Magnetic Fields

Living & Working

Magnetic Fields

By Glen Helfand October 16, 2018

How does one survive and thrive as an artist in the San Francisco Bay Area? Living & Working is a multi-platform column focusing on the experiences and strategies from those who continue to live and work in the Bay Area.

Living & Working is funded in part by the California Arts Council, a state agency.


I never thought I’d be in the Bay Area this long. It wasn't a plan, exactly, to settle for decades here, to make myself a viable life in the arts. The Bay Area is an amazing place; it’s seductive for its easy vibes, intimate scale, community, good food, and landscape. Those elements, we well know, are shifting: downtown San Francisco is now full of massive, gleaming buildings that soon reveal the literal and figurative cracks in their foundations (see the public-art-filled Salesforce Transit Center). We each build a life where we do, sometimes without forethought. The Bay Area has been good to me. I’m rooted by friends, work, history, and housing. But lately I wonder about the region’s future, as well as my own. 

To address what keeps me here, it makes sense to recall what initially attracted me: self-discovery. I moved to San Francisco from the sprawling, suburban San Fernando Valley in the early 1980s. The superficial reason was to go to school, but the real reason was to find myself amid the outsider culture and the LGBT and alternative-music and -art scenes. There were so many alternative art spaces, most publicly funded, to discover, and I learned by seeing. San Francisco felt human-scale, traversable without a car, open to outsiders, so free.

Cover of Shift, issue six, 1988 (featuring Nayland Blake). Photo: Glen Helfand.

I found my band of freaks, and our connections were bolstered by our shared sensibilities and creative impulses—and by the galvanizing effects of the AIDS crisis. This generated an activist culture that was tied to something horrifically real and visible in the work of ACT-UP and Queer Nation, in candlelight marches from the Castro to the Civic Center, and in screaming afternoon protests that I could never imagine happening in the Los Angeles I knew at the time. I took part in these events and in anti-war marches down Market Street. I created exhibitions with political themes and projects that I hoped communicated joy and enthusiasm. I wrote to contribute to an art community. I still do.

I met so many inspiring figures in artistic, literary, and cinematic arenas. For a time, queer artists (like Nayland Blake, Jerome Caja, Vince Fecteau, and Cliff Hengst) coalesced around the infamous Kiki Gallery into something that didn't quite rival Bay Area conceptualism but did become a cultural force. Artspace, on Folsom near Ninth Street, staged important shows by General Idea and others; I recall meeting a withered Robert Mapplethorpe at an event held at Artspace in his honor. The gallery also published a journal, Shift; it may not have had wide distribution, but it did tap into important artists of the moment.

San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery. What’s Wrong With This Picture? exhibition catalog, 1989; collage by John Borruso. Photo: Glen Helfand.

Though the early 1990s were a cultural peak for me, things began to wane, and I seriously considered decamping to New York, the default mecca for ambitious art people at that time. As a native Californian, however, I was terrified by winter. I was spared the cold by the first dot-com boom. I was working as a freelance writer, and being at the epicenter of a cultural shift was a boon to my work life. I decided to stay. Start-up money flowed freely, and it seemed crazy not to grab some. I got jobs populating content for sites sponsored by Microsoft, business magazines, and even a publication called The Web, for which I wrote about the design, content, and usability of art-related websites.

I’m not an early adopter of technology, but I’m an art writer who can sniff out a niche. I had no trouble focusing on artists who utilized data or created websites. I curated shows for an online art sales company called and covered international new-media confabs. Ironically, the dot-com bubble led to the demise of the Mission's art community and to the birth of a galvanizing sense of resistance. That activity resulted in "The Mission School," an article I wrote for the late, great Bay Guardian. It is difficult to have perspective on things when you’re in the middle of them; from my current vantage point, the retail gloss that is Valencia Street, the stealth-black apartment towers at Mid-Market, and the roving tent cities are hard to reconcile as positive developments for San Francisco.

Janet Delaney. 10th at Folsom Street, 1982, from South of Market 1978–1986; archival pigment print. Courtesy of EUQINOM Gallery.

Creating forward movement for ourselves is sometimes all we can control. I've carved out a good balance of teaching and writing, a scenario that seems difficult to access in larger cities. I’m fueled by conversations with students, and I feel blessed to be able to work closely with younger generations of artists. At this point of my middle age, what I want from where I live has shifted. I seek a degree of comfort, certainly, as well as opportunity and inspiration, more than alternative culture. Does bohemia continue to exist? (Is it on Netflix?) The high-salary culture of technology in the Bay Area is not mine, and that’s okay. I’m currently working on personal writing, projects that have deeper meaning to me—and hopefully others. This is something less specifically tied to place.

As of this writing, I’m co-curating an exhibition about California for an art fair in Toronto. It will feature galleries and artists working in the state, and it will include works that reveal bright color, that California light, and the ironic inequities that are so present here. I’m cherishing California’s political resistance and the diverse aesthetics that drive shows like the recent editions of Bay Area Now at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Made in L.A. at the Hammer Museum. I’m thinking more about foundations, honesty, and empathy—about community in a broader sense. I’m waiting for that proverbial bullet train that will expand our notion of where we live.

San Francisco Art Institute. Temporary Structures exhibition card, 2012; designed by Geoff Kaplan; exhibition co-curated by Glen Helfand and Cydney Payton. Photo: Glen Helfand.

I plan to continue to grow and contribute, wherever that takes me. I’m trying to deepen my art and my connection to others, taking control of what I can in a disheartening era. I’m old enough to know that we take ourselves with us wherever we settle. The Bay Area may be losing some of its soul, but there’s a tenacious spirit here that cannot be eradicated. Ultimately, things boil down to our sense of truth and empathy, and it’s a gift when a location gives us the conditions that allow us to thrive. 

If it doesn’t—well, we’ll just have to get creative.

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