Artists Who’ve Left Town

How many times have you had an out-of-town art world visitor look you right in the eye and insult you with a sentence like, “San Francisco of course is an irrelevant art scene.” Which always translates to my ear as, “I’m from a first rate art scene and I have the authority to inform you that you are not.” It’s as though this were an objective fact, like, “Oh look, there’s a bird flying by.” And then following it up with, “Of course all the important birds are in New York.”  This is not meant to be a whiny complaint blog however;  I’m too old to care that much about such things, but I am interested in thinking about clarifying exactly what people mean when they talk like that. A friend of mine was interviewing for the position of chief preparator at a major LA museum in the late 90s and when he mentioned how much he loved being a part of the Bay Area art scene, was informed by the chief curator there that “San Francisco hasn’t produced an important artist in forty years.”  Setting aside the ignorance, and the naivete and narrowness of vision, what use can we make of such presumption?  How can the things we say to each other professionally be backed by more than arrogance and conventional wisdom?

For many years I have greedily read everything that Bill James has published. James is probably unknown outside of the realm of his subject area, which is baseball. However, he has been responsible for a revolution in the understanding of that game. James has taken the position that conventional wisdom should be tested by research.  Baseball managers, radio and tv broadcasters, sportswriters and the like have a long list of assumptions about the proper way to play and understand the game. James’s genius has been to ask: “On what facts are these opinions based?” Over some 25 years he has used statistical records to disprove almost every codified belief offered by erstwhile experts. (Examples for those of you who care: the sacrifice bunt is almost never justifiable; the stolen base is only justifiable if you succeed 75% of the time or more; pitchers should be evaluated by things they can control, like strikeouts, rather than wins; and most famously,  on-base percentage (hits plus walks) is vastly more valuable information than batting average.)

I often think about how this attitude can carry over to other fields where opinions are likely to be put forward as facts, especially, of course, in the arts. I’ve written elsewhere about what goes into making an art scene, which was reprinted here in Open Space as a chart by Julian Myers.  Now I’m thinking about how those criteria could be objectively compared and contrasted from city to city—somehow—for anyone to be able to evaluate a culture authoritatively. And so I thought I’d look at my own internalized truisms.

As a long-time curator in the Bay Area, I have had the experience of artists coming up to me at their openings and thanking me for the opportunity, “especially as I’m moving to _____ tomorrow.” An assumption that I (and many of my colleagues) have shared for decades is that the number of artists who have abandoned the Bay Area is huge, and has had a negative impact on the quality of the scene here. So I thought, inspired by Bill James, that I would try to compile a list of artists who went to school here, or lived and showed here for a substantial period of time (3 to 5 years) and then moved away, either for a teaching position or to just try their luck in New York or Los Angeles or elsewhere. I’m only including living artists. To be perfect Jamesian raw material for analysis we would need a comprehensive list but I can make no claims to this being an encyclopedic or all-inclusive list, just a list of people I can think of who lived here and now don’t, as a first step. And a parallel list of those who have stayed here long term.

While the database is probably not large enough nor complete enough for a thorough scientific analysis, it’s fun to think of how we might look at it. The essential question that comes to mind is: why do people stay or leave, and what objective information can we glean from the facts we have? For example, do people tend to leave in their 20’s and 30’s, but if they’re still around at 40, do they tend to stay? Are teaching opportunities a key factor in staying or going? Is having, not having, or losing, a gallery affiliation a factor? Are personal or professional interests a key determining factor (e.g. an ardent Sierra skier or camper, a high-tech artist scrounger, a member of a particular ethnic or sexual community centered here, a spouse with a good job, the climatic advantages)? Do these lists in any way shed light on whether the Bay Area is a vital art center? I’d love to hear what insights readers glean when comparing the two lists. Is there a qualitative difference in the lists? Any patterns or themes? (I know that there are many worthy artists who could be added to both lists…this is just a way to get the conversation going.)

Sixty Who Left:
Anne Appleby, Darryl Alvarez, Anthony Aziz, Lewis Baltz, Richard Barnes, Jim Barseness, Nayland Blake, Brad Brown, Ione Rozeal Brown, Bette Burgoyne, Sarah Cain, Carolyn Castaño,
Jim Christensen, Chris Cobb, Chris Daubert, Didi Dunphy, Peter Edlund, Simon Evans, Karen Finley, Harrell Fletcher, Jona Frank, Christopher French, Trinh Minh Ha, Frank Haines,
Jonathan Hammer, Midori Harima, Paul Hasagawa-Overacker, Fred Hayes, Lisa Hein, Miranda July, Arnold Kemp, Elizabeth King, Steve Lambert, Stephen Laub, Annie Leibovitz, Bob Linder,
Judith Linhares, Mads Lynnerup, Chico MacMurtrie, Mike Mandel, Amalia Mesa-Bains, Leah Modigliani, Ruby Neri, Aaron Noble, Rachel Neubauer, Sono Osato, Ed Osborn, Melissa Pokorny,
Armando Rascon, Jock Reynolds, Michelle Rollman, Jon Rubin, Nancy Rubins, Sheri Simons, Hank Willis Thomas, Lew Thomas, Lee Walton, Jo Whaley, Jon Winet, John Woodall.
Sixty Who Stayed:
Michael Arcega, Lutz Bacher, John Bankston, Robert Bechtle, Rebeca Bollinger, Jim Campbell, Squeak Carnwath, Enrique Chagoya, Dewey Crumpler, Paul De Marinis, Judy Dater, Lewis DeSoto,
Kota Ezawa, Vince Fecteau, Amy Franceschini, Rupert Garcia, Carmen Lomas Garza, Jim Goldberg, Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Doug Hall, Diane Andrews Hall, Mike Henderson, Todd Hido, Desiree Holman, Mildred Howard, David Huffman, Isabella Kirkland, Paul Kos, Tony Labat, Michael Light, Hung Liu, Chip Lord, Bernie Lubell, Tom Marioni, Barry McGee, Richard Misrach, Jim Melchert,
Manuel Neri, Deborah Oropollo, Gay Outlaw, Mark Pauline, Nigel Poor, Lucy Puls, Alan Rath, Clare Rojas, Joe Sam, Raymond Saunders, Katherine Sherwood, Leslie Shows, Kathryn Spence, Louise Stanley, Michael Swaine, Stephanie Syjuco, Weston Teruya, Bruce Tomb, Camille Utterback, Catherine Wagner, Anne Walsh, William T. Wiley, Scott Williams.


Comments (100)

  • Marcella and Renny,

    To Whine or not to Whine.

    I don’t think any American city, SF, NY, or LA can support its artists, especially non-commercial or project-based artists who do not create works for sale, solely through grants, and residencies. I mean really, how many times can you get the same grants, and residencies actually end up costing more money in the end for the artist. This might be an option in some European cities where there are more public subsidies and supports for artists, but the reality in the states is that project-based artists need to find support for their work in every place they create it. It’s unrealistic to expect one city to fully support its artists, and as an artist also deeply invested in teaching (like many others), it is unrealistic to expect there to be enough great, well paid positions available. Certainly, if I had found a position that was a great fit we might still be in the area, but artists all over the country have said the same thing of opportunities in their cities of choice. And yes, here in Pittsburgh support for the arts is much smaller, although so is the artist population so maybe its a wash in the end per capita. So, I guess in terms of grants, residencies and teaching opportunities I feel that SF is certainly no worse than the majority of other art centers, and non art centers in the country, so yes, stop whining. In terms of equity and stability, yes it is a lot harder in the Bay Area (please start whining here). But if you really love the place, and consider all of the other factors that make it great, you can always find a way to stay (stop whining again).

    When one city loses an artist another city gains and artist, and this ebb and flow from my view works in SF’s favor actually more often than not (stop whining). Yes, I do think many folks sound a bit unappreciative, but artists love to complain, its our secret, and perpetual pleasure.

  • Thanks Jon. As I like to say, a fresh of breath air.

  • Frank Lostaunau says:

    It’s touching to read what artist’s have to say about their lives. Keep your day jobs and don’t stop making art! If you need to “whine” then “whine”and then get back to work.

    Keep your relationships with family and friends healthy, eat well, find ways to access medical care, pay your rent and stay out of trouble. If you get busted for stealing art supplies, too bad.

    Never steal from another artist and always share the good times with friends. If you have extra change, travel and explore the world. If you never live in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, you haven’t missed a thing.

    Only a few artists make a living off their art so don’t worry about it if you don’t. If nobody wants to show your work, I gurantee that you will not die.

    We don’t live forever in our bodies, so take care of yours. Don’t let anybody abuse you emotionally or physically. In another 50 years, much of what you’re concerned about now will not matter. Take the time that you have seriously and don’t get too caught up in all the art world nonsense. Be well…thank you for talking to the rest of us…I’ve enjoyed reading this thread!

  • Lack of critical discussion … I cringe to hear that. If a critic comments in SF, does it even make a sound? After ten years of covering the Bay Area visual art scene, I’m not so sure. I wrote a weekly SFGate column for 41/2 years and for 10 years for ArtWeek – platforms for critical discussion that no longer exist. There’s no lack of worthwhile work to cover, but publishing is in transition, and blogs are not (yet) filling the gap.

    But to be honest, I’m in no rush to take on that challenge, and I don’t blame new art writers for their apparent reluctance to fill the void. After 9/11, there was an urgency around conversations about our direction as a society, and about how artists might envision a way forward. As the sense of immediate urgency has waned, I noticed those broader conversations about art have seemed to shrink in scope and turn inward. Several Bay Area mid-career artists have admitted to me that they only read articles, reviews and discussions that revolve around their own work, with no embarrassment – that’s not including emerging artists who claim with pride that they “never read criticism.”

    Like many critics, I think and write about contemporary art for the ideas in it we as a culture can’t yet verbalize, and may take decades of reflection and historical retrospect to understand or appreciate – and my modest aspiration is that if we start those conversations now, we might approach some understanding or appreciation sooner. I’m not interested in one-way monologues, or providing free gallery PR, or personally gratifying any artist: it really is all about the art.

    To Renny’s credit, this is the most exciting conversation about the broader relevance of the Bay Area art scene I’ve seen online in some time. I’ve been taking a breather from reviewing the contemporary Bay Area scene, writing guidebooks, long-form art history and using media like Twitter for two-way commentary. But if this is a sign of things to come, maybe there’s hope for a critical revival yet.

  • Alison: What is the cringe about? That people don’t know about your efforts, and that of others? Or fear that it was all for naught? In all your years of publishing criticism, did you often feel that you were engaged in a dynamic system of mutual consultation, interrogation, support, curiousity, challenge with other arts professionals and engaged amateurs? Was it more often a vast silence?

  • Renny, the cringe comes from the familiarity of the refrain that there’s a dearth of critical discussion about Bay Area art. This concern has some validity now given the state of publishing, but to be honest, I heard this even when there were dozens of Bay Area based critics reviewing shows regularly for local, national and international pubs – many now defunct for lack of readership and support.

    The loss is disappointing, but it’s not a surprise. I’ve been content to cover the Bay Area art scene the last decade knowing the primary readership was a tiny but engaged set of arts professionals, who incubate the ideas arising from our Petri dish of an art scene. But however talkative, that small audience couldn’t sustain so many publications and critics. Many of my colleagues have moved on to New York, London, or other writing fields; those critics who remain in SF are faced with the choice of becoming bloggers or self-publishers.

    I’m weighing that option, but I wonder: is there really a demand for criticism of the SF art scene? I’m not convinced. Artists and galleries definitely want more press coverage of their own art shows, but ultimately it’s not the job of critics to serve the interests of celebrity or commerce. We’re in it for the art and ideas, and the conversations they spark.

    Critics are now challenged to engage broader audiences, and that’s a worthy goal – but that audience has a lot else on its mind. Now that Bay Area art has moved past its ’90s beautiful-loser outsider status and the oppositional stance of the Bush era, the engagement with it seems not quite as definitional or urgent to viewers. Can critical review help make Bay Area art a conversation everyone wants and needs to be part of, or do we move on to other art writing practices and leave the critiques to Yelp?

  • Anthony Discenza says:

    I’ve already contributed too many times to this discussion, but I just want to say that even in jest, the thought of relying on Yelp for art critiques causes my brain to begin autolysis.

  • Steven Barich says:

    To quote Alison Bing from her first comment: “it really is all about the art.” I agree with her that is how it *should* be.

    Which is why I say: YES(!), there really is a demand/need/desire/hope for greater critical review of SF BAY AREA (thank you…) art and artists, curators and institutions. I would offer it IS slowly happening online, here even. This will become a positive reason for artists to remain (active) in the Bay Area.

    I’m hoping Open Space continues to live up to its name, in this regard.

  • As for the tired, old canard “the lazy bay area mentality that embraces a hippy-tinged, art-brutish belief that art shouldn’t be justified or discussed, but just done.” that Mr. Scholz and others continue to promulgate, I suggest that they read the dialogue between Bruno Fazzolari, Linda Geary, and John Zurier recently posted on Art Practical. Conversations such as this happen all the time in Bay Area studios. While rarely published, it exists nonetheless.

  • Dean, thanks for the heads up on this!

  • Dean: it is true that these conversations happen in Bay Area studios, but there’s something of value of having these critical exchanges out in the world – be it in press or online. Artists, curators, critics don’t live in the vacuum of the studio and neither should these conversations. We can all gain from these exchanges, use them as jumping off points, and just all together get the community engaged – just look at all of these comments.

    I appreciate Alison’s (not to mention every other writer that continues to cover the Bay Area) efforts, and I would argue that there is an incredible need for criticism here. I agree that there is a dearth of platforms for these exchanges but as evident by sites like Shotgun/Art Pratical, maybe it’s not simply a case of finding an place for criticism but making one.

    It seems to me that what we perceive as a lack of critical dialogue here, might be across the board for the whole of art criticism. There’s a very interesting talk by Diedrich Diederichsen about this: http://fillip.ca/podcast/2009-08-07

    All this said, I do have to say that I’m truly excited and inspired to see this conversation take shape with so many voices involved.

  • um . . .where did armanda rascon end up? southern california? just wondering

  • oops. either i can’t spell, type or both. Make that “Armando Rascon.” mea culpa!

  • somebody told me he is in washington dc

  • Renny, I’m curious, if there was a report, like the one you mention above. What other questions would you ‘ask it’?

  • I don’t know Paolo. I’m actually going to meet with someone next week to discuss what kinds of questions would be useful, maybe for posting here in the coming weeks. Any suggestions would be welcome.

  • The questions are really important. The wrong question answered with authority and in elaborate detail does more harm than good.

    Thought experiments, one of my favorite heuristic tools, would be an excellent place to work on the language and the effects/affects of the questions.

    Let’s take the ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ question. We could start a conversation around the idea that the adjusted-per-capita-resources an artist has access to is no different in any of the big ‘4’ metropolitan cities. Mining this putative report might reveal that the bay area drains cities like Denver and Albuquerque of all their top talent. The question might then be re-written as ‘How do we get artists to stay in the Bay Area?”

    Being inductive instead of deductive is a good place to start. How about an ‘ask Renny’ website? Where you collect the questions, which are really the concerns, of the bay area art scene. You don’t even pretend to answer the questions. You collect and at some point, probably when you’ve had enough, you curate them. Not to get too Socratic but asking the right question at the right time changes everything.

  • That’s really helpful Paolo. Let’s talk.

  • leslie shows says:

    It can be painful to tell people that I work in San Francisco when I visit New York or LA- I suspect “I’m not serious” is what they hear. I think a strength of smaller art scenes, for artists, is the potential to develop ideas independent of the heavy conditioning of trends, or the distraction of desperate careerist scrambling. San Francisco has a “lab” quality- it’s been a good place to let my work develop its own philosophical directives, and to follow threads of ideas and make conceptual connections that I find compelling, but seem underrepresented. The hope is that one can add something to the world that they don’t already see in it, and not just make art that looks like contemporary art.
    What’s the relation of any smaller art city to the aggregated-power hubs? There seems to be a somewhat punitive dimension to the dismissal of those who choose to live in San Francisco or somewhere else not LA or NYC. I do think San Francisco has a “bubble” quality (there’s a need for more new art, artists and discourse from the broader world to come through), and I understand the distaste for some aesthetic trends, and I wish there was more of everything here. But I also think smaller art cities shouldn’t just ape the larger ones. We don’t want to see the same work, the same aesthetics, the same art world franchise in every city, with an almost corporatized smoothing over of idiosyncracy and uncertainty. This is a larger problem that has moved across seemingly disparate areas of culture and society, and it is definitely a problem in the art world, which should be critiquing it more. I’m thinking of my impression, when I visit Chelsea, of unfortunate and slick homogeneity.
    You can do an analysis by numbers to get a picture of the art infrastructure here, and that might answer why there is a quality problem (or if there isn’t, why there is perceived to be) but I agree with the Hickey quote that the subjective dimension of talk and social cues drives the power flows of the art world, and it is pretty irrational. Even the stock market is said to operate this way, so there you go. I entertain the notion of moving in order to come out from what I non-affectionately call the “cloaking device”, the ingrained bias against SF, and I weigh it against the benefits of living here, which mostly have to do with quality of life- good weather, amazing studio, proximity of wilderness…Maybe the thing now is the highly impractical bi-coastal existence (or tri-coastal- I remember for a while Hank Willis Thomas was based in New York, San Francisco and Miami) so one can put NY on the bio and then slum it with the pelicans and cypresses in SF.

  • Leslie I love your sincere and candid post. Cloaking device indeed.
    Painful to confess being from SF because of others’ condescension, but simultaneously knowing what crap that is.
    Did you see the Viola Frey writeup in the Times this week? There’s now a lengthening list of SF
    artists who have gotten belated if not post-mortem high praise from the Times: Paul Kos. Wiley, Frey. The provincialism
    of SF is its lack of self-regard; the provincialism of NY is its conviction that if anything were any good it would be there. If you have stopped internalizing that notion these ex post facto props to our artists do not make us feel vindication but bemusement.

  • Excellent points Leslie.

    For some reason, I am reminded of a Roy Blount Jr. (southern humourist) bit I heard on the radio around twenty five years ago. He said that when people asked him if it is true that people in the South eat dirt he would say, “Hell yes we eat dirt!” In other words, answer a ridiculous notion by affirming the first notion. Maybe the Bay Area needs to come up with something similar.

  • RENNY!
    Yeah man
    Wow I made a list of 60.
    Glad to be on a radar.
    SF was such a good time. A serious growth town. It is a great place to be an artist, a human.
    I did a lot of good things there, had a lot of opportunities to work and show.
    Worked with such awesome people there. People are really doing things there.
    After I had a show with Jack, I felt like I had done everything I could do there.
    That was why I had to leave. I wanted to keep going.
    SF just felt like a more relaxed energy that was settling.
    And my brain/heart feels restless.
    NY provides stimuli and pressure and influence that has kept me going.
    A kinetic energy that requires a flexible branch.
    I don’t consider things like opportunities, or art cities.
    So much happens through fate and friendships anyway.
    And you can go as far as you want to here.
    SF had limits. For me.
    It felt like something you could map out, the opportunities there.
    And you’d have to wait until they awarded it to Shaun O Dell first before you’d have a chance.
    So many good people there.
    It boils down to individual energies.
    Seriously, fuck people who think quality comes from a specific place.
    That is such a life drainingly-put someone on my avoidables list- boring conversation.
    Bitterness is a gross cancer.
    Where does one start with all the amazing things that have been exported for the Bay Area?
    Life is for living.
    Shit is the same either place. There are more jobs here but also more people.
    My rent isn’t much different here then there.
    Struggle is going to happen either way, so why not do it here is how I feel.
    But I’ll always love SF and encourage it.
    But no I couldn’t stay.
    I wanted to be pushed harder and NY does that.
    I had to move here and be private for a while.
    Its good for that too.
    I feel like SF is an incubator.
    Rad shit will come out of there in waves!
    It was/is an essential part of my life story.
    I’m glad Renny is there doing it.

  • Hi Renny,

    Here’s my two cents-

    People should just lighten up. There isn’t anything wrong with San Francisco. Try and have some perspective for god’s sake and appreciate what is right in front of you. If people think times are rough economically in S.F. they should go to Detroit where you can buy a house for $10,000 or less. Or visit rural Mississippi where sometimes poor people really do eat dirt (sorry Sid, it’s true but it’s really a particular kind of nutrient-rich clay, not just any old dirt). If anything, people just seem to get cabin fever in S.F. and I can certainly understand that. High rents, lack of good paying jobs, no clear path to success in the art world, etc, etc. I know it can be frustrating.

    Worse yet, many artists I know feel a lack of audience or sense of their audience, which in itself creates a sort of existential crisis. If you do spend a large amount of time making things and then having shows, it can be like putting on a play that only your mom and friends come to every night. All that work and just your mom and friends are seeing it….so it’s hard to have perspective. I was feeling some of that – but then I read Read Rebecca Solnit’s book, “A Hope In The Dark” because she points out all the progress that has been made with various left wing political movements in last several decades. The strides forward our society has made, etc. I considered that in regards to the Bay Area art scene and it certainly opened my eyes to all the truly good things happening. It also made me realize that change is an internal process and to be an artist in this era is to be acting out an almost political role in society. After all, what other field constantly asks how to subvert an idea or a form or a rule or a situation or a law? What other field finds it virtuous to deceive, invert, imitate, deviate, etc? And for what purpose? For art! To change the rules around on people and to show then something new or reinterpret something old. So I guess i am arguing that the improvement process is an internal rather than an external one.

    All this can be a really emotional and intense process and so it is no wonder people have ambivalent feelings about leaving or staying. But it is a good place and there’s nothing wrong with it; it is what it is. And it could be a whole lot worse, but it isn’t.

  • I love the emphasis on facts and figures here vs. the usual moans and groans about the bay area not supporting artists for a myriad of reasons (even if it is true). As my roommates and good friends (Carolyn Castano and Marisa Hernandez) from the mid 90s both weighed in as artists who have left, (to LA and NYC respectively), i wanted to speak as one who has stayed.

    First, i have remained in the same apartment that we shared while attending SFAI although now i share it with my husband and two kids. That has helped keep me in SF while many artists were evicted or couldn’t afford rent increases.

    Second, i did attempt (although perhaps halfheartedly) to leave the area at times to try for the tenure-track job or to “advance my career” in some way but i remained, never really wanting to let go of the nurturing community that fed my community spirit and mania for recycling, but that was in my 30s.

    Third, as a co-founder of stretcher (stretcher.org) on the web since 2001, i was able to tap into and try to foment a dialogue and criticality in the area that enabled me to stay and to feel like i was making a difference in some small way. We (stretcher and i, and probably many others) are happy with the proliferation of web blogs (like this terrific one) that contribute to dialogue in the bay area.

    Last, as a teacher, first at the Meridian Interns Program and now at SFAI and with adults at Berkeley i have been able to feel like i have been contributing to the next generation of artists and arts professionals in some way that has in turn fed my practice and enabled me to continue thriving here. That perhaps and now being in my 40s, having two kids, and realizing after a great deal of travel, that SF rocks!

  • Francis, Chris & Amy,
    Nice contributions!

  • This remarkable discussion triggered memories from late 1992, when I was living in New York, and had decided to decamp for the Bay area, a place I had dreamed of living since I was a kid. When I told my friends of my plans to move from the city of my birth to San Francisco, the response ranged from derision (“there’s no one creative there”) to condescension (“yeah, you kinda seem like you belong there”).

    The Bay area has been an inspiring place to live and to work as an artist. It provides community when that is what is desired; it provides the natural world close at hand. I think more clearly here than in New York. I get more done, and enjoy the process more. Does it seem “too small” at times? Yes. But New York also felt “too large” at times, too. That being said, I’m well aware how important it was for me to have lived in New York before arriving here. I knew exactly what I was leaving behind.

    In terms of Bay area artists: Count me as one who stayed.

  • DeWitt Cheng says:

    Nice discussion, everyone! Yes, we all grouse about the SF art scene and the relative lack of support here (at least vis-a-vis the larger markets of NY, LA, CHi, Miami), and the intellectual complacency that is the dark side of our vaunted Bay-boho esthetic independence. The points made about SF’s provincialism and inferiority complex are sadly all too true. But as Orwell said, if there is hope, it is in the proles; that would be the artists, writers and curators who have chosen to live and work here, and to improve the local scene, local art magazine or no. The internet affords us opportunities to create dialogue and discourse that did not exist a generation ago, so stay and fight, and, as Molly ivins said, have fun while you do it. Keep the money issue in perspective. Art is a privilege that we have to pay for; it’s not a job like any other.

  • Renny, This is an interesting discussion you have prompted. I have a somewhat unique perspective on this topic having been subject to these issues from different sides of the fence, as an individual artist, gallery owner and publisher.

    Back in 1994, fresh out of graduate school, I started Gallery 16. I almost immediately sought your advice about what pitfalls awaited me. You wrote a letter warning me about the inextricable link between money, those that have it and the success of a commercial gallery. You suggested then that my willingness to court the wealthy would play a significant role in the success of my endeavor. Almost sixteen years later, I still struggle with this central tenant of the commercial art world.

    Gallery 16 was and is a hybrid. I wanted to create a place that was self sustaining and rigorously experimental. A tall order, I know, perhaps born of naïve enthusiasm. To this end, I think we have only partially succeeded. Artistic success is not necessarily commensurate with economic success and visa versa. The lure of New York, for both artists and dealers is considerable. The long held cliché of money, fame, opportunity, a desire to be at the center of the conversation, obviously drive some artists and gallerist’s to seek greener pastures. If you are interested in having a life in national politics, you must spend time in D.C., the same is true of those who desire a particular kind of life in the arts.

    On one hand, I think the Bay Area is the only place in the country that my business could have been started. In 1994, it was at the nexus of a vibrant artist and photographic community, the proximity to Silicon Valley, the interest in technology, the rich tradition of art institutions all contributed to our success. These elements provided a uniquely fertile ground to begin the Gallery 16/UDC experiment. On the other hand, the Bay Area continues to lack the collectorship to grow beyond an incubating community. Our participation in artfairs and outreach to markets outside SF yield the lion’s share of our collectorship. This could be another lively topic of discussion; why the Bay Area never fully developed as major center for collecting.

    I suspect that many of us who have made this place home do so because our ambition
    is trumped by other obvious benefits of living here.

  • Nice to hear from you Griff. A little embarrassing to see quotes of my younger self pontificating. Ah well.
    I’m interested in that statement that the lion’s share of your sales are outside the bay area. Would you be willing to say what percentage that is, toward the end of having hard facts to speak from?

  • Renny,

    “Oh look, there’s a bird flying by.” And then following it up with, “Of course all the important birds are in New York.”

    That has to be the wittiest and most precise description of these blind and foolish attitudes I have ever come across. It also tells us all we need to know–what Griff refers to when he writes, “Artistic success is not necessarily commensurate with economic success and visa versa.” Do we want to be important birds, or amazing birds? There is no necessary relationship between those two qualities, though in a few fortunate cases, they overlap.

    Some years ago, when the Interweb was just warming up, the art world hailed the end of “regionalism” in favor of International Art. The result is the now homogenized (and tired) exhibitions which Roberta Smith described as, “a big-box chain featuring only one brand.” Home Depot Documenta. Those quirky, regional flavors, homespun as they are, seem more appetizing and energized after all that fast food.

    The scene here continues to have great vitality–and there are many great artists who stay (certainly more than 60). But so many more get frustrated (understandably) by the lack of mid-career support (add Mark Grotjahn and Paul Sietsema to that list). Interesting to imagine this place if local collectors realized what a goldmine it is (FYI, in 1996 you could buy an Paul Sietsema sculpture for $300, if memory serves me right). With mid-career sustenance for artists, a lot more would stick around. But somehow, I don’t think we’ll see a locavore revolution among collectors anytime soon. And maybe that’s a good thing for quirky and vigorous developments in art.

  • Renny, I would say that nearly 75% or our art sales come from clients outside the Bay Area. Having said that, over the past year sales of any kind have been hard to come by! Although I know that this is symptomatic of what many galleries and artists are experiencing now, it’s also symptomatic of being an incubator.

    Bruno is correct in his recollection of the prices of Grotjahn and Sietsema’s values. I showed both Mark and Paul in the mid nineties. Mark Grotjahn’s work was priced between $400-$800. Today, Larry Gagosian is fetching over a quarter of a million for Mark’s work. The Gagosian gallery also strongly suggested that we “not” include images of Marks work from his early exhibitions with Gallery 16 in a forthcoming book about history of our work.

    I find it shocking that many artworld powers are so dependent on creating a history for their artists and require being the sole messenger of that story that they would brush over the very tracks their artists have left.

  • forest white says:

    I believe my favorite San Francisco artist sells more work in Livermore than San Francisco. Perhaps with so little space, and such a high cost of living, San Francisco’s wealthy lack the space or resources to become puissant patrons. It is very fun to go out to the galleries here, but these are events and a fine art practice cannot sustain itself on performance unless people are paying to see it. It is not that San Francisco does not produce any talent, it is that talent in San Francisco isn’t supported.

    Moreover, instead of funding large municipal endowments and competitive universities, San Francisco nurtures several sub-standard colleges and operates galleries as co-ops. In other cities, art and culture are fiscal priorities and the competition is vigorous. In order for San Francisco to become an art destination that can compare to other cities, it should do what other cities do to fund it’s culture and discourage institutions that dilute the quality of the product.

  • Renny et al,
    One thing worth considering as we try and assess the factors behind the two groups of artists, those gone and those remaining, is the role of the landscape on their decisions. Local landscape is not only the context of our lives, but also very often the subject of our art. In a community that serves as a center of the environmental movement, where preserving greenspace and restoring the Bay tend to rate as high or higher than development and industry, there are certain artists who may have to stay in order to make their work.
    At the risk of over-romanticization, I would suggest that being able to wander around the Headlands or to feel the fog roll in might be central to some artists decision to stay.

  • Frank Lostaunau says:

    hi griff…I pray that you said NO!

    you could cut a deal with gagosian by strongly suggesting that he publish the a more accurate story of how Anna Mendieta was murdered!

    hang on to your own gallery history…VIVA Gallery 16! VIVA!

  • Hi Renny,

    As a Bay Area Artist, living on the east coast, I am enjoying this conversation. It reminds me of listening to KNBR, as fans try to figure out why the Giants can’t get back to the World Series like teams from bigger cities.

    In short, isn’t it all about playing the game?

    I am currently reading Tom Marioni’s memoir “Beer, Art and Philosophy” and from it I am finding many of these questions answered. I am also learning more about why the Bay Area is so unique.


  • Arthur Strange says:

    According to a recent NY Times article, artists are leaving New York because of high rents. And several galleries have closed there during the recession. None-the-less, there’s still huge crowds on Saturdays going “gallery hopping” in large art districts; there’s a tradition of collecting, of speculating, and of living with original art in small ugly apartments with lousy views. And the museums are packed even for “difficult” and scholarly shows. The Bay Area lacks all that.

    There was a time when SF was, briefly, the center of the art universe: David Ross brought international focus to SFMOMA, Mrs Wattis was funding the purchase of some amazing work, and the Logans were building their superb collection from Tiberon. Then Ross got fired, Mrs. Wattis passed away and the Logans moved to Vail.

    Earlier, there was centered around the Art Institute the Bay Area figurative movement. It didn’t catch on in the East, didn’t influence anybody, but historically is highly regarded and is an example of SF doing its thing. Similarly, the Bill Graham light shows and psychedelic posters–again Bay Area and unique.

    The point is such moments come and go, and artists come and go depending on what’s best for them individually or for their careers or depending on circumstances not always under their control.

    Nineteen-century American artists (and physicians) went to France and Germany to study. Twentieth-century artists (and writers) went to Paris to hang out at the cafes (the exchange rate was very favorable); young singers went to German opera houses to build careers. Today, artists (and investment bankers) go to New York and LA. Why not move around?

    Renny, this soul searching is so typical of an insecure and provincial area.

  • George, yes, it (soul searching) is a symptom of something but I’m not sure what…I fear you might be right but I hope it’s a search for values…

  • I don’t know about the other artists, but I do know that Miranda July moved away from the bay area in the sense of I grew up here and am moving away from where I grew up to go to college.** Are we mourning the fact that she didnt move back after her successes?

    I don’t know about the other artists, but I do not think that saying all these artists moved away means in a general sense that there is a dearth of opportunity for artists in the bay area. You have to look at where in their career they were when they moved, and also remember that in the 90s who didn’t lose at least half the people they knew (artists or not) simply because of being priced out of living in the bayarea? There are way too many variables to make generalizations like this.

    I also have to say, because of all the people who left, I now have the reverse connections in New York and in LA. Funny, that.

    (** not super fan, just was around the punk rock scene at the same time.)

  • Maybe this should be the final word…I got this on line today…

    What more can be done to enable artists in NYC?
    Moderator: Jason Bowman, Fountain Gallery
    Artists struggle constantly to live, work, show, and sell. Artists, arts leaders, notable panelists will address solutions at NYC:State Of The Art, an unprecedented artist and art industry not-for-profit conference.
    David Businelli, AIA
    Zannah Mass, Two Trees
    Savona Bailey-McClain, West Harlem Arts
    Manon Slome, No Longer Empty
    Gavin Sewell, Artist

  • Renny,
    I remember when you came to speak at SFSU when I was a graduate student there. You were so excited about and connected to Yerba Buena. During the time I was in college I had big dreams. I never did get that teaching job to help pay the bills. So I have turned to writing. The Bay Area is not a place to get started. I found out you have to go to make a name then come back. Life happens. I know some of the people on the “who stayed list” and they are or were teachers at San Francisco State. I am not sure why people stay or people go but I do know staying in Academics is a good way to stay in touch with the arts. I work for a website where emerging and established artists can show their art. I also like the idea of the New York Armory fair. Do we have anything like that in the Bay Area? As far as money is concerned — there is plenty. But collectors only know what is good if they can see it and other people tell them what it good. What do we have? You have raised great question about this topic. “Should I stay or should I go?”


    p.s. I’m one of da greatest Artists in America… proudly groomed by THE CITY for 5 years.

    hEY NOW… 😉

  • Steven Barich says:

    An interesting opinion of the Bay Area by Hank Willis Thomas from Juxtapose Interview:

    [Hank Willis Thomas] One of the things that is hardest, and I love San Francisco, but one of the things that’s hard about it is that there’s so much talent and creativity that’s going on here, but people are so intensely afraid of selling out that they either don’t have the motivation to push their work to the next level or they’re too stubborn. They would rather their 500 friends know that they are the shit then to have the world kind of be affected by their work and be considered a sellout or have their authenticity diluted. Because it is diluted by the mainstream.

    [On Shepard Fairey] He is selling out. But when you sell out its at what cost? Because now he has much greater power in his voice than he ever would have if he had just stayed in his college kid, hipster, cool community. He could affect them, but they already know. So how do you affect people who are totally different? You sell out. I think that’s my biggest struggle with the Bay Area; people look up to LA and New York as if it has something that the Bay Area doesn’t have and the only thing they have are the pride of showing the world that this is what we have. I tried to stay here, I was here for eight years and I’m here again. But what I say about New York in LA, I mean I’m so relieved to be back because its insane, but at the same time what makes them exciting is that everyone there is trying to make their dreams come true. The quality of life in New York sucks. LA does not compare to the quality of life here either. But when your there everyone’s like, “I’m trying to make it. I have this idea for myself that I want the world to see.”

    [Interviewer] Maybe people are hungrier there?

    But it’s inherently so because, really you’re going to sit around on the dirty streets and talk to people? Or sit in your car all day? Whereas here, yeah it’s colder, but overall its just so beautiful all the time, people overall are nicer, there’s a good feeling overall in the Bay Area. So it’s like who’s motivated to get on the grind and do stuff like that when like, I mean, I’d rather go to the park and talk to you guys all day then like sit at my computer. I think that’s why there’s so many people like Shepard Fairey living here, but very few people get credibility until they leave. Like that’s how I was too. I was here in the Bay Area. SFMoMA didn’t care ‘cus I’m here. ‘Cus they don’t care about anyone who lives here. So you’re just kind of like, “So…” And it’s not like it’s any cheaper than New York really.”

  • This is an amazing discussion that I am just now coming upon.

    Renny, I don’t think (or at least hope!) that your questions emerge from a place of insecurity about the SF art scene (as suggested by Mr. Strange). I prefer to frame them as an arts leader reflecting on the changes of the arts as an ecological system, and trying to ascertain why a specific change (people leaving versus staying) has occurred — and if there is a pattern that can be traced around this specific event. It appears the question is posed in the first place because the departure of artists is seen as having negative repercussions on the ecosystem, rather than merely seeing it as part of the flux of things, i.e. “X artist left, but Y artist arrived!”

    I left San Francisco 4 years ago. While in San Francisco I had a wonderful community of productive and critically engaged artists that consistently met to have dialog about each other’s work. I had shows in the SF bay area and beyond. On the balance, was able to make my work. I adjunct taught throughout the bay area. Yet, despite these important elements coming together, I ultimately left San Francisco for a tenure-track job that would give me immediate and long-term financial stability, which to me translated into having more headspace to make my work.

    If I could’ve gotten fulltime academic work in SF would I have stayed? Very likely. However on the intangible side of things, after living in one place for 16 years I also wanted a change. This desire for change had nothing to do with perceptions about the SF art scene. If this were the case, I would have moved to one of the big 4. Instead I moved to the desert! The desire for change was about needing new and different experiences in life– this I find important for my productivity and continued growth as an artist.

    For the sake of the data-gathering, here are a handful of other former bay area artists that also left primarily because they wanted/needed fulltime academic jobs (of this I am almost 100% certain):
    Michael Trigilio
    Robin Ward
    Mary Tsiongas
    Geof Oppenheimer
    Amy Hicks
    Ellen Babcock

    If the SF arts community believes that the departure of artists, in general, has an adverse effect, hopefully data gathered could be utilized to attempt to change the dynamics of the surrounding climate in order to improve the likelihood that artists will stay rather than leave. For this to happen there needs to be some kind of consensus about priorities. I.e., in order for artists to stay in SF do they need jobs? What kind of jobs? How much money do they need to earn? Does it have to be a teaching job? What percentage would prefer it if the money instead came from art sales? If the financial conditions were satisfied would the majority artists stay? Then how to best go about creating the right kind of jobs/expanding the base of local collectors/ increasing sales… Or instead, is the top priority for artists to have a more diverse community (online, published, local networks) of critical dialog and an improved external perception about the SF art scene? If SF were externally regarded on par with the LA, NY, Berlin, etc. artworld, would it be sufficient motivation for artists stay rather than leave? Would the majority do so even if they couldn’t really afford to financially? Then how to best go about changing external perceptions…

  • Claudia: Thanks for your thoughtful response…I think the key point is that we tend to overlook how mobile so many people are now…as you said. I hope you note some of the followup posts I’ve made also, especially the statistical research I posted a few weeks ago…

  • Tucker Nichols says:

    Simply put, the Bay Area is the best place I know of to live in as an artist. Just my opinion, of course, informed by growing up on the East Coast, including a few yrs in NYC, before coming here. Experimentation, innovation, failure and renewal–all integral to what makes art worthwhile to me–are a part of this area’s core (and weirdly short) history. I’m lucky to have gallery representation in NY, it takes a lot of pressure off trying to eke out a living selling to the relatively small pool of Bay Area collectors, some of whom buy my work in NY and have it shipped back here. I don’t claim to understand this stuff.

    But I am a bit confused by the stance of insecurity that seems to permeate the SF art community. I’ve felt it in museum programming, artists, dealers and the local art schools. Why do we compare ourselves with NYC or LA? Have you been to those places? Because they’re not thinking about us at all. They are too busy trying to survive in their own surroundings. Unless you self select as someone who gets to NY and thinks oh-my-god-this-place-is-for-me, you’ll probably need to spend a good chunk of mental energy convincing yourself that it makes logical sense to live like that, and that there is simply no alternative. Ideal for making art? Hard to imagine, but I guess it could provide the necessary angst if you need some.

    I love NY, and I think LA is weird in a sometimes entertaining way, but I’m leaving the Bay Area only when it’s a field of rubble. Or, more likely, if we just can’t afford it anymore. Needless to say, we will not be moving back to NY. It would prevent me from doing what I want to do.

    But in terms of the scene here, I really don’t care if people stay here or leave. I guess it’s like a relationship, if they don’t want to be in it, they probably weren’t right for the place. I’d rather engage with the people who think it’s worth sticking around, and there are plenty of amazing people who do.

    Whatever happened to Paris? I thought part of being an artist was that we stopped worrying about this stuff and made our own reality. Do you think Dave Eggers could do what he’s done if he was based in Brooklyn? I don’t. Ferlinghetti? Craig Newmark? Harvey Milk? Steve Jobs? Diebenkorn? Alice Waters? Pixar? There’s an unflinching innovation across that list that I am proud to wallow in.

    Thanks for raising the topic, Renny. Joseph mentioned this thread was unfolding and I finally remembered to have a look.

    PS. Get back here, Lee Walton. You know you want it.

  • Thanks Tucker. I agree that there is a strange psychology at work and with this post I was hoping to shed a little light. I think your post is the most apt, positive response to date. Did you see further on, my list of local arts that I love, that is parallel to yours…?

  • I only tripped across this thread a few days ago and needed to digest the many insightful and passionate responses before contributing my 3 cents (inflation).

    While there are many valid points raised within Renny’s query, I think the real value is in the tangential direction some of the replies took, particularly — is it really such a concern which artists leave and which artists stay in the Bay Area, much less conducting a study of why? Like the death of painting (and now photography), I agree that this is a fairly pointless and exhausted issue.

    Artists by nature are a migrating species — it’s one of the things we do best; go someplace to challenge something new. I’m sure artists leave these other cities at a rate somewhere equal to that of the Bay Area, but perhaps for different reasons. It could just be that we notice it more here because we’re smaller in number and as one result more community set then the Big 4. Personally, I prefer that. To compare the Bay Area art scene to NYC, LA, etc., is really quite silly. We are not them as much as they are not us. And as soon as you compare yourself to another you’re in danger of taking the inferior stance. I think this is what a number of responses identified as ‘insecurity,’ and perhaps feeds the notion of the Bay Area’s “lack of [aggressive] criticality.” We should all stop holding any place in higher esteem then our own studio/gallery/museums, money flow or not. First “we must cultivate our garden” Voltaire.

    Yes, we certainly need Bay Area collectors to stop buying the work of Bay Area artists from NY galleries when those artists are also being represented in BA galleries. This has been going on for far too many years and it’s just frigg’n crazy. The BA art community (and the cities tax tills) is getting its thin pockets picked. It’s certainly in the artist’s interest, but not our position/job to confront local collectors on the broader effects of this practice. Is a piece of art produced in the Bay Area more valuable if it is purchased from a gallery outside the Bay Area? I believe today there’s a sad answer to that, and this is a start to what needs to be addressed. If it’s a prestige thing, this certainly needs to be redirected asap. Risking naiveté (once again), but by supporting their own local art market the collectors themselves would have greater power (inside track advantage) and a direct effect on increasing the value of that market on a national and international level. So by default wouldn’t these collectors also be increasing the value of their own collection of BA art? Maybe I’m wrong, but I think this was something the dear and departed Ms Phyllis Wattis did quite successfully for many years.

    It seems more BA collectors need to trust and be educated by their BA galleries in the building of their collection. I apologize for feeling I need to apologize for my east coast bluntness (I moved to the Bay Area in ’95 from Hoboken, NJ), but taking full advantage of having no gallery rep or affiliation to insult, someone’s got to step up and have the cojones and/or be clever enough to get more of the local big money to respect and support the local art scene without filtering 50% of their investments through other cities. There I said it. Then of course they can foster a trickle down effect towards the under recognized BA artists w/ zero professional charisma (just a self serving opinion, and thank you Marcella for inadvertently suggesting it). This all goes up the ladder to the museum level. I know there are a few galleries who see this as an opportunity and are making it one of their missions, but perhaps the Bay Area needs a larger or alternative force. I have no clue what that force would be.

    As for some Bay Area artists, I think this insecurity is also somewhat reflected in the “I just do what I do” attitude (which is a real shame considering the incredible amount of talent here) and what seems to be a cyclical regurgitation of a “Bay Area style.” Now before I get the 16 to 28 year old BA art community tagging my home, what I’m actually saying is that this type of work doesn’t need to stop, it needs to be pushed forward. In my humble through critical view, the residual impressions of the 1990’s Mission School is no longer unique or “cutting edge” (i hate that term almost as much as “emerging”). I guess I’m pointing a finger here, but it had its day. It’s done. Note to academia: generally recognized as BA art, it doesn’t generate all that much interest outside a select Bay Area community anymore and needs a “rigorous and critical” injection if it’s going to be anything that hasn’t been done in the very recent past. And I will echo Anthony’s comment, that I believed echoed ZRS’s comment, we should not “confuse criticality with negativity.” Take this work to its next level already. It’s very possible that this is happening and I just don’t see it yet. But from the good view of this man’s porch, there is very little there today that’s new or challenging. There I said that too. And now I should shut up before I create division where I seek to sponsor unity.

    Sorry for being so late to the discussion. Thank you Renny for bringing petrol to this spark and I’ll end my thoughts here. But in a shameless plug for early visibility and community support: …inspired in part by this very thread… keep your antennas up for the Bay Area Untied Football Club (BAU FC).

    first match Sunday June 6, 2010 in LA, opponent, Grupo Bijari, Sao Paolo, Brazil

    We shall proudly unite w/ our Bay Area expat-artists who have chosen to migrate south
    for whatever reasons, to band as one, under a single flag, and face our imminent slaughter at the cleats of our Brazilian collaborators!

    …yes, shameless, but motivated and secure in the shadow of certain obliteration!

    GO BAU FC!

  • Hey, its been a year, or so since this great discussion, guess i was crazy into other things, and missed it. I like to see everyone’s thoughts though, really is kind of historical. One thing I can say, is that I always have considered myself a part of the the Bay Area as a “scene” and rather a part of the world, in its larger sense. And lots of my artist friends around the globe feel very similar things about their own cities that they dwell in. Dwelling, living, making a life somewhere is a big thing, requiring different rules than the life as an artist. My art runs rampant in the south, abroad, in the east, in LA each in its own time. I crave the experiences way outside the Bay Area, i run to them. But then i come home here and go to the baseball field with my kid, and eat amazing Mexican food, and scheme up new projects all the while. I did leave for a little while, taking some jobs around the country, driving highway 70 in my van etc. I had incredible adventures, that i hope to keep having, and them come back here and lie down on the hill, on the beach, in the canyon, or in my backyard and watch the freakin clouds float by. It is a place here where i have somehow been able to make new work, spin it out, find a new place for myself. Just in time to take it on the road.
    Thanks people.

  • Well ,it’s now two years since the first posting.I just wanted to say I have enjoyed the conversation.I find myself hungry for dialogue about the arts in SF.I check out several sf art blogs everyday ,so there are those. I find myself more drawn to the NY times for reviews of shows and what’s happening in the art world. I appreciate the quality of writing and the number of art critics they have while our Sf paper has one. That alone speaks volumes about the art scene here. I do think there are many fine blogs that are attempting to fill the critical gap in letting the public know what is showing and happening culturally in SF. I agree with many of the views above , SF is a great place to create work but a difficult place to find an audience. I would love to see more dialogue between the arts, film, music,dance,art…etc. I work in the film industry to support myself and I find that world wonderful but as narrow as I find the art world here.I know I am guilty of not getting off my butt and going out and seeing shows,checking out new work, finding other artists to engage with. So for 2012 I pledge to get out there and maybe some of you will do the same. Basically the important thing is just to keep going to your studio and doing the work.Art is a game of pure determination, you have to stay in the game no matter if anyone is looking ,buying or talking about your art.

  • Thank you for keeping this post alive people, at when I read Renny’s post I felt alienated and left out because no body had noticed that I left the Bay Area in 2009. I grew up in the bay area in places like Pacifica, then Foster City and then mostly in Emerald Hills an un-incorporated area of San Mateo County. I graduated from the art institute in 1998 after being fortunate to participate in the NYC studio program so I have done the art circuit. Basically I had to leave the Bay Area because the opportunities that I was looking for and needed to grow were not presenting themselves. Like any other profession you go to where the work is. That is the way that I negotiate my stubborn commitment to my art. Finally I now find myself as a Phd researcher in the ACT program at Goldsmiths University of London. That’s in the computing dept. Im really feeling the impact of globalism as London is such a melting pot. Im doing all this in the hopes that I can come home to San Francisco one day. I thank the Bay Area and its artist for all its taught me.

    all best,
    Rebecca Miller

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