2.16 / Attempting the possible is not terribly exciting. Attempting the impossible is exhilarating.

San Francisco and the Art World of Tomorrow, Part 2

By Zachary Royer Scholz May 4, 2011
John Langley Howard. California Industrial Scenes, 1933; from the Coit Tower murals, Coit Tower, San Francisco. Photo: L. Swanson and K. Malkson.

While San Francisco is a nurturing place to produce art, surviving in the Bay Area as an artist is not always easy.1 Pinched between a high cost of living and limited art-market opportunities, many artists eventually leave for more promising commercial opportunities in Los Angeles, New York, London, and Berlin, or they retreat to where rent is lower and space more readily available. Historically, this ongoing migration has made San Francisco an influential R&D lab for the rest of the art world, as artists take the practices they develop here elsewhere to expand. However, as the art world becomes increasingly connected—stitched together by global travel, cell phones, email, and the Internet—this outward flow can benefit San Francisco directly by becoming a diffuse web of connection rather than an artistic drain. With everywhere linked digitally to everywhere else, artists can now physically leave San Francisco without leaving the city’s artistic community. Their continued remote participation spreads San Francisco’s influence and simultaneously connects locally based artists to the diverse external inputs that these satellite members make accessible. This bidirectional flow expands possibilities for all artists involved, but perhaps most significantly, creates this visibility and opportunity without undermining the permissive atmosphere that has allowed San Francisco’s artists to be so innovative and influential.

At the opening of his recent show at Stephen Wolfe Fine Arts, the Los Angeles–based artist Derek Boshier told me how impressed he was with the willingness of San Francisco’s artists to talk to each other about their work. In L.A., “everyone is looking over their shoulder, paranoid about anyone getting a whiff of what they are up to and ripping them off,” he said. San Francisco’s artists may be less backstabbing because there are fewer contemporary art galleries and dealers operating overall in San Francisco than in Los Angeles, but such a shortage could just as easily make the competition fiercer.2 San Francisco provides a fertile creative environment in which to make art, in no small part because of its open, collaborative ethos, which allows its many talented makers to share their insights and lend support to each other’s endeavors. San Francisco’s communal atmosphere is however not an inherent attribute but a situational condition that has evolved over time.

During the opulent golden era that followed the California Gold Rush, artists flocked to the city to sell their artworks to the newly wealthy. This art boom of the 1860s and ’70s was driven by patronage, with wealthy members of society such as the Stanfords, the Crockers, and the Hopkins avidly collecting local artists. As the painter William Keith reminisced at the turn of the century, “The country was young then and men could see the poetry and romance and art that lay at their own doors.”3 However, after only a couple of decades, tastes in San Francisco shifted toward the more realist artworks emerging from the Barbizon commune in France. Previously successful painters like Albert Bierstadt struggled to survive as collectors turned toward the paintings of Corot, Rousseau, and Millet.

Courtyard of the San Francisco Art Institute, 800 Chestnut Street. Courtesy of the San Francisco Art Institute.

Luckily, during this era, a couple dozen San Francisco artists, desiring communal support rather than competition, founded the San Francisco Art Association in 1871 with the aim of banding artists together to produce noncommercial exhibition opportunities and provide arts education. Even as wealthy patronage waned, the association’s community of artists, as well as their well-attended quarterly receptions and semi-annual exhibitions, grew in prominence and provided needed support to a creative community increasingly cut off from sales and commissions.

The catastrophic 1906 earthquake reshaped San Francisco as dramatically as the Gold Rush had fifty years earlier. The destruction snuffed out the previous era’s opulent, individual art patronage, and the San Francisco Art Association quickly stepped into the void. Members of the association championed each other’s work and, through its many overlapping ties to the increasingly influential Bohemian Club, managed to provide a living for many of its members. While still essentially connecting artists to wealthy benefactors, this system created relationships based on mutual support rather than simply commercial transactions.

As San Francisco rebuilt itself in order to host the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the collective ethos espoused by the San Francisco Art Association took on a new shape. The fair, celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal, was an ode to technological advancement. Wired and lit by General Electric, it featured, among other technical wonders, the first transcontinental telephone call and a Ford assembly line that turned out one car every ten minutes. In the following decades, the industrialization highlighted at the World’s Fair percolated through society, and San Francisco’s artists increasingly came to identify themselves as art laborers. In solidarity with their fellow workers, a number of artists turned from making luxury goods for the wealthy to valorizing the energy and efforts of the country’s working masses, a political turn that put them at odds with their capitalist patrons.

Starting in 1935, these socially conscious San Francisco artists found an unprecedented outlet for their work in the numerous projects funded by the newly created Works Progress Administration (WPA). The resulting construction projects, ranging from building the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges to creating and restoring over seventy city parks, offered numerous opportunities for these artists to create public artworks in a social realist style that simultaneously depicted history and built from it a vision of a more egalitarian future.4

In 1941, the United States’ entry into the Second World War fundamentally reshaped both San Francisco and its artistic community—just as the 1906 earthquake and Gold Rush had done in previous decades. During the war, the Bay Area’s numerous military bases and the frenzied production of San Francisco’s shipyards drew a flood of new residents to the city, particularly poor African Americans from the South. After the war, many of these workers and GIs chose to stay in San Francisco, along with thousands of servicemen discharged from the military for being gay.

The United States after the war was a dramatically different country. The social activism of the prewar era was replaced by repressive conformity. Commercialism and McCarthyism were on the rise, and there was less and less room for dissent. In this oppressive era, San Francisco became a refuge. Artists flocked to the city not for its opportunity but for its openness. In San Francisco’s permissive environment, dissident artists, musicians, poets, and writers, persecuted even in cosmopolitan cities like New York, interacted and drew inspiration from San Francisco’s newly diversified populace.

The resulting population boom, coupled with bigoted fear of the city’s new minorities, helped power a suburban expansion. This dramatic shift toward San Francisco’s outer reaches devalued the city’s urban core, allowing a new creative community to form in San Francisco’s dense downtown. Much of the activity gravitated to the vibrant North Beach neighborhood, in which, from its infamous early days as the Barbary Coast, diverse philosophies, sexual norms, and worldviews collided to produce a unique cultural mélange. In North Beach, San Francisco’s minorities, artists, writers, philosophers, poets, and musicians intermingled, innovated, collaborated, and profoundly influenced one another. This artistic community was not only internally inspired but also incorporated mystical and aesthetic traditions culled from Eastern philosophy, European avant-garde discourse, and African improvisational structures, such as jazz.

The cultural openness and creative exchange forged during the 1950s still defines San Francisco’s artistic community. Over the years, the visible products produced by this terrain, from Beat poetry and the counterculture to queer art and social practice, have made the San Francisco Bay Area once again a magnet for artists. However, unlike the artists that flocked to the city after the Gold Rush searching for rich patrons, these creative producers come seeking the creative resources and cultural community in which to grow their diverse artistic practices. This influx of artists, like past migrations, has expanded San Francisco’s cultural boundaries, binding the greater Bay Area into a creatively interconnected archipelago.

Exterior, CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, San Francisco. Courtesy of the California College of the Arts.

Not surprisingly, San Francisco’s communal culture has made the region an ideal environment for arts education—its collaborative ethos in sync with pedagogy’s knowledge-sharing aims. Like San Francisco’s unique artistic ethos, this commitment to education has roots in the San Francisco Art Association, which in 1874 founded the first West Coast art school, named the San Francisco School of Design. That same school survives today after numerous name changes, total destruction by the 1906 earthquake, various affiliations, and a merger, as the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI).5

Over the years, other art academies and art departments have joined SFAI. Each institution possesses its own unique strengths. Smaller programs, like the one at Mills College, allow their students more intimate interaction with faculty. University-based programs, like those at UC Berkeley and Stanford, offer students access to their respective museum

collections and the diverse resources available only at research institutions. Larger art academies, including SFAI and the California College of the Arts (CCA), offer their students interdisciplinary programs, wide-ranging curricula, and the chance to interact with a larger, more international population of peers and faculty. Their breadth has allowed each school to innovative connective programs that have profoundly shaped artistic practice in the Bay Area. The New Genres department at SFAI, initiated by Howard Fried, has counted among its influential faculty Bay Area Conceptualists including Doug Hall, Paul Kos, and Tony Labat. More recently, the Social Practice program at CCA, spearheaded by Ted Purves, has fused relational aesthetics, institutional critique, and public intervention with a decidedly West Coast collaborative and activist ethos. Other area schools possess similarly unique programs that spring from their faculty’s particular talents; be it Mills College’s integrated book arts and creative writing program, or the CADRE Laboratory for New Media at San Jose State University. Together these diverse programs constitute an academic art environment unequaled elsewhere.6

These prestigious educational art institutions continuously draw new artists to the Bay Area. Every school’s incoming class pulls in fresh talent from around the country, and every artist who stays after graduation swells the pool of talented, local practitioners. These institutions also bring internationally recognized artists to the Bay Area as instructors and professors, and similarly invite exceptional makers and thinkers to share their expertise through public lecture programs. Their affiliated exhibition programs, including those at the UC Berkeley Art Museum, the Cantor Art Center, the Walter and McBean Galleries, and the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, entice world-renowned curators, including Ralph Rugoff, Okwui Enwezor, Hou Hanru, and Jens Hoffman, to work in San Francisco. In turn, these curators feature influential contemporary artists in their exhibitions. Thoroughly connective structures, the Bay Area’s educational institutions expose their students to new ideas and methodologies, and simultaneously link them to the region’s intergenerational creative community and the global art world beyond.

San Francisco’s academic draw is augmented by the presence of numerous other creative opportunities, like CCA’s Capp Street Project, the interdisciplinary residency program at the Headlands Center for the Arts, and the Kala Art Institute’s Fellowship program. These prestigious residencies bring international artists to the Bay Area and, through their exhibitions and lecture programs, facilitate productive interactions between visiting and locally based artists.

San Francisco’s creative lure, bolstered by its educational art institutions and residency programs, has produced an environment with a higher percentage of artists than anywhere else in the country.7 While there are impressive opportunities for emerging artists to exhibit at nonprofit spaces, such as Southern Exposure, Intersection for the Arts, and The Lab, as well as culturally and media-specific alternative spaces such as Galería de la Raza, Artists Television Access, and SF Camerawork, the region’s dense concentration of artists makes the not insignificant commercial opportunities available in San Francisco insufficient to support many artists based here. This discrepancy is not surprising considering that commercial opportunity is not what draws artists to the Bay Area. However, the problem exists and is exacerbated by the Bay Area's general desirability, which has made the region one of the most expensive places to live in the United States.

Headlands Center for the Arts, Sausalito; view of administrative (left) and studio buildings. Courtesy of the Headlands Center for the Arts.

Facing ever-increasing rents, skyrocketing property values, and a painfully high cost of living, artists must find something to keep them in San Francisco other than the long-shot chance that they will achieve commercial success. Many do stay, some finding supportive gallery representation, community-based support, or non-art jobs, but a substantial percentage of artists who spend their early career in the Bay Area eventually leave. Some return to their hometowns, some take teaching positions in far-flung locales, and some migrate to cities such as New York, London, Los Angeles, or Berlin, which offer more robust commercial opportunities.

Lately, this continual artistic migration—long a subject of casual debate—has become a more public conversation. Curator Renny Pritikin broached the topic on SFMOMA’s Open Space blog in a post entitled “Artists Who’ve Left Town.”8 The posting, intended as a fact-finding mission, generated an explosion of comments that not only outlined the obstacles facing artists who choose to stay in San Francisco and the reasons many choose to leave, but also spawned numerous related pieces in various forums.9,10 One of the more provocative echoes was artist Brion Nuda Rosch’s “The Grass is ALWAYS Greener” posted on SFMOMA’s Open Space blog as a direct response to Pritikin.11 In it, Rosch picks up on a particular thread that emerged in the comments to Pritikin’s piece, expands this seed into a strategy, and adds it as a twenty-fourth element to Renny Pritikin’s widely distributed twenty-three-part “Prescription For a Healthy Art Scene”:



Rosch’s suggestion that network building could offset the regional limitations that push artists out of the Bay Area illuminates the fact that opportunities are no longer regionally bounded. Operating within global networks, San Francisco’s artists are not limited to what is present in their geographic location, but can remotely access a range of resources. Instead of choosing what city to have a career in, artists must now decide what city they want to have a career from.

Using networking to expand available resources is more than simply a way to allow artists to stay in San Francisco who might otherwise have to leave. Such network-based thinking actually supports leaving by fundamentally changing the creative communities’ relationship to those artists who depart. Through a network-based lens, the migrations that have long been considered an artistic drain constitute an unprecedented resource. Rather than cut-off émigrés, displaced artists that stay connected to the Bay Area become emissaries—points of external visibility that link San Francisco’s creative producers to production and discourse within a broader global community. The same can be said for the curators, gallerists, dealers, art writers, and other art professionals that, together with artists, constitute the complex fabric of the art world. If they remain linked together, migrations diversify and strengthen rather than diminish.

This new, networked potential is enabled by various technologies that make it possible for far-flung artists to remain personally and professionally connected. Cell phones and email make it easier to stay in touch and exchange information, be it local art gossip, an exhibition press release, or a pertinent piece of critical theory. Gallery and museum websites allow artists to keep abreast of art exhibitions elsewhere, whether in Shanghai, Istanbul, or Houston. Artists’ websites act as both promotional and documentary tools, providing visibility, tracing developments in an artist’s practice, and allowing for virtual studio visits. Artist can also now broadly share their thoughts, influences, and points of discovery online with other artists through either blogs or social networking sites like Facebook.

However, communication technologies’ growing ubiquity and ease does not mean that interconnectivity is a foregone conclusion. Producing a network is not simply a matter of connection being possible. Creating and maintaining relationships takes work from the individuals involved; with or without email, artists can only be networked if they try. If Boshier is correct, artists in the Bay Area are characterized by their openness and communal spirit—yet, to what extent do we truly take interest in and are willing to help each other? To what extent do we share information on grants, residencies, and juried exhibitions? Knowledge pooling allows individual artists to find the opportunities and resources best suited to their particular skills and needs. Even transmissions of casual information connect artists to ideas and other artists that they might never have found otherwise. An artist simply posting links to the work of artists she likes has the potential to remotely generate sales, spark critical dialogue, and initiate lifelong collaborations. The Bay Area may already be a unique collaborative community, but there is always room for improvement.

If artists who leave the Bay Area stay connected to its creative community and the Bay Area’s creative community stays connected to one another and to the artists who leave, the diasporic flow of artists from San Francisco expands this community beyond its regional boundaries. The art students flowing through the Bay Area’s many schools, the mid-career artists in search of collectors, and those seeking the less expensive lifestyle found outside metropolises; each takes the experience of San Francisco with them when they leave. If they stay connected, then the piece of San Francisco they remove becomes an outgrowth rather than a loss, another island in the Bay Area’s expansive creative archipelago.


  1. 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.
  2. Art-Collecting.com, which produces city-focused gallery guides lists ninety-two commercial galleries in San Francisco as compared to 170 in Los Angeles. Site accessed May 4, 2011.
  3. The Call, Vol. 79, No. 25. San Francisco, Dec. 25, 1895.
  4. Notable projects include surviving murals at the Rincon Center, the San Francisco Zoo, the Presidio Chapel, and Golden Gate Park’s Beach Chalet.
  5. In 1893 the San Francisco School of Design changed its name to the California School of Design to mark a new affiliation with the University of California. The school was destroyed and then rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake and named the San Francisco Institute of Art. In 1916 the San Francisco Art Association joined forces with the San Francisco Society of Artists to assume the directorship of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, located in the Palace of Fine Arts. The San Francisco Institute of Art’s name was changed to the California School of Fine Arts to reflect this new affiliation. Finally, in 1961 the school took its current name, the San Francisco Art Institute.
  6. The Bay Area’s educational art institutions are not only numerous, but accomplished. The Bay Area boasts more programs ranked in the top 100 by the 2008 US News and World Report than any other metropolitan area.
  7. Published in June 2008, the NEA study entitled “Artists in the Workforce: 1990-2005,” found that San Francisco has a higher proportion of artists than any other metropolitan area. The study is the first nationwide look at artists' demographic and employment patterns in the twenty-first century. The full report can be downloaded at: http://www.arts.gov/research/ResearchReports_chrono.html
  8. http://blog.sfmoma.org/2010/02/artists-whove-left-town/
  9.  Pritikin did eventually track down some hard numbers compiled by Princeton Survey Research Associates International for Helicon Collaborative and Leveraging Investments in Creativity and published them in his posting “Facts for a Change.” http://blog.sfmoma.org/2010/03/facts-for-a-change/
  10. Including artist Christine Wong Yap’s Art Practical article in March 2011, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” http://www.artpractical.com/feature/should_i_stay_or_should_i_go/
  11. http://blog.sfmoma.org/2010/07/the-grass-is-always-greener/
  12. http://blog.sfmoma.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/pritikin-prescription-for-a-healthy-art-scene2-600x746.gif

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