Should I Stay or Should I Go?January 25, 2011
Last August, I shoehorned my studio into a pickup truck and moved to New York City. I had always lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and I enjoyed the perks of being a local: family, friends, community, a viable network in art and work, an active exhibition schedule, and a dreamy studio with interesting studio mates.
While my reasons were personal and pragmatic, I unwittingly trod a beaten path, following scores of artists who had moved to New York. Each of the profiles of contemporary artists in Calvin Tompkins’ The Lives of Artists (2008) includes a story about arriving in New York. But every arrival in New York implies a departure from elsewhere. For me, the cliché about artists “making it” in New York wears thin quickly. The change in location is still registering with me; I feel like a Bay Area artist living in New York. I am trying to establish a new community, network, and locus of activity because I need tangible evidence of a practice; it is my campaign against a fuzzy sense of limbo.
Last February, curator Renny Pritikin published “Artists Who’ve Left Town,” a post on SFMOMA’s Open Space blog that proposed a thought experiment using quantitative evidence to address “why do [artists] stay or leave, and what objective information can we glean from the facts we have?” An outpouring of comments followed—ninety-six in three days, an overwhelming number considering the breadth of respondents and depth of reflections. The comments were predominantly qualitative, anecdotal, and personal, despite Pritikin’s intentions to seek hard data. But I suspect push-and-pull factors are too numerous and idiosyncratic to be quantified in statistics. Even when psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his students at the University of Chicago conducted ninety-one in-depth interviews with exceptionally creative artists, writers, scientists, and innovators between 1990 and 1995, his extrapolations included multiple paradoxes about creative lives.1 So rather than asking for concrete data, I decided to seek insights about what compels Bay Area artists to stay or go from those with first-hand experience.
Some Who Stay, Some Who Go
I approached three friends who claimed the Bay Area as a home, even though they were currently out of the state or country.2 I think of them as particularly San Franciscan: community-minded, diversity-oriented, and international yet “super-local,” as Stephanie Syjuco calls herself and others who can claim to be “from here.”
Jenifer K Wofford received her BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) and her MFA from UC Berkeley; she is a multidisciplinary artist and member of the performance group Mail Order Brides. Her recent drawings investigate semi-fictional Filipino American narratives. A longtime educator, Wofford relocated to Prague in 2009 after many years in Oakland; she returned to California to teach for the spring 2011 semester.
Stephanie Syjuco, who graduated from SFAI with her BFA and from Stanford University with her MFA, is a project-based sculptor and installation artist whose work often challenges conventional economics. A San Francisco native, she has recently completed a teaching stint in Pittsburgh and a residency at the International Studio and Curatorial Program in New York.
Michael Arcega also graduated from SFAI and Stanford University with his undergraduate and graduate degrees, respectively, but is originally from Manila via Los Angeles. His sculptures and installations are rooted in cross-cultural miscommunications. Arcega accepted a short-term teaching position in Virginia last fall.
I also corresponded with two artists who currently reside in the Bay Area. They both happen to make installations using photographs. I had seen Pablo Guardiola’s conceptual spaces made with photographs of mundane objects around town. Originally from Puerto Rico, he received an MFA from SFAI and resides in San Francisco for now. Emma Spertus’ installations use photographs of vernacular architecture. Born and raised in Berkeley, Spertus attended college in Minneapolis and graduate school in New York, but emphatically calls Oakland home.
Primary Push/Pull Factors: Economics
Those who left the Bay Area did so reluctantly, but out of economic necessity. They told me they left for work, but would leave again, without pause, for opportunities to advance their art practices and careers.
Even with so many art schools, colleges, and universities in the region, they found the competition and conventions around seniority for young teachers to be almost insurmountable hurdles to securing decent, stable incomes. Arcega was lured to “a temporary teaching position at Virginia Commonwealth University…. Overall, the move was for financial and employment stability.” Wofford noted that before she left, “as an adjunct professor, I was having classes either cancelled or yanked … by full-timers.” Spertus, who is deeply invested in her Oakland community, said, “The only thing that might compel me to leave the Bay is a teaching job at the college level.”
Guardiola stated it simply. The two reasons that he’d leave the Bay were the same reasons he would stay: “Better opportunities as an artist, or a better job.”
In some cases, I perceived that these artists were weighing their loyalties to a place against the sustainability of their practices. For example, Wofford said, “I absolutely think of myself as Bay Area. Proudly so,” yet qualified, “I am going to go where the opportunities are.” Syjuco wrote to me: “I would only leave again [to have a bigger studio and to fund ambitious projects]—for me it's really about economics now and seeing to it that I can keep making the work that needs to be made.”
Whether or not the Bay Area could provide this support was up for debate. As Arcega pointed out, when weighing “things like retirement, healthcare, and savings … San Francisco is prohibitively expensive.” Syjuco also expressed some uncertainty: “My big hurdle in San Francisco is being able to afford everything and keep the art career going. I'm still not sure it's possible in the long run.”
What Artists Need
“Most of us deep down believe that a person who is creative will prevail regardless of the environment,” Csikszentmihalyi wrote. “But the reality appears to be different…. No matter how gifted a person is, he or she has no chance to achieve anything creative unless the right conditions are provided by the field.”3 Csikszentmihalyi identifies “seven major elements in the social milieu that help make creative contributions possible: training, expectations, resources, recognition, hope, opportunity, and reward. Some of these are direct responsibilities of the field, others depend on the broader social system.”4
In a passage that seems especially pertinent to the question of Bay Area artist retention, Csikszentmihalyi wrote, “Training, expectations, resources, and recognition are to no avail, however, if the young person has no hope of using his or her skills in a productive career…. After hope, one needs to have real opportunities to act in the domain.”5
The number of these opportunities, especially at higher professional levels, was a critical factor influencing these artists’ decisions to stay or leave. Wofford elaborated:
The fact of the matter is I left because I wasn’t seeing new opportunities or stable income. Even after spending most of my life and my career committed to being in the Bay Area as an artist and arts educator, I was still not able to make a consistent, adult living for myself. Lots of great exhibitions, for sure, and some amazing teaching gigs, but nothing that was parlaying into increasing art sales or full-time, tenure-track jobs.
I too have felt the frustrating sense of spinning my wheels as a Bay Area artist. The year 2008 marked my tenth year of exhibiting in group shows, and while I was grateful for past opportunities, I was also dissatisfied that so many goals remained elusive: gallery representation, sales, a solo show, reviews. Since then—through initiative and network support—I had a solo exhibition and sold a few works, but the fear that staying in the Bay Area might limit my advancement lingered. Paradoxically, moving to New York ameliorates that worry, even if I have nothing tangible to show for it yet.
San Francisco, Not New York
In my conversations, artists mentioned New York, but they didn’t see being there as essential. In fact, Spertus left New York—though it wasn’t easy, and she misses employment opportunities available in New York City.6 “The fact that I left New York right after finishing the [MFA] program was a feat. I would say 99 percent of Hunter [MFA] alumni stay in New York in order to further their careers and utilize their contacts they have established. My friends thought it was crazy that I was leaving,” she wrote.
To Wofford, New York’s centrality is overblown. Even at a residency in Europe, she reproachfully recounted, “It was colossally predictable how often New York was asserted as the center of the conversation. In Italy!”
The Open Space post and comments were peppered with references to New York—eighty-six times, by my count, compared to thirty-four mentions of Los Angeles—giving the impression that the Bay Area art community suffers from an inferiority complex, and has less than its fair share of art industry. That perspective discounts the area’s major museums, which initiate major exhibitions, host traveling shows, offer jobs, and provide forums for local artists.7 Further, it overlooks the abundance of art schools, strong art programs, and well-regarded international residencies that draw artists to the area.8 These exhibiting and academic institutions are set within a culture of progressive thought, a major center for technological and scientific innovation, and an impassioned food scene.
On its own terms, the Bay Area is vibrant. But even from a statistical perspective, the assumption that San Francisco ought to be able to compete with New York is preposterous. The nine-county San Francisco Bay Area holds 7.1 million residents, while the twenty-three-county Greater New York Metropolitan area is home to nineteen million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2009 Population Estimate. The Bureau also reports New York as the largest city in the United States, as it has done since the first census in 1790, sixty years before California achieved statehood and San Francisco incorporated.
In other words, any comparison between the two metropolitan areas places the Bay Area at a disadvantage from the outset.
What Artists Don’t Need: Perceptions as Prodigal Sons and Daughters
The persistence of the comparison and the resulting belief that the San Francisco Bay Area is inferior can lead to a cruel paradox for its expat artists, in which they see an increase in opportunities in the Bay Area after relocating to New York. Joining this bandwagon reinforces New York’s status as a validating agent, and minimizes local instincts and impacts. However, while the artists I spoke with acknowledged the Bay Area’s comparative limits, they also held its artistic production in high esteem. Syjuco, who has a significant history of exhibiting internationally, affirmed, “I really do think we have a world-class art scene here.”
One obvious counterpoint to New York-as-validator is the presence of many alternative art organizations, which successfully nurture local artists. “Advocacy for the arts by artists and arts professionals create an environment that cultivates, encourages, and generates production and goodwill,” wrote Arcega. He and Wofford listed numerous positive influences, including the San Francisco Arts Commission, the Luggage Store Gallery, Intersection for the Arts, The Lab, Kearny Street Workshop, and the Headlands Center for the Arts. They spoke of Southern Exposure with particular enthusiasm.
These kinds of nonprofit and civic organizations, along with artist-run spaces, are important stepping stones in the ecology of the local art scene.9 They form a grassroots exhibition, commissioning, and employment strata of the art industry, a zone that funnels institutional and governmental resources toward emerging artists. As Syjuco extols, “We have a ridiculous amount of nonprofit and self-starter organizations. Everyone seems really pro-active about finding places to show or create opportunities.…I've been really impressed with what I find is the tenacity of a local community to create opportunity.”10
A Reason to Stay and Go: E-Artists & Emissaries
The appreciation for both local validation and opportunities elsewhere was captured in a meme Pritikin proposed in response to Steve Lambert, a San Francisco artist who relocated to New York via a residency:
I think your career might be a new model! THE E-ARTIST, who doesn’t really live anywhere except where opportunity lies, and doesn’t valorize one community over another but takes each for what they have to offer and good-naturedly enjoys it all.
This concept is promising, but it doesn’t account for the fact that awards, grants, commissions, and exhibition programs are sometimes earmarked for local artists. When I first approached Arcega about an interview, he was careful to explain that the teaching job was temporary and that he maintained a primary residence in San Francisco, so he would remain eligible for a local prize. This have-it-both-ways scenario does not always work. Since I moved, I excused myself from two nominations for Bay Area artist opportunities; in New York, I am ineligible to apply to the New York Foundation for the Arts programs for two years, creating a kind of bureaucratic limbo. The point of the e-artist concept is to lend the artist the advantages of multiple places, but these opportunities are not always available, and they can present ethical dilemmas when it comes to location-specific competitions.
While many of the respondents to Pritikin’s post took the opportunity to rant on the region’s shortcomings, no artists I corresponded with voiced an outright rejection of the Bay Area. Artists like Syjuco, Arcega, and Wofford simply see their horizons expanding, existing, as Wofford describes it, in a kind of transnationalism. They are staunchly attached to the Bay Area for personal and political reasons. Going further, they see themselves as ambassadors of sorts, sharing the work of Bay Area artists in their classes, and promulgating a community-minded spirit. Syjuco: “I talk of the Bay a lot when I'm traveling, trying to let folks know about what goes on here and how great it is.” Arcega wrote, “I try to bring a certain ethos into my classes—a code of responsibility toward the broader community, which I learned from living in San Francisco.”
A Reason to Stay: Thinking Globally, Acting Locally
Even from afar, Arcega, Wofford, and Syjuco stake a claim on their home via their art practice. Wofford wrote, “I’m happy to keep presenting, connecting, and initiating conversations beyond the Bay, but I’m certainly grateful for the ways that my practice and themes as an artist do have an implicit place and a conversation at home.” Syjuco said, “It's still really important for me to exhibit locally…. Having a local gallery, Catharine Clark Gallery … situates me in a local dialogue and it's sort of like being ‘counted’ [here].”
In addition, these artists focus their creative energy on local events and spaces. In doing so, artists create agency. They take actions to shape the art worlds they want to participate in, and expand the range of art activity in the Bay Area. Spertus, for example, was involved in the seminal zine Kitchen Sink and Rock Paper Scissors Collective, which she helped to found. DIY initiatives like these formed the groundwork for the vibrant Oakland gallery scene, which would have been unimaginable just fifteen years ago.
By becoming agents in their communities, these artists enact personal visions by exercising generosity and reciprocity. As Wofford wrote:
It wasn’t until I was an adult, and living in/participating in Bay Area communities (particularly working with nonprofits and public schools) that I finally understood the power of community. I’ve benefited deeply from it, and I like to return the favor where possible.
This ethos so thoroughly pervades the region that it can be perplexing to those who don’t espouse it. In a recent blog post, Guardiola wrote, “Since moving to San Francisco seven years ago, the Bay Area’s obsession with community has never ceased to shock and confound me.” I can appreciate his point about taking an ethos for granted. Perhaps, like the mild air we breathe, we are so accustomed to notions of community and loyalty, the thought that another city might better fit artists sparks shock and confusion in us.
Perceptions of Freedom
According to cultural geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, “Place is security, space is freedom; we are attached to the one and long for the other.”11 In this dichotomy, the San Francisco Bay Area can represent both security and freedom. For emerging artists, it can symbolize a space where artists are freed from market imperatives to experiment and grow. “As a young artist, San Francisco was a great place to kind of hunker down and grow a practice,” said Syjuco. When space becomes invested with meaning, it becomes a place, with the benefit of certainty. “I think a certain kind of security and sense of place engenders productive risk-taking, and that’s what the Bay Area has been for me,” says Wofford.
However, Tuan points out that place-hood can engender risks: “In time we become familiar with a place, which means that we can take more and more of it for granted.”12 Thus, even artists who are Bay Area impresarios like Arcega will admit, “the fear of stagnation and becoming too regional are things that haunt me.” If Bay Area artists perceive that the region can only provide diminishing opportunities, it will become like a small town, “crowded in an economic sense because it did not provide enough jobs,” as Tuan describes this risk. One can readily imagine artists pushed to New York like young workers to cities, “where the young believed they could move ahead and better themselves.”13
Of course, looking past the promise of the unknown, cities like New York are not exempt from the crowding that changes a free space into a crowded place, either. As Csikszentmihalyi writes, “In sciences and the arts, the closer one is to major [institutions of the field], the easier it is for a new voice to be heard and appreciated. At the same time, there is a downside to being near the centers of power”—competition, pressure, and not enough time or space to incubate one’s ideas.14 Spertus noted, “Everyone is working so hard [in New York,] it is easy to go to new productive levels yourself, if you can avoid the burnouts associated with such intense efforts.” In his comment on Open Space, New Jersey–born Anthony Discenza explained his decision to stay in the Bay Area this way:
Although returning to NY might in theory increase my professional opportunities, functionally they would likely fall to zero, as I would find myself even more radically constrained in my ability to produce any actual work.… I decided I wasn’t willing to trade [what I have] for the dubious value of being able to go to openings at Gagosian every month.
Whether the artists I spoke with choose to stay or go is a personal matter, related to shared issues of employment, financial stability, art opportunities, and community ethos, as well as unquantifiable personal reasons—most commonly, relationships. To them, the Bay Area functions as a free space for experimentation or a secure place for risk-taking, with its unique resources and practitioners. Quite often, artists who see themselves as agents, who engage and create the kind of art world they would like to participate in locally, invest deeply in reinforcing a local ethos.
As its practitioners spread out beyond the Bay Area, so too does its network. Here in New York, I’ve been part of a satellite community of California College of the Arts alumni and colleagues from San Francisco’s alternative art spaces. I continue to observe Bay Area art activity and participate in it whenever possible, because I am invested in its artists and spaces, and I find the work interesting and ideas vital. Open Space is an example of a dialogue that spans a kind of Bay Area–art diaspora. Such conversations will be continued by the artists I corresponded with, who will be coming to and going from (and promoting, missing, and enjoying) the San Francisco Bay Area this spring.