Support Structures

Living & Working

Support Structures

By Jackie Im September 18, 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.

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The migration of artists and people in other creative fields away from the Bay Area has become a dominant narrative. We all know people who have left for Los Angeles, New York, Berlin, Portland, and on and on. Bay Area social engagements inevitably feature conversations about who has moved and who is moving. With going-away drinks and complaints about the rental market, these symptoms of the ongoing housing crisis are part of what it means to live in the Bay Area, not just for those who work in the cultural sector but also for educators, restaurant workers, retail employees, and everyone who lives with any amount of financial precarity. What does this constant struggle mean for those of us who stay? What do we need in order to survive here?

I was born and raised in San Francisco, and I have lived in the Bay Area for most of my life. At this point, it is hard for me to imagine living anywhere else. There are moments when I look on Craigslist for apartments in other cities or on the websites of Glassdoor and New York Foundation for the Arts for jobs elsewhere, but the Bay Area is my home, and it is where I choose to remain.

Exterior view of Et al. etc., installation view of Topography of a Terrestrial Paradise, 2018. Courtesy of Et al. etc.

I am a believer in transparency, and it feels pertinent to note that Et al., the gallery that I cofounded and continue to run, would not exist without the rent-controlled apartment my partner and I live in, nor without the day jobs that help fund the gallery. We have no trust, no venture capital, no miracle investors. Like many projects of artists and arts workers, Et al. survives because of a lot of hard work, luck, and stubbornness. The gallery exists because we feel strongly that exhibitions are important, that artists need space for experimentation, and that the Bay Area needs more spaces that can be conduits for a dialogue that is both local and international in scope. Essentially, Et al. exists because we want to support the art that we want to see more of in the Bay Area. Something that initially arose from a selfish desire became part of our ongoing work to enrich and challenge the community. 

In recent years, I have been thinking a lot about support. What is our responsibility to support each other’s practices, even when it means losing an artist or arts worker to another city or country? And, perhaps a more critical question: How do we support the ones who choose to stay?

Fundraiser at Real Time and Space, Oakland, California, August 2018. Courtesy of Real Time and Space.

In late August I had the pleasure of participating on a panel called “New Landscapes: Supporting the Arts in the Bay Area,” hosted by Artadia and Kickstarter. The discussion was lively, with a lot of audience participation. The central question of the dialogue was: What are the solutions? Part of me is weary of this conversation, which is a constant reminder of the precarious state we live in. Thinking of so-called solutions is where my fatigue usually sets in because there isn’t any one solution that will keep artists and arts workers here. Rather, solutions are found among a whole network of models that need to adapt and change.

For myself and for so many who I know who are still here, there is some combination of hard work and good luck that affords a stability in the Bay Area that—while not always permanent—is in equilibrium for the time being. Whether it is a rent-controlled apartment, or a partner with a stable job who is willing to support an art endeavor, or a job that can sustain one both financially and (hopefully) creatively, there always seems to be something that allows each of us to not only stay in the Bay Area but also survive as participants in this art scene. It feels worth noting that we each have our schemes, and in turn we each have our breaking points, where we throw in the towel and decide to move on. Conversely, we each have our own reasons for wanting to remain here.

Curt McDowell. Curt & Friends, 1971; installation view at Et al. etc.; collage, mixed media, pastel, and ink on velour on board. Courtesy of the Curt McDowell Estate and [2nd Floor Projects].

To that end, community is the key to staying motivated and continuing this work. In other words: form a squad. In an exhibition of work by Curt McDowell at Et al. earlier this year, I was struck by how many images consisted of drawings of McDowell’s circle of friends in San Francisco’s film and art communities in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. It spoke of a strong kinship of folks, who supported one another, posed for each other, and appeared in each other’s films. That these were the people who were crucial to sustaining McDowell’s life and work spoke volumes. 

This eagerness to form community can be seen all over the Bay Area, from the Nut and Funk artists and the Beats to the current-day studio collectives, such as CTRL+SHFT and Real Time & Space, or artist collaboratives such as Bonanza and Five Fifths Collective. These are not collaboratives or collectives that were formed by institutions but rather entities that grew in response to the realities of living in the Bay Area and out of the lineage of so many others before them. They too have become sites for critique, collaboration, and mutual support.

Bonanza in front of their installation for the 2016 gala at di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Napa, California.

The community I’ve built is more nebulous than the artist communities mentioned above, but it is no less vital. The gallery has become a throughway for artists, curators, writers, and other art-world denizens to visit and share in dialogue with us and with the work we show. Through art fairs and other travel opportunities, we’re able to expand this from a space localized to the Bay Area to one that is more far-reaching and more exciting. While I value the local art scene tremendously, I am wary of conversations that become insular. For any art scene to thrive, there needs to be an exchange between the local, national, and international. 

For better or worse, this is where social media plays a part, offering a platform where I can engage in interesting conversations with artists and art historians who are speaking and joking with each other from different points on the globe. Is it worth allowing social-media corporations to harvest my data? Maybe and maybe not, but I value these exchanges, and I can’t imagine having it otherwise.

Installation view of anybody home?, 2018, a residency by 5/5 Collective at CTRL+SHFT, Oakland, California. Courtesy of 5/5 Collective.  

I don’t know if these various networks—established locally, through travel, and online—will keep me here. Ambition for jobs that allow for more autonomy—or a dreaded eviction notice—could drive me and my partner out of the Bay Area and force us to rethink if this is really the place for us. For now, it certainly feels like home, and through my work with Et al. and the San Francisco Art Commission Galleries, I will try to make more of what I want to see happen here. 

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