Profit Free Zone: A (now dated) Survey of Bay Area Art
This article was published in Art Review (UK), The West Coast Issue, 2006. It an be cited here as: Buckner, Clark. “Profit-Free Zone: A (now dated) Survey of Bay Area Art.” www.clarkbuckner.com. Web. Day, Month, Year article as accessed.
The arts in San Francisco present a paradox. With fewer than a million people, and money that flows more easily into food, wine, and weekends in Tahoe than it does into artwork, the city is not a major art market; nevertheless, the Bay Area sustains a cosmopolitan art scene that contributes to national and international cultural trends.
Surprisingly, the absence of a major art market is both a curse and a blessing to the region. The Bay Area frequently loses artists to bigger markets like New York and LA, or to more affordable cities like Portland and Seattle. And the fact that artists and local arts institutions hardly benefit from the growing affluence of the area means that cultural life in the Bay Area is in danger of being eradicated – as the dot-com nineties made all too clear. But the limitations of the market also make the art scene intimate, accessible, and genuine. Bay Area arts have always been closely associated with the region’s history as a place for self-invention and social experimentation, and the dense concentration of excellent academic institutions in the area contributes to sustaining highly sophisticated art practices and cultural dialogues.
For many years, the heart of the local art scene has been San Francisco’s Mission District, which gave its name to the “Mission School” artists, including, among others, Margaret Kilgallen, Barry McGee, and Chris Johanson. The work of these artists is indebted to popular-culture, graffiti, and a generally lo-fi, almost pathetic, aesthetic, which risks caricaturing the local quality of the art scene with its hipsterism. The Mission School has contributed to a broader enthusiasm for drawing in the area, which often involves crude but rigorous patterning like the work of Xylor Jane, juxtapositions of images and text like the wall-drawings of Tucker Nichols, or expanded drawing techniques like Rosanna Castillo Diaz’s work with transparent tape, and Sarah Smith’s woodwork.
As a mark of the intimacy of San Francisco’s art scene, a focal point for artists in the Mission is Adobe Books: a small, dusty, old, second-hand bookstore, with a closet-sized gallery in the back curated by Eleanor Harwood. Around the corner from Adobe Books is Jack Hanley Gallery, which has drawn heavily from the local scene, and helped to find a national audience for Mission School artists. And across from Adobe Books is Creativity Explored, which, along with Creative Growth in Oakland, has contributed to making the Bay Area a strong center for outsider art.
Also located in the Mission are many of the community-based not-for-profit galleries, which support local artists and serious discourse on contemporary art. Most of these institutions were founded thirty or forty years ago – often in conjunction with broader social struggles – as artists recognized the need for exhibition venues that weren’t defined by the demands of the marketplace. Intersection for the Arts, for example, was originally Intersection for the Arts and Religion, and provided church-work to conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War. The shows at Intersection often integrate artwork with historical and scientific materials as a way to engage ideology in its own terms – i.e., the language of images. Another long-standing institution, Southern Exposure has recently done a particularly good job of defining trends in local and national art with shows like “The Way We Work,” which explored art as social praxis, and “Conceptual Craft,” which called attention to the tradition of refined technique within otherwise conceptual art. New Langton Arts has recently mounted strong shows of video and conceptual art by Kota Ezawa, Felipe Dulzaides, and Michele O’Marah, among others. And The Luggage Store combines contemporary art with community activism in shows that have recently included work by Iona Rozeal Brown, Mads Lynnerup, Packard Jennings, and Neckface. Several other major not-for-profits in the area have lately benefited from an influx of new blood after hiring new directors – including The Lab, The San Francisco Arts Commission, and SF Camera Work. Alongside these are many smaller, newer, artist-run not-for-profit and barely-for-profit galleries that put on excellent shows, sometimes with well established artists, including Pond, Triple Base, Queen’s Nails Annex, and Femina Potens.
The commercial galleries are concentrated downtown on a few blocks in the vicinity of “49 Geary.” They are diverse in their interests, and so difficult simply to hierarchize according to their “importance” to Bay Area art. But particularly strong shows in the last year or so bring several to mind. These include Braunstein/Quay Gallery, Stephen Wirtz Gallery, Fraenkel Gallery, Haines Gallery, Heather Marx Gallery, Catherine Clark Gallery, Stephen Wolf Fine Art, Rena Bransten Gallery, Lisa Dent Gallery, Brian Gross Fine Art, Gregory Lind Gallery, Crown Point Press, and Robert Koch Gallery. More remote commercial galleries include Charles Linder’s Linc Art, Bruno Mauro’s Ampersand International Arts, and Chris Perez’s Ratio 3. Among other national and international artists, both living and dead, some of the contemporary, local artists San Francisco’s commercial galleries exhibit include: Robert Arneson, Hung Lu, Tom Marioni, Sean O’Dell, Amanda Hughen, Doug Hall, Larry Sultan, Amy Rathbone, Harrell Fletcher, Victor Cartagena, Stephen Sollins, Paul DeMarinis, Michael Arcega, Chris Finley, Hank Willis Thomas, Jo Jackson, Julia Page, Ben Peterson, Dustin Fosnot, Anthony Discenza, Josephine Taylor, Ray Beldner, Robert Bechtel and Heidi Zumbrun.
Only blocks from the downtown gallery district, a “museum row” is in the works as part of a broader restoration and re-organization of San Francisco’s largest cultural institutions. SFMOMA is already there, along with The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. And, across the bay, The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive provides another important resource for the region, as do The San Jose Museum of Art, and The San Jose Institute for Contemporary Art, down the Peninsula.
Academic institutions in the area, including UC Berkeley, Mills College, Stanford, UC Santa Cruz, UC Davis, and San Francisco State, contribute to the art scene with exhibition space, as well as strong faculties and student bodies in both their art and humanities departments. Even more so, the local art schools, including The San Francisco Art Institute and The California College of Art bring established artists to the area, keep them here on their faculties, and produce large classes of skilled, smart, and ambitious young artists and curators, who often remain in the region and contribute to its growth.
The result is an art scene that stands apart from the major art markets in New York and LA, but nevertheless holds its own as a nationally and internationally recognized cultural scene. In fact, the strength of Bay Area art lies in its independence from primarily commercial trends, and the room this provides artists to cultivate their talents on their own terms, and in dialogue with the world around them.