is the most durable and an exact history of the concert experience,” said Peter McQuaid, the executive director of the center and the former CEO of Grateful Dead Productions. “This is what’s left behind.”
McQuaid started the gallery with the help of venture capitalist and founder of Elevation Partners, Roger McNamee, to empower artists. The Haight Street Art Center operates as a co-op, so artists control their profits.
“The poster artists have been screwed for so long, we realized that there’s no way for them to get out of that hole unless someone changes the economics,” McNamee said.
For years, poster artists struggled to make money because theydidn’t retain the copyright on their work in the ’60s and ’70s. In the ’90s, the concert promoter business consolidated. Promoters commissioned a single artist to make a poster for an entire tour instead of asking an artist in each city as they did in the ’60s and ’70s.
Then came the internet. And posters weren’t the necessary advertising tools they once were with the advent of social media.
McQuaid wants to bring the art of posters back. The Haight Street Art Center space has supplies and materials for poster artists to make and sell their art.
“The idea at first was how about we get a place for them to make art and give them all the equipment and all the resources to be very economically competitive so they can do their art cheaper and faster than anywhere they can imagine,” McQuaid said. “And then that turned into a facility where they can show the art and sell the art and retain the value.”
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