by Zachary Royer Scholz
Article from Art Practical
Image: Tom Marioni. The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art, 1970; installation view, re-creation at SFMOMA, 2008.
San Francisco’s world-renowned art museums have made the region a highly visible art-tourist destination, but Bay Area artists have comparatively struggled to get the work they produce seen by international audiences or exhibited at the institutional level. Over the years, this disjunction has forced San Francisco’s artists to create opportunities for themselves. Their actions have given rise to alternative venues that today help make San Francisco a creative hotbed, yet a gap still exists between these venues’ grassroots activities and more broadly visible commercial and museum programming. However, a number of commercial and hybrid art spaces, empowered by the global reach of new technologies, are linking these previously separate spheres. These emergent art venues are stitching together San Francisco’s alternative, commercial, and institutional art activity, and by doing so, are opening pathways through which local artists may now be able to garner the international recognition they warrant.
San Francisco has several significant art museums. The world-class collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), the de Young Museum, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco are augmented by other superb, publicly accessible collections scattered across the Bay Area, including the San Jose Museum of Art, the University of California’s Berkeley Art Museum, and Stanford University’s Cantor Art Center. This institutional core is further expanded and diversified by specialized programs, such as the Museum of Craft and Folk Art, the Cartoon Art Museum, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the Museum of the African Diaspora, and the Oakland Museum of California, and ambitious non collection-based exhibition programs, such as those of California College of the Arts’ (CCA) Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, the Chinese Cultural Center, San Francisco Art Institute’s (SFAI) Walter and McBean Galleries, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.1
Like most public museums, San Francisco’s art institutions have been built from private collections—substantial inaugural gifts created them, and subsequent gifts further grew their collections and shaped their missions. For example: the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art grew from 1,100 artworks and a purchase fund donated by private collector Albert M. Bender in the late 1930s and has continued to expand through similar donations right up to the recent, highly publicized incorporation of Doris and Donald Fisher’s collection.
Because they have been built from private collections, San Francisco’s museums remain inflected by the tastes that formed those collections. For a variety of reasons, San Francisco’s collectors historically did not acquire much regionally produced art, and these tendencies have been transmitted to the museums their collections helped grow. An extreme illustration is the Palace of the Legion of Honor. The Legion was constructed in 1924 to replicate the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition’s French Pavilion, which was itself a three-quarter-scale replica of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris. Built by sugar magnate Adolph B Spreckels and his wife, Alma, the museum originally housed their collection, which, not surprisingly, given their choice of building design, was eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French art. Later, donations by Roscoe and Margaret Oakes fleshed out northern European painting from the same era with significant works by Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt van Rijn. And a subsequent gift of part of Samuel H Cress’ collection added works by southern European painters such as El Greco and Giovanni Battista. As a result, the Legion’s continued acquisitions and programming advance this focus on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European art.
With San Francisco’s private collectors overlooking contemporary, locally produced work and museum programs mirroring their myopia, San Francisco’s artists have historically been left to fend for themselves. Their resulting survival strategies included the collective efforts of the San Francisco Art Association at the turn of the last century and later, art projects funded by the Works Progress Administration. These strategic alliances allowed San Francisco’s artists to weather neglect by local collectors but did not result in significantly increased representation within the city’s growing museum collections.
After World War II, artists found yet another path. Suburbanization allowed artists to colonize San Francisco’s abandoned urban core, and cheap rents enabled many of them to open experimental art galleries. Some of these artist-operated art spaces, like the famous Six Gallery—founded by Deborah Remington, Wally Hedrick, John Ryan, Hayward King, David Simpson, and poet Jack Spicer—took over light industrial buildings in San Francisco’s Marina district. Others, like Buzz, run by artists Paul Alexander, George Stanley and Bill Brodecky Moore in the Fillmore, operated out of their proprietors’ homes.
This was the first moment in which artists, accustomed to displaying work for wealthy, potential clients, created galleries in order to display art to other artists. Not catering to patrons’ conservative tastes, the works displayed and even the spaces themselves were radical experiments. For his 1960 solo exhibition at the Batman Gallery, Bruce Connor painted the entire space black—floors and walls included. The gallery owner, Billy “Batman” Jahrmarkt, liked Connor’s inversion of the typically white gallery so much he kept the space painted black for all his subsequent shows.
San Francisco’s upstart galleries in the 1950s helped create a bohemian art scene that exploded in the ’60s as it was popularized by the growing youth counterculture. Most of the original Beat art spaces ceased to exist, but their artists-centered ethos informed the crop of exhibition spaces that grew up in the ’70s, a number of which became 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations to take advantage of public funding from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as various other state and federal initiatives. These supportive venues fostered San Francisco’s ongoing artistic explorations—including significant developments in conceptual practice, performance art, video art, and film—and codified what has become the city’s current alternative terrain. Some of these early organizations, such as Southern Exposure and Intersection for the Arts, still survive. Their diverse programming has evolved over the decades and been influenced by the gay rights movement, punk rock, the AIDS epidemic, and the urban rustic movement.
Today San Francisco’s alternative art spaces exist as both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. They are run by individuals, small partnerships, large collectives, appointed boards, and advisory committees. They physically manifest in a variety of places, including converted warehouses, storefronts, actively operating businesses, private homes, and public spaces. They function in myriad ways: as galleries, project or performances spaces, residencies, public interventions, educational institutions, social hubs, and nomadic activities. Alternative venues provide invaluable exposure for emerging artists. As in the past, they support experimental projects untenable within the art market and play an instrumental role in the continued development of media, performance, sound art, and interventionist practices, as well as more recently emerging forms that that fall under the rubric of social practice.
San Francisco’s dynamic alternative art spaces have been further energized by the Bay Area’s many high-caliber art schools, starting with CCA and SFAI, which every year attract hundreds of aspiring creative producers and graduate eager, newly minted artists, curators, critics, and art historians. This dramatic grassroots expansion has ironically exacerbated an already awkward situation. San Francisco’s many alternative art spaces provide a wealth of early exhibition opportunities and the capacity to initially nurture young artists’ careers, but the lack of corresponding commercial opportunities stymies further career growth for many artists.
Artists and experimental artist-run spaces are a critical prerequisite for a thriving art scene, but they are not in and of themselves enough. Though separate from the art that artists produce, the people and institutions that constitute the art world’s superstructure—like broadcasting towers—make local artistic production visible to broad international audiences. Whether art dealers, curators, or art critics, these professionals and the galleries, museums, and art centers they operate act as filters, interpreters, and champions for the art being made. The publications and venues they enable are not only sites of commerce and critique but are also generative structures that create far-ranging and supportive visibility.
San Francisco has seen an exciting growth in these sorts of structures in recent years and an increasing connection between them and the local art community. In 1997, Rene and Veronica di Rosa’s visionary collection of Northern Californian art opened to the public, and three years later it became a nonprofit public trust that also hosts exhibitions of innovative Bay Area art in its Gatehouse Gallery. More recently, ambitious new nonprofits, such as the Kadist Art Foundation, are generating programming that is not only further connecting the local creative, curatorial, and critical community but is linking it to international initiatives, actions, and publications. The region’s emerging curatorial and museum studies programs have also substantially contributed to this trend. Graduates from CCA, SFAI, and San Francisco State University’s programs carry their intimate understanding of San Francisco’s local art scene with them as they create their own spaces, rise within the city’s art institutions, and pursue careers elsewhere. These programs also import interesting international curators as instructors who create the potential for cross-cultural exchange and potential future opportunities across the globe. Their exhibition venues also play an increasingly connective role. For example, Jens Hoffman, director of CCA’s Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, and Hou Hanru, director of SFAI’s Walter and McBean Galleries, have actively included less-well-known local artists alongside the international art stars that populate their far-ranging exhibitions.
As San Francisco’s grassroots art activity has continued to grow and high-level cultural institutions have become more invested, there has not been a corresponding expansion of commercial galleries, a limitation that impedes the development of a fully integrated local art scene. As in the past, most artworks in museums come through private collectors, and private collectors buy most of their art from commercial galleries. Alternative art spaces are not usually set up to sell the artworks they display, and, though the pieces they exhibit may eventually end up in museum collections, the emerging status of these artworks makes them too untested for most museums to acquire immediately. Even established non-collecting exhibition institutions, such as the Wattis Institute or Walter and McBean, which often display works by well-known artists that museums are actively collecting, are not structured to facilitate direct acquisition.
These structural hurdles make commercial galleries the primary conduit through which locally produced artworks must pass in order to enter either private or public collections. But San Francisco’s relatively small number of commercial galleries has limited the opportunities for San Francisco’s collectors to purchase locally produced artwork.
San Francisco has never been without commercial galleries. There were galleries selling art during the gold-fueled art boom of the late 1800s, galleries that weathered the 1906 earthquake, galleries that survived both World Wars, and galleries that made ends meet before Silicon Valley fueled the city’s real estate boom and rapid expansion of wealth. However, San Francisco’s galleries have historically catered to its collectors’ conservative European-centric tastes. There have of course been exceptions with pioneering contemporary galleries, such as Dilexi Gallery and Gallery Paule Anglim, playing seminal roles in the emergence of Beat art, assemblage, and West Coast Conceptualism. But limited contemporary gallery opportunities have long stymied local artists’ aspirations and have prompted many to leave San Francisco or focus on exhibiting elsewhere.
Commercial opportunities have increased in San Francisco since the ’50s when, as Rebecca Solnit described, “just to choose to live in San Francisco seemed… a decision to forgo a career. What gets called ‘the art world’ hardly existed, for there were almost no galleries or chances to sell work.”2 However, even as the number of contemporary galleries has increased, San Francisco’s commercial art opportunities have remained inadequate due to issues of scale. As gallerist Stephen Wolf explained, “San Francisco is a small city with too few contemporary collectors to support a lot of commercial galleries.” This geographic limitation has been exacerbated over the years as the continual influx of artists has given San Francisco more artists per capita than any other American city.3
The imbalance between San Francisco’s finite size and its dense concentration of artists assures that there will always be an insufficient number of contemporary galleries to provide adequate commercial opportunities for all of the city’s artists. However, a growing number of exhibition venues hold the promise to widen the current bottleneck and more effectively channel locally produced art into both private and museum collections. These spaces are capitalizing on the increasingly diffuse visibility and interconnected paradigm of the contemporary art world. They use digital technologies and network-based structures to generate resources and connect to collectors beyond San Francisco’s geographic boundaries. The far-flung networks made possible by global art investment, travel, digital imaging technologies, the Internet, and art fairs allow these spaces to generate sales and create far-reaching visibility for the artists they exhibit. Such strategies enable these spaces to survive and even thrive without depending exclusively on the patronage of San Francisco’s limited collector base. Simultaneously, this increased outward focus is counterbalanced by deep local involvement, as many of these emerging galleries have forged strong links to both San Francisco’s established commercial art gallery system and the city’s alternative art spaces and energies.
This growing crop of young galleries owes much to Jack Hanley, whose exhibition program over the past two decades successfully connected international collectors to San Francisco’s grassroots creative community. By exhibiting relatively unknown local makers alongside internationally recognized artists, such as Erwin Wurm, Andrea Zittel, Raymond Pettibon, and Rirkrit Tiravanija, Hanley transformed many San Francisco artists into overnight art stars. His integral role in elevating the work of artists like Chris Johanson, Barry McGee, and more recently Leslie Shows and Tauba Auerbach may be Hanley’s most visible legacy, but his gallery also inspired a host of admiring adherents to open galleries of their own. Some of these galleries actually grew directly out of Hanley’s exhibition space. Dina Pugh of Triple Base Gallery worked for Jack Hanley before opening the gallery she now runs on Twenty-Fourth Street in the Mission. Ava Jancar, of Jancar Jones Gallery, continued to be Jack Hanley’s gallery manager while founding her own gallery with partner Eric Renehan Jones.
When Jack Hanley left San Francisco in 2010, many feared that his absence would create a significant void. Instead, it is becoming clear that Hanley’s departure was, in fact, a boon. Free from his dominant shadow, new galleries and exhibition styles have readily emerged. And, now based in New York, Jack Hanley serves as an East Coast emissary for the many San Francisco–based artists he still represents.
Stylistically, these newer spaces run the gambit from the dapper, rough-hewn hominess of Triple Base Gallery to the downtown polish of Frey Norris Contemporary & Modern. Whether their spaces are big or small, their jackets metal-studded or pinstriped, these young dealers are ambitiously advancing programs that represent both local talent and emerging national and international artists. The impressive exhibitions at young commercial galleries, such as Romer Young, Guerrero Gallery, and Gallery Hijinks, indicate a willingness to take experimental risks that puts these programs in direct dialogue with San Francisco’s alternative and experimental art spaces while they exhibit high-caliber artwork connecting them to San Francisco’s established collectors and museums.
While many of these emerging spaces employ relatively straightforward commercial strategies, some, such as Park Life store and gallery, have created hybrid retail strategies that use the sale of art objects, books, and editions to support their exhibition programming. Such auxiliary commerce builds on long-used strategies that in the recent past were refined by pioneering spaces like Griff Williams’ Gallery 16, which runs an exhibition program and publishes artist editions and books through its in-house fine art printmaking company Digital Urban Color. Other emerging spaces, such as Chris Fallon’s Partisan Gallery, are reinvigorating the residential art space model. Partisan hosts ambitious exhibitions in Fallon’s Victorian apartment that intermix pieces by artists represented by some of the city most prestigious galleries with artworks by relative unknowns. Always seeking new ways to create visibility, Partisan launched an eponymous quarterly art magazine in June.
The energy and new strategies employed by emerging spaces are also invigorating San Francisco’s more established commercial galleries. Exhibition venues such as the venerable Gallery Paule Anglim, which has been at the forefront of West Coast contemporary art since 1970; galleries that came to the fore in the late ’80s, such as Haines Gallery; and galleries that emerged within the past decade, such as Ratio 3, have readily embraced far-ranging network-based opportunities. Together the increased and integrated activity of San Francisco’s primary-market commercial galleries, new and established, is beginning to substantially link San Francisco’s wealth of under-the-radar artistic activity to the collectors and museums from which it has been alienated for so long. This newly integrated energy is making San Francisco a place where even dealers from elsewhere can now envision setting up shop. Claudia Altman-Siegel of Altman Siegel Gallery made the move from New York in 2009 and has been putting on consistently impressive shows at her 49 Geary Ave. space for the past two and a half years.
The best indication that this growing visibility and interconnection is beginning to become a self-reinforcing loop is the recent activity unfolding at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The museum, through its Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art (SECA), has been supporting contemporary art since the society’s founding in 1961. Since 1967 it has visibly honored numerous local artists through SECA’s biennial art award. Over the years, the museum has purchased works by many SECA award winners. This presence of contemporary local art in the museum’s collection has generated greater interest in acquiring contemporary works by other Bay Area artists and in involving local artists, such as Vincent Fecteau, in reinterpreting the museum’s collection. For the 2009 exhibition Not New Work, Fecteau mined the depths of the museum’s collection to select twenty-five works, most of which had rarely or never been exhibited though long part of the collection.
The museum’s Anniversary Show gave heightened visibility to its growing incorporation of local art by prominently featuring numerous works by Bay Area artists in its celebration of its seventy-fifth anniversary, notably Larry Sultan, Barry McGee, and Rigo 23. The museum even went so far as to use an artwork by SECA award winner Leslie Shows as the cover for the show’s hefty exhibition catalog. Subsequent to the Anniversary Show, the 2010 exhibition Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870, prominently featured work by SECA award winner Trevor Paglen alongside photographers such as Man Ray, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Nan Goldin. The January 2011 exhibition Long Play: Bruce Conner and the Singles Collection, while centered on the work of seminal Bay area artist Bruce Conner, also featured video works by San Francisco video artists Anne Colvin, Kota Ezawa, John Davis, and Anne McGuire.
SFMOMA’s increasingly prominent display of locally produced art is exemplified by the exhibition The More Things Change, whose year-long run ends November 6, 2011. The exhibition consists of an evolving selection of contemporary artworks drawn from SFMOMA’s permanent collection. Created between the years 2000 and 2010, the included artworks present both a portrait of art making over the past decade as well as a record of the museum’s recent collecting.
A remarkable number of the works in The More Things Change are by Bay Area artists. These include works by both older mainstays, such as Jim Goldberg, as well as younger artists, such as Rosana Castrillo Díaz. The exhibit also features work by artists such as Mitzi Pederson and Tauba Auerbach, who were formerly based in San Francisco but have since moved away. One of the works on view, 10,000 Leaves in Darkness (2011), by Bay Area–based artist Andrew Schoultz has been so recently added to the collection that his name doesn’t appear in the exhibition’s wall text. Schoultz’s work will also be paired with holdings by the Modernist Paul Klee in a two-person exhibition running through January 8, 2012.
In a special project commissioned for The More Things Change, San Francisco artist Stephanie Syjuco took localism over the top by creating Shadowshop, which featured and sold products made by more than two hundred local artists.4 Syjuco’s project defined itself through localism, but one of the most impressive aspects about the rest of The More Things Change is that it does not. The locally produced artworks included in the rest of the exhibition are not designated as such. They exist alongside works made in New York, Los Angeles, Europe, and Asia and hold their own without caveat, just as they do in exhibition programs at contemporary art galleries, not only in San Francisco, but also across the globe.
The exciting shift in SFMOMA’s recent exhibition activities suggest that the expansive networks being tapped by San Francisco’s young commercial galleries, in combination with the increased activity of the city’s existing commercial venues, is beginning to successfully connect the creative energies of alternative art spaces and educational institutions to the institutional visibility of cultural centers and museums. Within this shifting paradigm, San Francisco’s exhibition venues, rather than simply continuing to present art from the rest of the world to San Francisco, can begin to turn their programming toward the critical task of making San Francisco’s art visible to the rest of the world. This growing integration will hopefully continue and eventually form a functional art ecosystem in which local artistic production can gain the international visibility and recognition it deserves. At present the future is looking bright.