Rumors About Death of the Bay Area Art Scene Are Greatly Exaggerated

The New York Times recently declared the San Francisco art scene dead, mostly, it seems, because two blue-chip galleries (one of which is in Palo Alto, not San Francisco) — Pace and Gagosian galleries — are leaving for Los Angeles.

Some of the reaction has been annoyance from artists who didn’t know they expired and consider this a bogus trend piece. Carolina Miranda, an art critic for the Los Angeles Times, he tweeted a gif of a man sobbing in the shower with a caption that reads, “But can California survive Gagosian leaving SF?” Art historian Tyler Green seemed more outraged than annoyed, calling this one of the “dumbest stories the NYT art section has ever published.” Artist and arts writer Sarah Hotchkiss clapped back with a piece on the myriad Bay Area fall art shows titled, “Reports of Our Visual Art Scene’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated.” I spoke with several Bay Area artists and curators who took issue with the article, penned by Adam Nagourney and Robin Pogrebin, which represents the publication’s market-focused approach to art.

Trisha Lagaso Goldberg, who co-curated the current Carlos Villa show Worlds in Collision at the Asian Art Museum, describes the article, as a “nothingburger.”

“I was like, ‘Are you serious? You’re trolling us again with the whole LA long shadow?’” said Lagaso Goldberg, who pointed out that both writers are White and neither lives in the Bay Area. “The article shouts out [Diego] Rivera and [Kehinde] Wiley and [Ansel] Adams, but there’s also Manuel Neri and Kathy Acker and Dewey Crumpler and Bernice Bing, and Carlos Villa of course — those stories power this place. We have a legacy of activism and organization here.”

Lagaso Goldberg added that Bay Area curators are trying to acknowledge that legacy, mentioning Lauren Schell Dickens at the San Jose Museum of Art, Abby Chen at the Asian Art Museum, Aleesa Alexander, and Marci Kwon, who started the Asian American Art Initiative at the Cantor Museum, and Eungie Joo and Jovanna Venegas at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Julie Rodrigues Widholm, the director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) posted a photo of herself with her colleagues in an Instagram response, writing, “Many of us work against white patriarchal capitalism as THE measure of all things important, good, and valuable in the art world so we know that the presence or absence of Gagosian or Pace does not make or break a community that has been doing important work for decades.”

BAMPFA wants to serve the entire community, Widholm says, and she cited the current exhibition, Undoing Time: Art and Histories of Incarcerationas an example.

“[The exhibition] addresses pressing social issues and it’s in line with Berkeley’s history of social justice. Most of the artists are artists of color,” she said. “We’re changing our programming so we’re looking and feeling and behaving like the East Bay.”

Catharine Clark, owner of her eponymous gallery, called the NYT piece “irresponsible,” “underresearched,” and “tired.”

Catharine Clark Gallery’s solo presentation of Ana Teresa Fernández’s work at the 2022 Armory Show in New York (courtesy Mikhail Mishin)

“I’ve been in [living] here almost 32 years,” she said. “Literally, the story never changes. We have an incredibly rich and vibrant arts scene here, and I resent being told we’re dying.”

Clark says she sees examples of this vibrancy every day, with strong support for women artists and artist residencies, such as a new one at the Headlands Center that was recently granted to artist Arleene Correa Valencia, a Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient.

Two artists Clark represents, Stephanie Syjuco and Ana Teresa Fernández, were among the 30 who had their work acquired by the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums with a $1 million grant from the Svane Family Foundation. This was a positive thing the NYT article mentioned, along with the opening of the Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco (ICA SF) next month.

Alison Gass, the director of ICA SF, credits the supportive arts community, (which she describes as a “rich ecosystem”) for preparing the institute to open in just one year. Its inaugural exhibition in October will be an exhibition titled Jeffrey Gibson This Burning World.

Griff Williams, an artist and the director of Gallery 16, which opened in 1993, says he has read some version of the NYT piece every couple of years. For him, it underscores the disconnect between the art market and the arts community.

“The Gagosians of the world don’t represent the art world any more than Merrill Lynch represents Main Street,” he said. “The idea that San Francisco is suffering because two mega dealers left and one wasn’t even in San Francisco, is silly.”

Williams co-directed the documentary Tell Them We Were Here with Keelan Williams about Bay Area artists including Sadie Barnette, Alicia McCarthy, Amy Franceschini, and others. Griff Williams, who followed a less commercial path, thinks the Bay Area community is tight-knit, but there’s no doubt artists are under all kinds of stresses, partly due to high rents.

Ron Saunders, an artist who co-founded the 3.9 Art Collective for Black artists in San Francisco, understands that sometimes people need to leave the Bay Area, like a couple of his friends, including Sam Vernon, who went to teach at Bard College, and Rodney Ewing, who is now represented by a New York gallery.

The cost of living in San Francisco makes it difficult for artists to make work, agrees Cristo Oropeza, an artist, gallery owner, and senior program associate at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA).

“The problem is having no physical space to allow for creativity,” he said. “That’s a hard truth I’m seeing.” He shares Williams’ opinion on the article: “Despite the Gagosian moving on, we don’t unbecome ourselves as a community. We show up for each other.”

As an example of artists doing that, Oropeza talks about SFMOMA’s latest Soap Box Derby in April. Artists have been participating in the event since the mid-1970s. They make their own unique vehicles — past examples include a swan, banana, and a sea creature — and race downhill.

“The voice of the artists that day was a lioness’ roar,” he said. “It was loud and it was profound and the message was ‘We’re still here for you.’”

Lagaso Goldberg says people are coming to San Francisco to see art, like Villa’s exhibition, the first by a Filipino American at a major museum. As a juror for the Murphy and Cadogan Contemporary Art Awards, she adds that she sees high caliber and rigorous work.

I am not quivering in my boots like there’s no good art being made in San Francisco,” she said. “Don’t talk to me about the arts community here suffering — that’s just not true.”

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