2.13 / Talking Shop

San Francisco and the Art World of Tomorrow, Part 1

By Zachary Royer Scholz March 9, 2011
Members of the Beat movement outside City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco, 1965.  

This article is presented in conjunction with "Shop Talk," a three-part series of conversations beginning on March 24 to be held at SFMOMA and organized collaboratively with SFMOMA's Open Space blog. The series will focus on survival strategies artists develop and adopt to gain recognition and financial viability.

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Since its earliest days, San Francisco has been a gateway facilitating connection and dispersal. Artistically, San Francisco's liminal nature has allowed it to act as a fertile and generative location; it has sowed the seeds for numerous artistic movements and fostered countless others. But San Francisco’s connective—instead of accumulative—nature has also kept its activities largely out of the international limelight. However, the world is changing. Within a new and increasingly network-driven paradigm, the San Francisco Bay Area is uniquely positioned to play an active and visible role in global art discourse.

This three-part series will investigate this emerging possibility by looking at both the historical conditions that have created San Francisco’s current climate, and the evolutionary changes that offer new opportunities. This first installment will frame the discussion by outlining the connective character that defines San Francisco and linchpins its future potential within the expanding global art archipelago. The next installment in the series will evaluate the prospects for producing art in San Francisco. And finally, the third part will consider the future presentation of art, including both commercial and non-commercial exhibitions, as well as the writing and discourse that condition their visibility.

In this series, I use “the Bay Area” and “San Francisco” almost interchangeably. This conflation is not simply a nominal overlap, but rather linguistically echoes the region’s interconnected nature as a networked metropolis built from numerous distinct urban centers. While autonomous, other Bay Area cities are defined by their relation to and contradistinction from San Francisco. These contingently resonant and dissonant positions produce a cultural landscape that is discursive rather than distributive—a conversational space as open and connective as the bay itself.

Richard Diebenkorn. Cityscape I (Landscape No. 1), 1963; oil on canvas; 60 1/4 x 50 1/2 in. Courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The greater Bay Area hums with the dialogue between its constituent parts, but San Francisco itself has always been a site of expansive intersection. Like the colliding Pacific and North American plates that shape its geography, San Francisco is a place where disparate forces have long congregated, combined, rubbed against each other, and thrown off sparks. Rather than a center of production, San Francisco has been a crossroads in which disparate individuals, perspectives, and cultures have encountered each other. Bounded on three sides by water, the city’s physical limitations have necessitated close interaction, while its location on the edge of the Pacific has made it a bridge linking diverse cultural spheres. Not coincidentally, the Bay Area’s defining industries have been correspondingly connective, from railroads and shipping to communication and Internet technology.

Throughout its history, San Francisco has been a city of transplants. The thousands of Argonauts that poured in from around the globe during the California gold rush quickly made it the most culturally and ethnically diverse city on earth. Even after the rush to riches ended, San Francisco’s continued growth, along with the influx of labor required to expand the Pacific railroad system, ensured a continual stream of migrants for years to come. World War II brought a second flood of newcomers eager for work in the booming shipyards; after the war, many of the service men and women that shipped out from the Bay Area’s numerous military bases decided to stay in San Francisco rather than return home. Since the war, migration has continued unabated, most recently fueled by the ongoing growth of the tech industry. Even in this last decade, more than a third of the city’s residents continue to be foreign-born.

Members of the Beat movement outside City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco, 1965.  

San Francisco’s overwhelming diversity has not always been comfortable or uncontested, but it has ultimately allowed the city to play a uniquely progressive role. Over time, the continued interactions of San Francisco’s varied residents have produced a tolerant ethos that has, perhaps more than anything else, defined the city. This openness makes San Francisco a bastion of acceptance for a broad spectrum of identities, lifestyles, and ideologies. San Francisco’s resulting diversity allows disparate forces, aesthetics, and worldviews to cross-germinate and bring forth new hybrid forms. Entrepreneurial and idiosyncratic activities are welcomed, and their innovative creations have made San Francisco a thoroughly avant-garde city. Today the Bay Area—the epicenter for world-renowned academic research, a food culture revolution, and Silicon Valley innovation—drives advances in everything from environmentalism and equal rights to cuisine and skinny jeans. This progressive role can at times be frustrating to Bay Area residents who suffer the scorn of outsiders scoffing at the seemingly strange things they care about. However, there is also a perverse pride in seeing the broader culture adopt things that only San Franciscans cared about a short time ago.

Almost since its inception, the San Francisco Bay Area has played a critical role in the arts. The immense wealth generated by the California Gold Rush and subsequent Comstock Silver Bonanza turned San Francisco into a major cultural center renowned for its ostentatious and thriving arts scene. It was from San Francisco that Isadora Duncan launched modern dance and that Beat poets and writers reshaped American literature.

In the visual arts, San Francisco has also played an innovative role in art movement after art movement. Hans Hoffman and Clifford Still, leading figures in Abstract Expressionism, were both influential professors at Bay Area institutions. Hoffman inspired his UC Berkeley students to embrace irreverent, intuitive creativity drawn from nature. Still, while teaching at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), significantly influenced both Mark Rothko and Barnet Newman’s mature styles with his iconoclastic paintings. During the 1950s, San Francisco was not only shaping Abstract Expressionism, but also supporting the growing Bay Area Figurative movement. The work of its influential artists, including David Park, Richard Diebenkorn, and Elmer Bischoff, along with later adherents Nathan Oliveira, Manuel Neri, and Joan Brown, spearheaded a return to figuration that paved the way for both Pop Art and Neo Expressionism. Since the 1950s, San Francisco has continued in this idiosyncratic dual role—innovating within the dominant discourse, and simultaneously generating movements that eventually displace it.

Robert Crumb standing in front of his mural on the Mission Rebels building, South Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, 1973. Photo: Marilyn Jones McGrew.

San Francisco’s fertile environment has continually birthed new art forms. Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic motion studies in the late 1800s paved the way for film and animation, which continue to thrive, famously at Lucasfilm, Lucas Arts, and Pixar, but also in the Bay Area’s world-renowned documentary film community funded by organizations such as the Independent Television Service.

Art films and video art have also flourished, shaped early on by Frank Stauffacher’s groundbreaking 1946–1955 Art in Cinema series at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), and carried forward by dedicated organizations like Artists’ Television Access (ATA). Henry Kiyama’s groundbreaking 1931 Four Immigrants Manga was the first graphic novel published in the United States, and San Francisco continues to boast a thriving and revolutionarily underground comic culture that can proudly claim such innovators as Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton.

In 1946, Ansel Adams and Minor White established the United States’ first fine-art photography department at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), with Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, and Dorothea Lange serving as instructors. This early dedication to the medium has grown a world-renowned photo community anchored today by old-school luminaries, including Jim Goldberg and Richard Misrach, as well as younger photographers like Binh Danh and John Chiara, who are pushing photographic techniques in new directions.

Ansel Adams. Trees and Cliffs of Eagle Peak, Winter, Yosemite Valley, California, 1935/40; gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona (Tucson).

Today the Bay Area’s art community is pioneering new intersections between art and technology, reclaiming craft techniques from marginalized obscurity, and extending art into collective activity through the emerging field of social practice. These exciting advancements and their eventual progeny promise to keep San Francisco a dynamic creative environment long into the future.

While San Francisco’s artists, the advancements they have generated, and the area’s renowned art schools have all played seminal roles in contemporary art, these contributions have often been overlooked. Historically, the city’s geographic location at the western edge of the continent has made it peripheral to the dominant European art scene of the past century and even the more recent heyday of New York. This geographic marginality has been reinforced over the last century by San Francisco’s anemic art market. This weak market is historically rooted in the catastrophic 1906 earthquake and fire, which decimated the city’s thriving art scene and sparked a mass exodus of the city’s wealth to the East Bay. While this exodus dramatically expanded both Oakland and Berkeley it was a massive artistic set back. Most significantly, it separated the region’s wealth from the city’s avant-garde. This divide accounts in part for the continued paucity of commercial galleries in San Francisco that exhibit locally produced art. This weak commercial presence in turn explains the historic dearth of art writing about Bay Area art, which has contributed to the scant external visibility the region’s creative activities have received.

David Ireland's 500 Capp Street home, San Francisco.

San Francisco’s invisible and marginal status has not wholly been detrimental, since it has encouraged a staunchly experimental creative environment. It has allowed for the development of anti-form and even anti-market practices that would be untenable elsewhere. It is hard to imagine David Ireland’s home at 500 Capp Street or Tom Marioni’s Beer Drinking Sonata being produced in an city where commercial sales were a dominant consideration. In the last decade, this iconoclastic ethos helped shape the Mission School’s multifaceted DIY aesthetic and is currently feeding a growing number of social art forms that overtly eschew marketable artifacts.

However, the subterranean nature of the city’s creative production has also kept outsiders from taking San Francisco’s art seriously. As a result, many of San Francisco’s artistic innovators and artists have felt compelled to go elsewhere to gain support and visibility. Some see the migration of artists away from San Francisco as a hemorrhaging of the Bay Area’s artistic talent. But this cycle of artistic innovation and exportation has made San Francisco an influential R&D lab for the rest of the art world—much like the structurally similar role San Francisco plays in culture, politics, and technological development.

While some portion of San Francisco’s invisibility needs to be maintained for it to continue to be a dynamic, creative crucible, recent developments have generated potential for San Francisco to more actively and visibly assert itself in art discourse. The geographically based system that previously structured the art world has given way to a new network-driven paradigm. The art world is bigger than ever before, spanning the globe from Beijing to Buenos Aires. It is also increasingly interconnected, stitching together previously isolated cities and opening up new regions. The resulting mélange is slowly becoming an integrated global conversation that is lending agency to previously overlooked perspectives. This dialogue is carried on not only within a growing number of art centers, but also across a proliferating circuit of international art fairs and biennials. This global behemoth is supported by piles of capital and facilitated by the ubiquitous visibility of digital imagery readily available on the Internet.

John Chiara. Echo Lake at Meyers Grade (Far Right), 2010 (detail); set of five unique Cibrachrome photographs; 50 x 360 in. Courtesy of the Artist and von Lintel Gallery, New York.

This increasingly interconnected landscape has opened new and unprecedented possibilities for creative producers everywhere. Artists, dealers, curators, and collectors—no matter where they are located—can exchange ideas, forge relationships, organize exhibitions, and conduct sales. While today digital interactions mostly augment sporadic face-to-face meetings, the growing use of these technologies, coupled with new ones supporting direct online sales and virtual exhibitions, promises to seamlessly wire the art world together.

This connective network not only links individuals; it simultaneously provides a platform across which cultural production in far-flung places becomes broadly visible. The conversation has rapidly become global, and as such, it matters less where one is based. Five years ago, I could keep track of the major shows happening in London, New York, Paris, and Berlin. Today, images and reviews of tiny shows in hole-in-the-wall galleries in Shanghai, Istanbul, or Mexico City are just a mouse-click away.

While the flattening art world newly empowers a wide range of previously marginalized cultural producers, it holds unique potentials for San Francisco. For the first time, it may be possible to both keep San Francisco as an open, permissive place in which dynamic, groundbreaking art is generated, and simultaneously assert its significance directly on a global stage. San Francisco is perfectly positioned to take advantage of this shift because it is already a network-based city—a liminal state of connection and dispersal rather than an enclosed site of production and consumption. San Francisco is neither outward nor inward looking. It operates instead as a conduit shaping external influences into new forms. As such, its boundaries are permeable, and the innovations it exports are as much a part of city as the far afield sources that it combines to make them. San Francisco could easily take on a nebulous, though significant, identity within today’s interconnected art world, functioning as a host-site for nomadic art activities, including art fairs and artist residencies, and simultaneously use its own artistic production to directly influence global art discourse. The potential for this dual role may seem obvious to those who have long lived in the Bay Area, but this flexibility will be difficult for traditional art centers to achieve. Hampered by historical paradigms that support geographically inscribed dominance and the inward-looking mentality that accompanies such cultural competitiveness, other cities may struggle to adapt to a networked art terrain where exchange and cooperation carries the most currency.

Since cities are not themselves empowered actors, San Francisco’s future prospects rest on the individual decisions of its cultural producers and their understanding of the possibilities that exist within this newly emerging paradigm. Based on their future actions, San Francisco will either sink or swim within the art world of tomorrow. The two subsequent parts of this series will look more specifically at some of these potential opportunities and some of the hurdles that need to be overcome, or at least sidestepped, for progress to occur. This evaluation will in no way be exhaustive. More than anything, it will seek to open a dialogue that will inform individuals’ decisions and propagate the understanding that though acting alone, we are all in this together.

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