As I See It, Yes
I have lived in San Francisco for almost thirty years and have witnessed its transformation from a relatively sleepy art community to a city with so many art-related performances and activities every day of the week that it would be impossible to attend them all. The transformation in the quality of the work shown here and made here has been exhilarating. There are far more artists now who live and work in the Bay Area who have viable national and international careers. We have more tools to promote our work beyond the region. Websites, blogs, podcasts, and catalogs make it far easier to disseminate work than back in the age of the dusty 35mm slide. Artists actively curate and write about each other’s work from serious critical viewpoints. Art schools seem to ingrain an awareness of the larger art world and how to navigate it. There are more talented young curators who are putting down roots here and are actively engaged in digging into the rich local art history. The vibrancy of the community is also manifest in the number of compelling small galleries and artist-run spaces that populate both San Francisco and more recently Oakland, like Et al., Capital, Royal Nonesuch Gallery, 2nd floor projects, Adobe Books Backroom Gallery, and so on.
Admittedly, there are certain dynamics that seem to remain constant. While generous local benefactors are trying to offset market forces in the current climate, the wobbly status of the typical local artist never seems to improve in proportion to the palpable local economic booms. The supply of affordable studio space, not to mention affordable living space, continues to dwindle to near non-existence. Not all, but most of our local museums have literally rebuilt themselves in these thirty years, but their programming has remained fairly consistent. That is, they continue to focus on internationally recognized artists, with a few outstanding local artists, such as Bruce Conner and Jay DeFeo sprinkled in. A little research reveals that among the top dozen galleries, scarcely a quarter dedicate more than fifty percent of their rosters to local artists. That is not to say that local artists can’t find representation, but the proportion of local artists shown in the most prestigious galleries has remained much the same over the years. Another interesting element of the ecosystem here is the passing but significant influence of curators who are recruited from the global circuit by the local art schools (California College of the Arts, San Francisco Art Institute, and Mills). Again, their focus remains primarily on bringing in artists from outside the Bay Area to lecture and exhibit, which we all benefit from, but at the same time, the inevitable departures of most of these curators to more prestigious institutions in larger art markets underscore our position in the pecking order with disheartening regularity.
One endearing constant for me is the generosity of the Bay Area artist community. Even as conditions in many ways have made survival in San Francisco more difficult, artists do find ways to stay in the area, and they work incredibly hard. They are endlessly generous in lending ideas, labor, and moral support to one another. Important nonprofits like Southern Exposure, Headlands Center for the Arts, and The Lab have been remarkably resilient as the fundraising landscape has shifted, and this is primarily due to the consistent donations of time and artworks made by local artists. In the process, these organizations have become leaders in the nonprofit arts field. When I first moved here I had the pleasure and great luck of befriending David Ireland, and he had a personal credo that missing a friend’s opening was a very dark mark on your character. Performances and openings here are often overflowing and feel very much like a celebration of community. I think that Tom Marioni’s ongoing practice of receiving fellow artists to his studio every Wednesday (a.k.a. Cafe Society) is a living precursor to the more recent “social practice” movement, which was enthusiastically embraced by younger artists here. Social media—like Facebook and Instagram—has furthered the connections that local artists feel with one another, and with communities beyond the Bay Area.
Ultimately, I think that there is a truth for artists that also applies to art communities, and it’s that you have to believe in yourself and in your mission, which is, to paraphrase Peter Schjeldahl—who’s paraphrasing Henry James—to create “a Great Good Place” in the “map of the world.” There is no organization or mechanism that can magically bestow relevance to any artist or art community. It’s the communal belief in the work of art that makes a place worth celebrating and contributing to, and I feel increasingly that the San Francisco art world understands this. At least to me, the Bay Area feels like a good place to be.