The SF art scene, vilified by the New York Times, is hitting back

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Founding Director Ali Gass at the new Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco, which opened to the public on October 1 with artist Jeffrey Gibson’s exhibition This Burning World. Photo: Felix Uribe/Special for The Chronicle

It has been more than a month since The New York Times announced the imminent demise of the San Francisco art world due to the closure of two galleries.

That seems to have been premature.

In the weeks since, several major art shows have opened in the Bay Area, including the five-year anniversary show at the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, with commissions from local artists Sadie Barnette, Angela Hennessy, Clare Rojas, and Zio Ziegler. At the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s On the Edge Gala, Museum Director Thomas P. Campbell announced the second edition of the de Young Open Triennial, the jury-led exhibition open to artists from the nine boroughs of the Bay Area and in the it will be on view in fall 2023. And after a year of anticipation, the new Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco opened in October.

Not bad for a region that, according to the Times headline, is “struggling in the shadow of Los Angeles.”

The On the Edge Gala and Afterparty for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco at the de Young Museum on October 6 honored Mary Lovelace O’Neal and Guo Pei. Photo: Aaron Wojack/Special for The Chronicle

History had posited that the Bay Area art world was in trouble due to the closure of two local satellite galleries headquartered in New York. In September, the Pace Gallery in Palo Alto closed after six years. In 2020, the Gagosian Gallery South of Market closed after four years. The story also mentioned the loss of the San Francisco Art Institute last year, as well as broader city issues like housing costs, the vulnerable population, and the drug crisis.

Aside from Pace and Gagosian, the report by Adam Nagourney and Robin Pogrebin dismissed the broader Bay Area art world and pointed to Los Angeles as a city where artists “flee” for its vibrant gallery scene.

The reaction among members of the Bay Area visual arts community was swift and certain: The Times story, according to a consensus of those who spoke to The Chronicle, does not accurately represent the region, and they see no local decline.

The most common criticism of Times reporting has been that San Francisco should not be viewed through the lens of an art market, but rather as a larger arts community made up of many public and private institutions, as well as independent artists, creators, and patrons.

“If I got a nickel every time people said San Francisco’s cultural scene was dead for the last 25 years, I’d be a very rich man,” said Chad Coerver, executive director of the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum, whose director doesn’t take seriously statements that SF’s art scene is dead. Photo: Amy Osborne/Special for The Chronicle

Anthony Huberman, director of the Wattis Institute at the California College for the Arts, said in his experience, “The vibrancy of the arts community in an urban center is not judged by the presence or absence of blue-chip galleries.”

“Who decides that an art scene dies?” asked Oakland artist and filmmaker Adrian Burrell. “California is one of the biggest economies in the world and they can definitely support artists more, but to say a scene doesn’t exist isn’t fair to those who created it.”

In recent years, the Bay Area art world has taken a big leap and asked big questions about its priorities and its future, perhaps unsurprisingly in a region that prides itself on both activism and disruption. The pandemic and resurgent social movements of 2020 prompted many local artists and creators to call for a reassessment of institutional roles and expansions of their programs.

The Oakland Museum of California looks inward at its relationship with the community. Photo: Nina Riggio/Special for The Chronicle

The Oakland Museum of California and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco are among the institutions that have examined their internal structures and relationships with the communities they serve. New directors have also come on board at several museums, including Coerver, Veronica Roberts of Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center, Mari Robles of the Headlands Center for the Arts, Julie Rodrigues Widholm of the Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive, and Christopher Bedford of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which makes the opportunities for reinvention feel broad.

Other current developments are:

  • The launch of the San Francisco Guaranteed Income Pilot for Artists administered by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in 2021, a program that has since been replicated in other cities.
  • That same year, San Francisco Bay Area became a public art site during visual artist and San Francisco State graduate student Shimon Attie’s “Night Watch” floating installation, and San Francisco landmark Cliff House was the setting for the free environment of the Fore-Site Foundation Land’s End art exhibit.
  • San Francisco artists Lynn Hershman Leeson and the late Ruth Asawa were featured at this year’s Venice Biennale.
  • Existing museums such as OMCA, SFMOMA, and the Asian Art Museum have also seen major expansion projects, while the California College of the Arts broke ground on a new campus construction project this spring.
  • In November, San Francisco will premiere an ambitious public art project in the city’s new central subway stations, featuring the work of 10 local artists, including Jim Campbell, known for his LED light installations, and photo artist Catherine Wagner.
Acrylic resin cylinders filled with seawater in Ana Teresa Fernández’s Cliff House, part of the Fore-Site Foundation’s free environmental art exhibition “Land’s End”. Photo: Ana Teresa Fernández 2021

But rather than looking to a specific event or institution as validation of the vibrancy of the local arts scene, most pointed to the collective whole of the region and the interactions between artists, institutions and individuals that make it work.

“I keep coming back to the ecosystem idea,” said Widholm of BAMPFA, who said one of the reasons she took her job in 2020 was the symbiosis of the Bay Area art community. “For this to work, we need strong art schools, galleries, institutions and artists who can live here.”

Gallery owner Jeffrey Fraenkel doubled down, adding, “One advantage of San Francisco is that it’s not New York.

“Galleries don’t fight for their artists and for collectors,” he said. “San Francisco is not only an international market, but also a community.”

Many see respect for the values ​​of cooperation and collaboration as key for a new institution or gallery trying to find its place here. Gallerist Catharine Clark has been outspoken in her assessment of out-of-town galleries that are ignorant of local culture and its priorities.

“It’s quite a situation where they rushed into, didn’t invest in the community and thought they were going to be successful,” Clark said. “It doesn’t happen like that here.”

Jessica Silverman in June 2021 at her then newly opened gallery in Chinatown. Photo: Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle 2021

Clark and others also debunked the notion that local galleries are struggling. For her part, Clark said her gallery doubled its earnings between 2019 and 2022. Oakland’s Johansson Project’s Kimberly Johansson said she tripled her previous business this year.

Several galleries have also expanded in recent years: Jessica Silverman moved from the Tenderloin to larger premises in Chinatown, while Cheryl Haines moved to Fort Mason this year. Both Micki Meng and Aimee Friberg opened second gallery spaces, and Galerie Wendi Norris opened this fall in a new HQ in Jackson Square.

Smaller, community-oriented galleries have also seen a resurgence, with projects like Jeremy Fish’s Fish Tank Gallery in North Beach and the queer-focused Schlomer Haus gallery in the Castro.

Deborah Rappaport, who founded the Minnesota Street Project arts center and non-profit Minnesota Street Project Foundation with her husband Andy Rappaport, said she felt the Times report particularly overlooked the fact that major international galleries like Pace and Gagosian “wouldn’t have a business without arts communities like San Francisco with experimental, creative artists and galleries.”

Shown in 2015, husband and wife Andy and Deborah Rappaport created the Minnesota Street Project, an art gallery space. Photo: Michael Macor/The Chronicle 2015

But that doesn’t mean everyone believes the Bay Area’s art ecosystem works.

San Francisco gallery owner Karen Jenkins-Johnson, who told the Times she would be opening a new showroom in Los Angeles in addition to her galleries in the Minnesota Street Project and Brooklyn, had some tough words for the city.

“When I opened my gallery in the 90’s, San Francisco was an art destination. But then when the dot-com started coming in — raising the rent, pushing out the artists — people started closing down and moving out,” she said in the Times article. “San Francisco started to lose its artists, its art scene, lost its positioning that it had for a very, very long time.”

John Lindsey, who founded the Great Highway gallery in the Outer Sunset District, said that while he felt the Times article oversimplified the scene in some ways, he felt San Francisco’s dedication to the Loyalty in the art world sometimes “comes at the expense of clique -y and exclusive.” He sees the art world in Los Angeles as both larger and more economically diverse.

Photographer Michael Jang (left) speaks with Jim Sottile during the Art Bash at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in April. Photo Credit: Laura Morton/Special for The Chronicle

Despite the obstacles, the Bay Area art scene continues to attract significant newcomers.

When Thomas P. Campbell moved to San Francisco in 2018 to take over the direction of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco after more than eight years as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, he was “impressed by the chemistry of the Art, design, activism and innovation that are so unique to the Bay Area.” In the years since, that impression has been borne out by his interactions with artists, collectors, galleries and peer arts institutions in the region.

SFMOMA’s Bedford, new to the Bay Area after six years at the Baltimore Museum of Art, said he found San Francisco “to be a city and an arts community strongly guided by values, which I found tremendously refreshing.” It’s a diverse city that values ​​innovation, risk-taking and the new.

“Our local address,” Bedford added, “can be global” in its reach.

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