August 24, 2016

How Does Your Reefer grow?

What it takes to have a live pot plant in a museum

By Ryan Jones, OMCA Lead Preparator

With contributions from Claudia Leung

The staff at the Oakland Museum of California is often faced with unprecedented questions, but never before have they been asked to install a live cannabis plant inside a gallery. One of the most exciting and challenging aspects of putting together special exhibition Altered State: Marijuana in California—closing September 25—was figuring out how to do it right from a legal, logistical, and horticultural standpoint. Enter Dan Grace, the President and Co-founder of Dark Heart Nursery. Dan and his team at Dark Heart loaned the Museum the plants that are on view in the exhibition, and showed OMCA staff the ins and outs of growing pot. OMCA Lead Preparator Ryan Jones, who was in charge of fabricating and installing the exhibition, sat down with Dan to talk plants, transparency, and how the industry has responded to the show.

Ryan Jones: So Dan, how did you get involved with the project, and what inspired you to work with the Oakland Museum of California?

Dan Grace: You guys were researching the subject and were looking for more industry perspectives. Dark Heart Nursery is from Oakland, so of course we were interested. We love what you guys do here at the Museum, and we love that Oakland and California are pioneers in general, and on cannabis in particular. We’d often thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if OMCA ever took up this topic in some way?” The fact you guys came to us was total kismet.

How did you guys decide to have a live plant in this exhibition?

RJ: It was a key element that the exhibition team felt strongly about. It anchors the center of the space, and provides a live example of the topic. A lot of people are familiar with images or the finished product of cannabis, but far fewer people have experience with the plant itself. It was important to have it as a specimen. It all starts with a plant, and then all these different things are attached to it. Early on in the development of the exhibition, we actually considered “It’s Just A Plant” as a working title.

DG: It’s so much more.

RJ: It’s kind of a joke title because it’s really not just a plant.

DG: What was the most challenging obstacle to overcome in getting a plant into the exhibition?

RJ: The two big ones were pest-control and environmental maintenance. Museums have very specific requirements that need to be met for collections care and preservation. The other big question was how the Museum could take an adventurous approach to the topic, but not unduly open itself up to liability.

DG: Was the City of Oakland helpful in allaying your concerns?

RJ: Yeah. As a part of the early research, the team talked to the person who is in charge of the medical cannabis dispensary licensing for the City of Oakland to make sure that wasn’t going to be a concern. They even talked to the DEA agent that oversees our region. The city and state seemed okay, but there was still the, “Are the Feds gonna raid us?” question.

DG: Let’s talk about plants. What was the biggest surprise to you about growing cannabis?

RJ: That it’s relatively straightforward. I expected to be a lot more hands-on with the actual plant. I imagined they’d be super fussy and would need to be massaged or sung to or something. A lot of the equipment we ended up using was simple by design. But the fact that it is pretty much that simple.

DG: Shhh! You’ve figured it out now! You’re an official pot grower.

RJ: That’s the thing that cracks me up about saying how simple it is. The scale of what we’re doing is completely laughable compared with what professional growers are doing.

DG: Well, a lot of people grow on that exact scale. You’re capturing the one light closet grow—four plants with fluorescents.

RJ: For a variety of good reasons, cannabis growing is usually done under-the-radar. What was it like to work with the Museum to display cannabis plants in public and what led you to take that leap?

DG: It’s always a tough call in the industry—how transparent to be. I remember when we launched a website, people were like, wait, are we really going to do this? On the one hand, transparency is important to pushing the movement and the industry forward. On the other hand, a lot of people who have tried to be more transparent have been punished for that. We’ve been in the industry long enough that we’ve seen it go back and forth.

When you guys came to us and said the Museum is going to display a live plant in the exhibition, I thought you were naive, to be honest. I thought you were going to take it to the Board of Directors and it was never going to happen. But you were audacious and brave and got the clearance to do it. I said, “Hey man, if the Oakland Museum of California is going to be on the hook for this, we’re going to be right there with you.” We’re always eager to have community partners who are also willing to take a little bit of a risk. You don’t get that very often.

RJ: One of the goals of our exhibition was to present a wide range of unbiased information about cannabis to our community. How well do you think we did on that?

DG: The most critical piece of feedback I heard from the cannabis community was about the medical section. I think I understand why. The Museum looks at it from a very objective curatorial perspective. Because of prohibition, there’s not a lot of hard science out there about cannabis, and you guys are pretty clear about that in the section itself. But on the cannabis community side, especially in the Bay Area, we’ve been around medical cannabis for over 20 years legally, and decades before that. People have had such a long history of treating patients with cannabis and seeing the ways in which it helps a variety of ailments for people. Inevitably, from our industry’s perspective it’s going to seem like you could have gone a little bit farther. But if there are some people in the cannabis community who feel like the Museum wasn’t quite supportive enough, it probably means that you were considering balance.

What was the most interesting thing you learned about cannabis and the cannabis industry working on the exhibition?

RJ: It was definitely working with you on this project and getting an insider view. It’s awesome to know who our neighbors are and what people are building in Oakland. That extends to people who don’t necessarily get to be in public. It was an interesting portal into a world that I previously had no experience with. That’s one of the best things about my job. Every new exhibition is like, we’re going to do what now?

What was the experience of working with the Museum like for you?

DG: I feel fortunate to have been able to work with you. I’m proud of the plants every time I come in. I poke my head in, there’s someone checking out the plants, and I’m like, right on. I feel pride in being in Oakland and being an OMCA Member and a member of the community. I get to check another first off the list.

Altered State: Marijuana in California is on view through September 25, 2016.

The opinions expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect those of the Oakland Museum of California, its staff, Board of Directors, or other affiliated parties.