On the Ground: San Francisco

Glen Helfand on the ground in the Bay Area

“Eye of Sauron” on Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, Halloween, 2018.

FOR MUCH OF NOVEMBER 2018, raging wildfires made particulate matter levels dangerously high in the Bay Area. Eyes watered, schools closed, art openings and lectures were canceled. People fled to LA, never known for its air quality, for bluer skies. It became matter of course to wear N95 respirators if you could find them. Lines snaked around hardware stores, and San Francisco’s young, affluent demographic patiently waited for theirs, just as they do in queues for the latest must-have artisanal ice cream.

This is not to draw too emphatic a comparison between the arts and the effects of global warming, but the climate is changing in more ways than one—particularly in terms of the region’s ability to foster a thriving, sustainable art scene. The biggest shift is economic—San Francisco is a fucking expensive place to live. This financial influx may have brought some art into the mix, but it skews to the higher end, thus a shrinking number of midrange galleries.

I spent nearly eight hours on one of the worst air days at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I knew that the climate control would meet loan-agreement standards (and probably exceed human ones). Inside it felt safe. I could take deep breaths, and the shows, mostly traveling—the Guggenheim-organized “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World”; a Brassaï retrospective—were simply solid.

A notice from SFMOMA's Facebook page on November 16, 2018.

While there are always crowds at the museum since its reopening in 2016, the institution has been struggling to find its footing with local artists, curators, and collectors. It seems the larger scale has made its programs more difficult to understand: What once appeared to be a balance of tourism and art worldliness has now tipped to the former. It’s been difficult to see beyond the footprint of the Fisher Collection, for example, which claims long-term installs of mostly white, Western artists’ work—Alexander Calder, Ellsworth Kelly, William Kentridge, Anselm Kiefer, Sol LeWitt, Gerhard Richter, Richard Serra, Andy Warhol, and Agnes Martin (the lone woman who has her own room)—in a building that, from the outside, is meant to resemble a cloud.

In some ways, the museum, one of the largest in the nation, hasn’t yet filled the cultural void that was created during its three-year construction closure. They may still, but for the time being, the growing pains translate into a tone that seems to forget local artists and arts professionals. Certainly they pay attention to those living in the area—the SECA Art Award has been honoring Bay Area artists with exhibitions since 1967—but in a larger building, such a gesture simply takes up a lesser percentage of physical and marketing space.

Artists are still here (see Yerba Buena’s current “Bay Area Now 8” group exhibition for a regional survey), and many band together to rent space to work and show. With average rents in SF at nearly $3,500 a month, the economics are challenging. It has an effect on MFA programs, as students may be less likely to stay in such pricy terrain. Tech work has inflated real estate, and it has never been the art-market savior here. The “business” has, however, made its mark on the skyline: The notably phallic Salesforce Tower looms over downtown, its upper exterior sheathed in a permanent video piece by Jim Campbell that plays nightly footage, often of figures dancing high above the fray. On Halloween, just before the fires, I saw flames licking the building and thought it was an advertisement for a remake of The Towering Inferno. In actuality, it was a petition-driven, one-night only, Eye of Sauron–inspired monument to “a city built on creativity, exploration, and burning self-expression.” It was cast in the fantasy glow of Lord of the Rings, but it looked more like the place was in the thick of disaster.

So why stay?

Cate White, The Keys to the City + Addendum, 2016, acrylic, house paint, spray paint, neon paint, and glitter on canvas, 96 x 70”. From “Bay Area Now 8” at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

“One of the first things people said to me when I moved here two years ago was: ‘Get used to saying goodbye,’” Kim Nguyen, curator and head of programs at the Wattis Institute, told me. “And that’s been true—there are a lot of going-away parties. People leave to go to LA, to go east. People who never thought they’d leave the Bay are leaving. That is a sad aspect—what’s the long-term effect?”

There has been a recent flurry of curators and arts administrators leaving their posts—from the de Young, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Museum of the African Diaspora, much of SFMOMA’s education department. All of them have had their reasons, but the effect can feel ominous en masse. I went to a retirement party for Contemporary Jewish Museum curator Renny Pritikin, whose administrative role goes back to the 1970s alternative-space renaissance. It was a wistful event, centered around Pritikin’s well-received broadside titled Prescription for a Healthy Art Scene. The 2009 text is worth looking at now as a gauge. He prescribes a mix of factors, including dialogues, publications, sophisticated writers, hangouts, “adventurous collectors who buy locally,” and affordable studio space.

The latter is a prevalent issue here, as decent studios are unicorns in a tech-inflated housing bubble. The tragic 2016 Ghost Ship fire, which took place in an unpermitted space, has made industrial-building rental more complicated and expensive. As is a broader cultural trend, more and more privately funded endeavors are mixing non- and for-profit strategies. Minnesota Street Project, founded by entrepreneurs and collectors Deborah and Andy Rappaport, is the most conspicuous and ambitious example. They have created a neighborhood complex, in the rapidly gentrifying, on-the-road-to-Silicon-Valley Dogpatch district, which includes two buildings: one studio building, and another that houses arts-related offices and services. There are rotating rental spaces that allow galleries from elsewhere to create a presence.

I’ve rattled off lists, by no means comprehensive, that point to lots of activity. There was even a San Francisco ballot measure in November to support the arts through hotel taxes, and it won handily—the city still appreciates its creative residents. I feel cautiously optimistic about what this all might mean, and hope there will be fresh directions coming from new leadership. The fires are contained now, but I’ve got a mask in my bag, just in case the air gets bad again.