3.16 / Review

The San Francisco Fine Art Fair, Art MRKT and ArtPadSF

By Aimee Le Duc May 31, 2012

Thumbnail: Jenny Morgan. Witness, 2011; oil on canvas; 42 x 37 in. Courtesy of Like the Spice Gallery, Brooklyn.

In what now seems to be a standing tradition for San Francisco, the San Francisco Fine Art Fair (SFFAF), artMRKT, and ArtPadSF dropped into their previously established locations—Fort Mason, the Concourse Event Center, and the Phoenix Hotel, respectively—during the third weekend of May for three days of parties, lectures, awards, more parties, and, of course, art. In their second year, the fairs’ identities have become fully cast. SFFAF is, as its name suggests, the formal fine art fair; artMRKT is the mainstream and professional fair; ArtPadSF is the super-cool pool and beer party, minus adequate restroom facilities and any food.

The art in all three fairs—hung on white walls, shoved in hotel rooms, and installed in well-worn exterior locations—was, for the most part, on the safer side. This was more an indication of exhibitors’ uncertainty about how to play to this still-burgeoning market than a commentary on Bay Area art practice. But the fairs provided a service to the Bay Area’s art communities, functioning as a kind of great equalizer, with commercial galleries exhibiting alongside nonprofit spaces. All the fairs were touted as instigators of urban renewal, particularly ArtPadSF, even as they played host to academic panel discussions and lectures.

Of course, cross-institutional partnership and collaboration have long characterized the Bay Area art scene, but it was laudable to see, for example, the SFFAF give ample space and signage to a selection of Oakland-based art spaces, even if it was at the back of Fort Mason. ArtPadSF also gave equal and well-deserved space to nonprofit organizations such as ArtSpan and Creativity Explored, the latter of which had one of the Phoenix’s more stunning rooms. Even artMRKT made space for the venerable National Institute of Art & Disabilities Art Center (NIAD) and FOR-SITE, the nonprofit arm of Haines Gallery.

There was notable work exhibited across all venues, from both local and national spaces. At artMRKT, Baltimore-based Jordan Faye Contemporary showed intriguing photography from emerging artist Jenee Mateer. Brooklyn gallery Like the Spice returned this year with portrait paintings by Jenny Morgan, and local galleries, from Frey Norris to Patricia Sweetow, showed local and national artists, both emerging and more established. ArtPadSF hosted booths from Steven Wolf Fine Arts, Gregory Lind Gallery, and Project One Gallery, among others. Drawing attention to the fairs’ distinct personalities, this year Ever Gold moved from ArtPadSF to artMRKT, while Eleanor Harwood Gallery moved in the opposite direction, from artMRKT to ArtPadSF. Ever Gold codirector Andrew McClintock cited a desire to make more sales and to build collector relationships as the reason for his gallery’s move, while Eleanor Harwood wanted to establish better connections with new collectors. Both were very satisfied with their decisions, suggesting that certain fairs may be better suited to certain galleries.

Karla Wozniak. JC Penney, Tacoma, WA, 2011; oil on panel; 46 x 55 in. Courtesy of Gregory Lind Gallery, San Francisco.
ArtPadSF at night, Photo: Cherrie Lakey

During a Friday panel discussion at ArtPadSF hosted by Meg Shiffler, director of the San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries [Editor's note: the author is the Gallery Manager for the SFAC Galleries], panelists were asked to discuss the somewhat cheekily phrased question “Where does art breathe?” The panel was asked to consider where and how art functions within prescribed spaces, functions, and events. The discussion was representative of the relaxed atmosphere of ArtPadSF’s events, but some good ideas emerged at this and at many of the fair’s other discussions. During Shiffler’s panel, Larry Rinder, director of the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, reflected on the work that art is tasked with in a museum setting. Although Rinder was not entirely comfortable with his analogy of art as laborer, he noted that art has a job to do when activating a space or challenging a viewer that is separate from the work an artist, curator, or art worker does to and with the work.

Certainly, Rinder’s point is intended to be a simplified view of a complicated issue, but it is an apt analogy when thinking about art at all three of the San Francisco fairs. As opposed to just being the stuff of commerce, the art at each fair was also given the job of perpetuating an atmosphere and providing a backdrop to an experience. These experiences are difficult to define beyond anecdote, nearly impossible to measure past feelings brought about by passive experiences, people watching, and pithy gossip, but in the absence of a defined system of measurement on the success of the San Francisco art fair phenomenon, encouraging a critical look at the experience of the fairs still is a worthwhile exercise.

It is a common adage in Bay Area art circles that there is no art market here. I’ve heard urban lore of local collectors who would rather buy local art from art fairs in Miami or other locations than directly from a local dealer. It is hardly a secret that the Bay Area finds it difficult to monetize its collective art practices, but it is an equally important job of the art in these fairs to facilitate the existence of an art world here, both commercially and creatively. A successful fair, then, cannot be measured only by its sales or the caliber of its art; rather it should be judged by the collective momentum it generates and the experiences it affords attendees. For their part, the San Francisco–based fairs generated a noteworthy critical mass while providing a robust reminder of the diverse ecology of art communities that call the Bay Area home.


The art fairs took place from May 17 to 20, 2012 at the following locations in San Francisco:

The Phoenix Hotel

Concourse Event Center

San Francisco Fine Art Fair
Festival Pavillion, Fort Mason Center

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