Artists’ Markets: Parking Lot Art Fair and stARTup Fair

Op-ed

Artists’ Markets: Parking Lot Art Fair and stARTup Fair

May 19, 2015

The Op-Ed column is a space for readers and contributors to sound off about Art Practical's content and to contribute to the larger conversation about Bay Area art which Art Practical supports.


San Francisco’s cultural metabolism is governed more by economics and property values than by its quality of content or vibrancy of its creative communities. Our limited land is at a premium, forcing conventional art galleries into a crisis and further dividing an already disparate community. Artists without representation look to invent new ways to garner support and, frankly, to keep their communities intact. An addition to the collateral damage of our affordability crisis is the unavailability of exhibition and sales opportunities for artists of color or members of historically underserved communities. This weekend San Francisco saw the launch of stARTup Fair and the Parking Lot Art Fair, two new artist-driven projects providing divergent approaches to the paradox of cultural production in an increasingly unaffordable city. Both are designed to benefit a certain sliver of the overall arts community, and both are necessary elements lending vibrancy to our arts ecosystem, yet a larger question about how we are ensuring a culturally diverse commercial and nonprofit arts sector still looms unanswered by these fairs. 

As spin-offs of the larger and duller Art Market San Francisco, located in the Fort Mason Center, the Parking Lot Art Fair and stARTup position themselves in conceptual opposition to and within walking distance of this main fair. The Parking Lot Art Fair, as the name suggests, is located in the Art Market parking lot, while stARTup is located at the kitschy Hotel Del Sol, a nearby 1950s-style motel. The locations of these fairs were predicated on the assumption that a public would be shared between them. I believe that these were instead three distinct communities with unreconciled interests.  

More specifically, each fair served only a portion of the overall arts community in the Bay Area, niche markets within a complex system. According to their website: “The Parking Lot Art Fair is a renegade, DIY, artist-driven fair/happening. This fair will ask for no entrance fee for participants or patrons, and take no percentage of artist profits.” For this conceptual project by Jenny Sharaf and Emily Reynolds, dozens of artists brought their artwork, poetry, actions, and activism to the Fort Mason parking lot for what felt heartwarmingly more like an art tailgate than an art fair. Hugs abounded and hot food was passed freely around the audience, mostly those baptized in the waters of conceptual and contemporary art.  

At the lot’s entrance, the first visible piece of art was a sandwich board with gold letters by Jon Gourley saying, “Honk if you like unpaid labor.” This piece comically denoted the resignation of a population making work without hope of recompense or remuneration. The event organizers had made it clear that neither sales nor temporary walls were allowed due to permitting restrictions. 

The event was an all-too-brief, low-risk moment of admirably grass-rooted art chaos. From 8 a.m. until about 1 p.m., laughter rang out as Scott Vermeire, Packard Jennings, and Steuart Pittman of Wonderment Consortium, as Sunshine Alliance, performed their signature pseudo-corporate stand-up stylings from a roving industrial golf cart. Colpa Press’ wonderfully playful and aptly named “Kunst Haul” took the more “high class” approach, renting a large box truck and decking out the interiors with white walls, vinyl text, and wood floors. Inside they curated the type of hip group show that would be at home in any white cube. (“Kunst Haul” is a double entendre conflating the German phrase for a community art space, “kunsthalle,” and “U-Haul.”) Alongside Kunst Haul, Cathy Lu displayed her signature bloodied ceramic fruits, but also gifted visitors with ceramic paintbrushes made on the spot with one-of-a-kind ceramic handles and a lock of the participants’ own hair. Shaghayegh Cyrus draped her vehicle (and herself) in painted renditions of Persian carpets covered in plastic military toy soldiers, while around her a pair of performance artists smushed avocados all over their bodies and dripped ice from their mouths across flesh reddened by rolling around on the rough pavement.  

An impossible-to-hear panel discussion ensued in one of the parking spaces, curated by the program directors. The talk featured local writers and educators Mark Van Proyen, Maria Porges, and John Zarobell, but anyone outside the immediate cluster of ten to twelve audience members were hard-pressed to discern anything that was being discussed. This unfortunately was a disservice to the audience and to the speakers as they seemed to have interesting things to say, and I would have loved to have been able to participate, even passively as a listener, but was blocked by the setup and lack of amplification. People are hungry to hear, engage, and participate. To set up a community discussion that is impenetrable, by accident of spatial logistics or by inconsiderate technical considerations, is unfortunate and a missed opportunity to learn, connect, and deepen the public’s understanding of the project’s concerns. 

stARTup is a for-profit venture for independent artists with an entrepreneurial mindset, founded by artist Ray Beldner and gallerist Steve Zavattero, formerly of Marx and Zavattero Gallery. There is an application fee and a panel of deciding judges. Selected artists then pay again for the room in which they display their art and manage all aspects of installation, delivery, and sales. Artists retain 100% of profits. This niche of the overall arts community featured artists creating viable products that are commodities, paintings, photographs, and some limited sculpture. Few conceptual, time-based, or community-focused artists were present.

The organizers unabashedly say that people should get paid for their work and imply that artists themselves should develop options in which this can happen. To many artists, the premise of this fair seems like a problem. There is a conventional assumption that artists should not have to “pay to play,” given that only artists with money will be successful. Many believe that artists should focus on making artwork and defer the cost of displaying, marketing, and selling work to the galleries. Generally I agree. The problem now is that galleries in San Francisco are disappearing. While I have never been an advocate of pay-to-play exhibitions or of anything that requires artists to pay an application fee, stARTup nevertheless fills a need for a segment of the art population with enough available income to invest in their profession yet who lack a commercial venue. In short, there is a proven community need, and more power to them if this is their desired context.  

Many of the artists who were selected and on display, when interviewed, felt that the fair provided a needed option in San Francisco. Some artists experienced great commercial success, including Lindsay Evans Montgomery, with her bright, flashy, and glittery paintings priced across an approachable spectrum, from very affordable, about $100, to base-level pricey, $2,000–$3,000. This fundamental business model—diversify your price points—seemed to elude many of the artists in the fair. The fair could benefit from more professional education in regard to business practices and sales strategies for artists seeking to represent themselves.  

Two artists of note in the fair were Rodney Ewing and Ron Saunders. They represent two of the three black artists in the art fair who had work on display. Speaking at length about their experiences, they said they were grateful and appreciative of the opportunity to sell their work, as there are fewer and fewer opportunity for black artists these days to be professionals in the city. Ron explained how over the years he has worked to create opportunities for black artists, but now his community can no longer afford to live in SF. For him, stARTup is an opportunity for one of his art collectives, A Simple Collective, to split the cost and share a room.  He acknowledged that yes, there was a barrier to entry, which is challenging to many, but now there is a new place to market and sell his work and connect with collectors. The investment burden for him is offset by sharing the room with nine others. However, it remains to be seen if the fair attracted the audience that would mean success for the exhibiting artists.

The hope is that this fair will bridge the collector/artist divide and allow a collector’s market to grow. But this gets at a fundamental issue in San Francisco arts. As San Francisco continues toward a homogenous, tech-infused cluster of startup CEOs, software developers, and venture capitalists, there is a greater and greater racial and economic divide in the city and a general lack of opportunity for artists to live and be paid as artists. Parking Lot Fair strengthens our community bonds and depends on our relationships, but does nothing for establishing sustainable wages and very little for brief sales opportunities for artists.  

stARTup is pay-to-play, with a significant barrier to entry that limits access and thereby excludes major sections of the population. Parking Lot has a real-world opportunity cost. Both groups seek to support a slice of the overall art community, but the question remains how we as a society can develop the market structures to enable the economically, socially, or racially disenfranchised artists and historically underserved communities to thrive as artists within a city of extreme wealth divides, technology gaps, and social upheaval. Perhaps the most important tool for social change in this pair of events was a panel discussion lead by Michelle Mansour, executive director of Root Division, and featuring Amy Cancelmo, exhibitions & events director of Root Division, and Ramekon O'Arwisters, a social-practice artist and curator. stARTup invited this group to lead this discussion, titled How the Arts Can Thrive in San Francisco, and the group encouraged the audience to get out and engage in positive protest in the form of supporting legislation that puts diverse cultural communities first. Expanding this forum and lowering barriers to entry through subsidization and sponsorship would be the most powerful step stARTup could take to reach out and include a larger section of population in crisis.

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Justin Hoover is a Bay Area-based artist and curator. He has performed, curated, and exhibited at numerous venues around the world including the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Apex Art, New York; the 2011 Art Life Festival in Guangzhou, China; Werkstattkino, München, Germany; the Time-Based Art Festival at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, Portland, OR; the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; the Berkeley Art Museum, and many other venues. He is currently Curator of Exhibitions at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History and holds bachelor degrees in Peace Studies and French Literature and master degrees in New Genres Fine Arts and Public Administration of International Management.

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