Signs of the Time: San Francisco Galleries Look SoutheastMay 26, 2013
The ongoing economic downturn’s impact on the cultural life of San Francisco has been unpredictable. Although the state of California has recently approached the edge of the fiscal cliff, confronting bankruptcy, employment in the Bay Area is slowly starting to recover and job growth is at a ten-year high.1 In San Francisco, the booming real estate market and stream of new construction projects, largely concentrated in the Potrero Hill, Dogpatch, and Bayview–Hunters Point neighborhoods, are the most visible signs of this upswing.2 Another possible indicator is the growing number of art galleries that have begun to migrate from the downtown Union Square and Yerba Buena areas to the southeastern sector of the city. This shift points to an evolving transition in the geography of the San Francisco art scene that will not only change gallery-going patterns but also shape the economy and quality of life in these neighborhoods in both positive and negative ways.
I have already begun to witness the changes taking place in Potrero Hill in particular, since I moved to the neighborhood two and a half years ago. Some of the gallerists planning to relocate here include Brian Gross, a resident of the 49 Geary building for more than a decade, and Catharine Clark, who moved her gallery from there to Minna Street, adjacent to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), six years ago. One major factor precipitating Clark’s and Gross’s pending moves is the fact that the tech boom has allowed landlords to exponentially increase commercial rents.3 As Clark points out, “The same spaces can just as easily be occupied by a tech or design business.”4The impending closure of SFMOMA, in order to embark on the massive three-year construction of its new wing, presents another reason to relocate. Moreover, Clark explained that despite the boost in foot traffic that conferences at the nearby Moscone Center bring to the area, “because all services and entertainment are provided for during conferences like Oracle or Sales Force, we are very under-patronized during those times.”
Gross and Clark have just signed leases on not-yet-completed gallery spaces at 260 Utah Street, a building that currently hosts Hosfelt Gallery. (Todd Hosfelt moved to this location last fall because his previous building on Clementina Street was slated for demolition in order to build condominiums.) Each gallery will occupy a floor of the Utah Street building, and they plan to coordinate their openings in order to further draw visitors, much in the way that the First Thursday openings originally did at 49 Geary. Gross describes the move as a “breath of fresh air,” a sentiment also articulated in various ways by Clark and Hosfelt.5 During a recent visit to the new Hosfelt space, I was impressed by its openness, the gallery’s white floors and abundance of natural light greatly enhancing the excellent exhibition of new interactive sculptures by Alan Rath. The Utah Street location has the additional benefit of being situated near other recently completed art spaces in the neighborhood. These include the relocated Kent and Vicki Logan Galleries of the California College of Art’s (CCA) Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art on Kansas Street, and the San Francisco Center for the Book, which just inaugurated its expanded facility around the corner on Rhode Island Street.6
This migration of galleries to San Francisco’s southeast sector makes sense: there, street parking isn’t impossible to come by, rents are still affordable relative to downtown and SoMA, and Potrero Hill and Dogpatch have a certain historic charm. There’s also a history of local artists settling in this part of the city: Southern Exposure, which was the gallery component of Project Artaud, has been located on the edge of Potrero Hill since 1971 (and is now a stand-alone gallery on 20th Street), and artists took over a number of the abandoned buildings in the Hunters Point shipyard after it was decommissioned in 1974. Most significantly, though, there is still an abundance of light industrial space available.7
Clark believes that proximity to CCA’s new exhibition space and “the young curatorial programming emerging there” will be a strong complement to her programming for her space. Interestingly, none of the gallerists I spoke with felt that the presence of tech companies, such as Zynga and Adobe along with smaller firms that have also been recent additions to the neighborhood, will impact the growth of Potrero Hill as a potential new arts district in terms of foot traffic or sales. Far more important for them is their new proximity to Dogpatch and the Mission, in particular the galleries along what’s become known as the 20th Street Corridor, including Steven Wolf Fine Arts, Kadist SF, Meatpaper, Rebar Group, Southern Exposure, and The Thing Quarterly. The former neighborhood is particularly significant, as over the past several years it has transformed from a low-income and largely industrial area to a thriving residential and small-business neighborhood that also houses the graduate-student studios of the San Francisco Art Institute, along with other art spaces—all situated along Third and 22nd Streets—including longtime fixture Romer Young Gallery (formerly Ping Pong Gallery), the recently inaugurated Museum of Craft and Design, which moved to Dogpatch from downtown, and the year-old Workshop Residence, founded by the San Francisco philanthropist Ann Hatch.
Vanessa Blaikie of Romer Young describes how her gallery, jointly founded and directed with her husband Joey Piziali, has been a presence in the neighborhood for several years. This evolved largely from Blaikie and Piziali’s 2005 creation of Ping Pong Gallery, largely a social space for artists to look at art, drink beer, and play ping-pong. As Blaikie and Piziali, who are also artists, became more invested in the gallery, they expanded their programming, changed their name, and began to participate in art fairs. The fact that Romer Young is an artist-run space connects it to the self-sustaining, artist-directed, Mission-district galleries that emerged during the 1990s such as Four Walls on Duboce Avenue, Jack Hanley Gallery on Valencia Street, and Gallery 16 on 16th Street. Like those spaces, Blaikie and Piziali’s choice to make their gallery for-profit is part of a trend among younger gallerists today, who see the benefits of generating income through direct sales as more significant for themselves and the artists they represent than becoming a nonprofit, which involves large start-up costs, the need to make decisions by committee, and no greater assurance of survival in a difficult economy.8
While working with a different business model, The Workshop Residence has chosen to dedicate itself to supporting local and international artists by inviting selected individuals to participate in fully funded six- to ten- week residencies, and it connects artists with Bay Area manufacturers to help produce their works. Profits from sales are evenly split with the artists. The Museum of Craft and Design is also trying to maintain its ties to the local community, after finally relocating to a newly dedicated building at 469 Third Street. The museum’s three years of pop-up locations in Potrero, Bayview, and finally Dogpatch proved so popular that it hopes to keep producing similar mobile experiences as a form of neighborhood outreach.
The emergence of Potrero Hill and Dogpatch as lively new arts districts seems a hopeful and proactive next step for San Francisco’s art world, bringing art to audiences in new locations while introducing longtime gallery-goers to those places. Yet the decision to move is fraught with risk for gallerists as there are no guarantees for success in the current economic climate. Still, there is some safety in numbers: as an increasing number of galleries relocate, there is a greater likelihood that their cumulative presence will draw larger numbers of visitors. While Brian Gross’s desire “to recreate Soho [circa] 1970” [and] “to bring alive a feeling of discovery” and Todd Hosfelt’s assertion that “there’s the new ‘hip’ factor of the Hill” both express an appropriate optimism, what remains to be seen is what effect commercial development and its attendant impact on local rents, traffic, and parking will have on keeping that feeling alive, as concerns about longevity and neighborhood quality of life continually come to the fore.9
Catharine Clark Gallery and Brian Gross Fine Art will open their new spaces at 248 Utah Street in July, 2013.