For about two years now I have been living away from San Francisco, and I am constantly being confronted by the stereotypes people have of the art scene in the Bay Area. Apparently there are a lot of people who are quick to dismiss the art and artists in SF as being maybe not as serious as they are out here in New York. But by serious they mean hard work. Politics. Professionalism. Attitude. Getting Paid. Stuff like that. So I find myself wanting to tell the people I meet it’s not so simple, that it’s an apples & oranges comparison and that artists in San Francisco are not the crude stereotypes they make them out to be.
Still, it’s hard to fight a stereotype — especially one that has grains of truth in it. For better or worse, the San Francisco brand was writ large by the 1960s counterculture movement. Consider how, in 1967 during the Summer of Love at the first “Human Be-In,” Timothy Leary told a crowd of 30,000 people in Golden Gate Park to “Tune in, turn on, and drop out.” Consider also that the international media at the event noted that Owsley Stanley had provided gianormous amounts of his home-brewed “White Lightning” LSD for the event, which everyone knew was going to be handed out for free. Combine that with free concerts by the likes of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane and you get a stereotype so potent it still resonates to this day.
But, Hegel would argue, art must express the spirit of culture, so it makes sense that art in the Bay Area reflected the concerns of the time. Individual artists are, after all, products of their culture.
One good example of how art and the counterculture merged was when, in 1970, Tom Marioni opened up what Crown Point Press founder Kathan Brown calls “the first alternative space in the United States.” Instead of being just another art gallery, Marioni viewed his space, the Museum of Conceptual Art (MOCA), as “a large-scale social work of art.” In it he showed all kinds of experimental performance pieces like Chris Burden’s “I Was a Secret Hippy,” and it was where Marioni’s best-known performance/installation piece, The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art, was first shown. And the beer, like Owsley’s LSD, was free.
Since then a multitude of art spaces have come and gone — more recently galleries like Scene Escena, Mimi Bar, The Victoria Room, Four Walls, ESP, The Living Room, Spanganga, and even the legendary New Langton Arts — all of whom allowed artists to incubate and try out their ideas without the need to commercialize what they did. Far from being run by hippie drug addicts, the spaces were mostly self-funded labors of love that existed as a testament to the hard work and creative visions of everyone involved. The evolution from museum to gallery to alternative space to art fair has had a profound impact on how art is made and shown, but clearly can trace its roots to the counterculture movement of the 1960s on both coasts.
Yet even as the art scene has moved far past the hippie/druggie/anti-America stereotype, the brand still lingers. It’s absurd, of course, because what could be more American that the politically active, multicultural, and business-savvy region the Bay Area has become? Google, Yahoo, Pixar, Facebook, Twitter, Digg all are headquartered in the area. Sure, it’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s the best we’ve got and it’s still a place where a lot of people come to try out their ideas. Innovation has always been part of the cultural psychology — both in art and business.
Considering all of this I couldn’t help but notice that while many alternative spaces have vanished, some have managed to do quite well. Take Gallery 16, for example — since it opened in 1993 it has not only managed to survive, but it has thrived. Whereas most galleries just show art, they developed a unique business model with a printing business, Urban Digital Color, which has helped subsidize the gallery. At the same time, according to owner and artist Griff Williams, the gallery is a space where artists should feel free to experiment and make the work that they feel is important.
Who knows — this professional and sustainable approach for the arts might even become a trend. Curious to hear his side of the story, I called up Griff to get his take on running a space in San Francisco. As a small business owner and the son of a former U.S. Congressman, he sure didn’t sound like a hippie to me.