The Moms

Allison Harding

CuratorPhotography & Story by Lauri Levenfeld

I have been totally mesmerized by the images for the upcoming Asian Art Museum and SFMOMA collaborative show Gorgeous, co-curated by our next tmp mom, Allison Harding. The soiled foot bejeweled in a crystal heel by photographer Marilyn Minter challenges visitors to confront the extremes and ambiguities of beauty. This imagery provoked me to look more closely at the meshing worlds of fashion and art and how they collide and co-exist together. When fashion and art come alive together, the results are captivating, charming, unconventional and alive. We served up some of San Francisco’s beloved street and gallery art as the perfect backdrop to Allison’s closet desirables and TMP gave its own whirl of interpretation of gorgeous.

I’m Allison…I bought my first painting in middle school—a pop-inspired beach scene. Very 80’s. Today it hangs in my parents’ garage.  A visit to the Centre Pompidou in Paris when I was thirteen sparked my interest in contemporary art. In highschool I realized that art history was about interpretation—constructing an argument and defending it—not about memorizing titles and dates.  Which led me to college where I took an art theory seminar with MFA students and realized how much more I had to learn.  My art world education really began when I moved to New York after graduation.

I grew up in New Jersey and San Francisco, but Vermont feels the most like home.  As a kid, Vermont summers meant lake swims, ice cream cones, bike rides, books, and lightning bugs.

These days I happily endure twelve hours of excruciating travel with my kids so they can appreciate the rural life there as I do.

I have creative siblings. My brother Matt is an artist based in Brooklyn.  We’ve always been opposite sides of the same coin—he makes the art, I talk about it.  My sister is a stylist with an innate gift for combining color and pattern in unexpected ways.

I first laid eyes on my husband Keith on day one of college. In a sea full of navy blue blazers and khakis (Yale), Keith was rocking low-slung Dickie’s cut-offs, skate shoes, and a flat brimmed hat; surfing in a sea of prep school kids. He loved punk rock music.  He still does.

Since becoming a mom, everything that came before seems less important.  Jasper is my Led Zeppelin baby.  I listened to Jimmy constantly during my pregnancy. And so, I was not so surprised when Jasper recently told me that he wants to be a rock-and-roll frontman when he grows up (yes, please!). Lyle is my Grateful Dead baby. I was determined to have a mellow second child and thought long drives along the coast listening to Jerry and Bob would help. That didn’t work out quite like I hoped—Lyle is non-stop, high-speed action—but he gives the world’s best hugs and kisses me three times every night before bed.

In the fifteen years I’ve been a part of the art world, I have witnessed the growth of art centers around the globe and the shift toward Asia in particular,…

…the effects of financial cycles on the art market, the rise of art fairs and biennials, and the impact of technology on art practice, art history, and collecting.

I am an art historian and curator, with a focus on contemporary art. For the past four years, I have been the contemporary art curator at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.  After the opening of my latest exhibition, Gorgeous, later this month, I will start a new chapter as an independent curator for museums and private collectors.

I have been fortunate to work across the spectrum of art institutions—in an amazing commercial gallery, an artist’s foundation, and in museums.  These experiences have given me access to all aspects of the complex international art world.

A few years out of college, I worked on a exhibition of Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol at Gagosian Gallery. During installation, Larry Gagosian paired an inflatable bunny by Koons with a 1950s Warhol drawing, an unexpected combination given the work in the show.  It was masterful—these works together revealed new aspects of each other—formal relationships, historical convergences, and commentary on both artists early in their careers.  Watching this juxtaposition happen opened my eyes to the importance of smart curation. Gagosian made it look easy.   

In 2005, I traveled through Europe visiting private collections and museums on a mission to locate all the paintings and collages by Robert Motherwell for the artist’s estate. Keith joined me for the adventure. One afternoon we visited an elderly couple just outside of Basel.  Their home was incredible—wood, glass, and poured concrete, embedded in a hillside.They designed it themselves in the early 1960s. Inside was one of the most spectacular collections of art I’ve ever visited. Not the most historically important, the most expensive, nor with the biggest names, but the most cohesive.  This couple’s collection had a point of view.  They collected what they loved, what they wanted to live with—a range of German expressionism and postwar American abstraction, and many works thematically linked to music, their other shared passion. This collection resulted from trained eyes that reflected personal tastes and interests.  There was nothing trendy about these artists when they were collected, but fifty years later, almost all of them have stood the test of time.

I have had the pleasure to work with brilliant artists. Getting a glimpse into the creativity behind a work of art is one of the best parts of my job. Sometimes the simplest artwork comes from a complicated progression of ideas. When my friends in technology ask me about art, I usually tell them that art and tech share similar iterative process. There is research, there is an initial concept, and then, there’s a trial and error- a leap into a void. Both art and technology are about innovation—pushing an idea as far as it can go. Understanding these overlaps gave me a vocabulary to use when talking about art with science and tech-focused thinkers.

Artists’ writings are a source of inspiration for my work. I find myself returning to the same writings over and over—Louise Bourgeois, Robert Smithson, Donald Judd.  Their ideas might not relate to the work I’m doing at the moment, but the familiarity of their texts puts me into the right frame of mind to think creatively.

The question I am most asked is, “How do I start to collect?”  


My five get-it-started important tips:

1. Look at a lot of art.  All kinds. From all periods. Seeing a wide range of work will help you    develop your own eye.

2. Do your homework.  If an artist interests you, ask the gallery for her exhibition history and bio.  Ask to see other works. Take your time.

3. If you have the opportunity, visit artist studios.  If an artist is willing, they are the best spokespeople for their work.

4. Try to understand the conservation needs of an artwork you buy. Is it light sensitive? What is the best way to dust a sculpture? What kind of glass should protect it? Some art requires upkeep (but its well worth the effort!)

5. Most importantly, follow your instincts. Collect what you love.


What I look for in a work of art:

1. Is it visually captivating? I am drawn to work with immediate visual impact. It doesn’t have to be “scream in the face” impact, it might be “subtle whisper” impact, but I want a visceral reaction.

2. What is the idea behind the work? I gravitate to conceptual art, works that privilege the exploration of an idea.

3. Are 1 and 2 in sync? Do the visual aspects of the work resonate with the idea? Do they compliment each other in interesting ways, even if they create tension?  


Keith and I lived in Manhattan for almost a decade. Every time I go back to New York, it’s the right mix of adrenaline and familiarity. I walk everywhere, stopping at my favorite galleries and shops along the way.  The pace of New York energizes me. Some of my best friends live there and seeing them is a refreshing dose of laughter and raw honesty.   

I am inspired by moms who start businesses. I make regular visits to see Marion Pernoux at her spa Ensoma on 6th Street for head to toe maintenance. Not only does Marion give the best facials in town, but also her positive energy and beauty (the deep, inner kind) leave me feeling optimistic, calm. She has rotating art installations that infuse her light-filled space with creativity and color. Great tunes and chilled champagne complete the experience. Trust me. Try it.

I’m a jeans and t-shirt kind of girl, who throws on a leather jacket and 6-inch booties when I am running out the door to dinner. I like mixing highs and lows. Messy hair and bright lips. Torn jeans and a lacy top. And lots of accessories.


Kids: Jasper Milo-age 4-½ &  Lyle Henry-age 18mos


Since becoming a mom, I have started drinking coffee, I have realized the Honda Odyssey is much cooler than I thought, I have become an expert in the differences between front and side loader garbage trucks, and I work out less. I’m OK with it.  I’ve grown to appreciate how lucky I am to work in a field I love.  I’ve relaxed quite a bit and my priorities have  simplified.

Jasper and Lyle have taught me how resilient kids are. It is easy to become obsessed with schedules and nap-times but some of our best moments as a family have come spontaneously, when we find ourselves having a great beach day and say, “Let’s ditch the naps!” Sometimes we pay the price later, but giving our kids fun experiences and teaching them to adapt is worth a fussy bedtime.

My dad (a constant traveler) gave Jasper a globe so we can show him exactly where we are going when we hop on a plane. We also love Little Passports—kids get a package each month about a country around the world. Jasper loves to build and organize projects with his Bruder trucks and logistics kits.  At the end of the day, he listens to music with his Kidz Gear headphones.

Lyle is nonstop action. Following his big brother’s lead, he’s rarely at the park without his Mini Kick scooter. In Vermont this winter, we pulled him up and down snowy hills on a Emsco infant sled. Old fashioned finger paint and a 36- inch wide roll of butcher paper are Lyle’s creative outlet. We make regular trips to the Flax’s kids department for supplies, and to Bed Bath and Beyond for Folex Carpet Spot Remover.  

My most humbling mom moment happened when I left for the hospital to have Lyle earlier than expected. It was hectic, of course. I said goodbye to Jasper and we all walked outside the house.  Jasper grabbed me, Keith, and my mom and pulled us all together for a family hug. As much as we were trying to pretend everything was normal and calm, he could read the situation and he knew I was scared.  He knew we all needed a hug.

 My kids’ fashion style comes from their interests.  The Vermonter in us loves Carhartt kids clothes, especially the overalls.  They can stand up to the boys’ wear and tear and they have lots of pockets for their lego pieces and crayons. For afternoons at the park, I pack Patagonia Nano Puff jackets in my bag for the kids.  They are perfect when the fog rolls in and they need an extra layer.  Jasper’s favorite outfit is a superhero t-shirt with Gap colored skinny jeans and retro high-top Jordan’s from Undefeated. (Lyle prefers no clothes since a recent trip to Mexico.) I get the kids boardshorts from Haiden Surf and O’Neill wetsuits so they can have the most fun in Northern California surf.

Lyle’s room has a mid-century modern feel. He has Eames-inspired furniture by Oeuf, and bedding from Coyuchi.  Jasper needed lots of storage for his Legos, truck parts, and the millions of little toy pieces that seem to multiply with every year of age. Ikea’s Trofast system in white is the perfect solution. My kids’ rooms have art. Jasper’s most recent acquisition is a painting of a surfer by LA artist John Culqui.

When it comes to makeup, less is more for me. There are a few products I love. Suki exfoliating cleanser in lemongrass and sugar. MAxA is gentle enough for regular use and smells amazing. I use Evan Healy Rosehip serum as a moisturizer at night. Fresh Sugar lip treatments are my everyday go-to and I recently fell in love with L’Oreal Wet Shine Stain in Pink Rebellion for when I want a touch of color. I’m all about the messy bun when it comes to hair. It is hassle free and at the end of the day when I pull out the band, I have some loose waves that are perfect for evening. If I am feeling a bit girly, I wear Coqui Coqui perfume in Menti.

My sister describes my style as boho-chic with a touch of structure and a dash of the classics (having a stylist in the family is a huge plus!). My usual obsessions are Isabel Marant, Celine, No. 6 clogs, Calleen Cordero bags, jewelry from Potrero Hill’s own Urban Smith, a pair of Levi cut off shorts I’ve had since college, and Vans. I am perpetually on the hunt for the perfect white tank and the perfect oversized grey cashmere cardigan. I’d wear both everyday if I could.


Oh Allison, you have perpetuated the dangers of my job with a new & unruly list of must-haves. I am starting with the Calleen Cordero bag. And I am beyond excited to see more of your incredible eye at the opening party of the Gorgeous on June 20th. Tickets are still available, so come see this wonderful lady’s hard work.


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