February 09, 2010

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)

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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…?

  • 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.

  • 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…

  • 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…

  • 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.”


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

    hEY NOW… 😉

  • 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?”

  • 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

  • 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.)

  • 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…

  • 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.

  • 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.


  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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, 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.

  • 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.

  • 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, 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Francis, Chris & Amy,
    Nice contributions!

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

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

  • somebody told me he is in washington dc

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

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

  • 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.

  • Dean, thanks for the heads up on this!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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!

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

  • 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.

  • Jon! Hey! Thanks for joining this unwieldy thang.
    I was, like Marcella above, caught on your last line. So you’re saying that being in Pittsburgh where the art support is even less available, that we sound a bit unappreciative of what we do have?

  • jon, i am curious as what you think the problem might be, if “money floating around” is notone of the crucial problems. it seems that you say you left because what the bay area was able to offer you financially was not adequate for having a family. so that means if there was more money creating grants, residencies and connections w/ opportunities elsewhere you may have been able to stay?
    i do agree, immensely, on the issue of amazing local artists being taken for granted…

  • Hi Renny,

    Way to stir the pot! As one of the very many artists that have left I can briefly add my reasons. First, it is strange to hear Bill James, statistics, and survey measurements being brought up in a discussion about what is surely a nuanced and often irrational decision-making process. I’m reminded of the online petition that was started by students and faculty at SFAI in protest of the firing of long-time faculty. What started out as a straight forward petition became an unintentional survey of over a thousand (am I making that number up?) people, who had historic ties to the institution, filling the too small comments section with how the school impacted their lives, where that impact has lead them, and why the school should currently be ashamed of itself. The petition was really just designed for online signatures but was co-opted as a larger unruly format for both gripping and storytelling. So, what the hell am I getting at? Just that I like unruly surveys, and I think you have started a remarkable one here already. Maybe I’m like the old-time baseball scout who still feels that intuition and gut have a large part in any decision making process, and that even after carefully looking at the available stats, isn’t it still great to choose a player (or city) based on your own, probably misguided, conjecture.

    After 16 years in the Bay Area, we decided to leave not because there was a lack of criticality, community, or opportunity, but because we had just had a baby and the world was starting to come into a different focus for us. I was teaching as an adjunct at SFAI and CCA and had more or less hit the ceiling in terms of what I could earn without a tenure track teaching position. I decided to start my own art school, but being the type of businessman my grandfather would call a schlemiel or even a shmoe, I choose to make it free to attend. Of course, this was exactly how I wanted it and it was a wonderful, if not financially profitable, experience. Long story short, I decided to apply for jobs in other cities and was very fortunate to find a position that was a perfect fit for my practice (Carnegie Mellon University). I think there was a bit of “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free” going on for me in the Bay and ironically, as Steve Lambert said, I have found my work and teaching valued higher outside of the area, and now that I am gone, valued more in the Bay Area. In the end, the decision to leave was very difficult and nuanced and after looking at all of the stats we made a gut choice that has proved to be—minus the snow, lack of good mexican food, and my old friends—the right choice. To be clear, I got everything I wanted out of the Bay Area, and was very fortunate to receive the support I did, and I did not leave the Bay Area because I did not like the art scene or feel less-than the artists in NY or LA. We left for the same reason people leave expensive cities everywhere, including NY and LA, we made a gut call, and traded one prospect for another. I can say that landing in Pittsburgh, all this complaining about there not being enough money floating around seems a bit myopic.

  • i remember reading that california is the wealthiest state in the us. with a high wealth concentration in silicone valley. the catch is to get the technology wealth interested in art.
    it is good to keep in mind that nyc has an over inflated view of its relevance. there are good artists there but their model of capital/cultural colonization is overdue for a shake up and feels very tired. personally i find it very boring and full of hot air.
    the only thing that i feel they have an upper hand (there is if we are not trying to become the same, but a sustainable option) is the understanding by those w/ wealth on the meaning and necessity of art patronage. i think that derives from the money there being originally old money from european families that cultivated this profile. we are a much newer city that need to educate its wealthier citizens on the benefits of that mind set.

  • Yes, “wealth ratios” something I pulled out of the air. I do think it is a reality of some sort though – for example; it explains the wealth inequality between states and counties.

    Michael R. – that is VERY interesting. Everybody who read your comment is now playing a guessing game as to who the various players might be and what it all means. I wonder if the NY dealers feel the same way about SF artists.

  • anecdotal note: I am having breakfast at the Cupping Room in SOH0 and there are 4 big time art dealers at the table next to mine. ” The real problem with San Francisco is everyone try’s too hard” and than proceed, with great vitriolic passion to rip apart four sf art gallery owners.
    Should I have told them who I am?

  • Sid: I never heard that term, “wealth ratios.” Is that yours? I infer you mean the ratio of people who have significant diisposable income versus those who don’t…interesting. I would again guess it’s the same given the population….I have avoided revealing my own prejudices as best I can, but I must admit I have experienced the opposite of your anecdote. I have seen a show and known it was by a New Yorker because only a New Yorker would revel in that particular way about being beaten up every day.

  • Wealth stats are one thing that could be determined by published data. I just found tons of info on line. A few things became clear instantly – A. CA has a lot of money; B. most people don’t have any of that money. Per capita wealth isn’t very helpful here. Neither is median wealth. The hard numbers of people with disposable wealth is the real issue I think. In other words, I am betting that the wealth ratios are where some of the answers are to be found.

    I don’t know where this fits but might have some kind of bearing. Last spring, I was in a two person NY show with Amanda Hughen at a very established gallery. A comment was made to me that our show was “very West Coast”. It is not clear to me was meant by this but I wonder if it is akin to this, “San Francisco of course is an irrelevant art scene.”

  • Thanks Sid. I like your list–being an inveterate listmaker myself. The one question: how do you know there’s more money in NY and LA? (of course, again, speaking per capita). You may well be right but for me that falls into unproven conventional wisdom. Especially given Silicon Valley, and SF old money, and GAP/Schwab type new wealth, I don’t believe it.

  • There have been a lot of good points made that are hard data – like the population base. A couple of others come to mind as well. Both LA and NY have more money (funny money?) sloshing through the economy at large. In LA from the entertainment industry and in NY one big contender is the financial industry. Both of those industries seem to at least sustain through the down times as well as the up times — at least thus far. Both are more of a media hub as well. NY is at the top of the heap for arts publishing as well. This MAY change over time as the digital publishing world continues to shake things up. At any rate, no amount of shrewd moves will change these details. Another reality – it is damn hard to make a living from art ANYWHERE. The dominant funding sources seem to be: a spouse/companion, grants, independent wealth, teaching. Missing from that list – consistent art sales. Those belonging to the last group are a very elite club. This is where recalibration of the expectations comes into play.

  • Thanks Bob. It’ll help the database if I or someone else takes this further. I did have several of these on my original list, but have been told that some of them are back–like Chris J. and Jo…or are undecided like Keegan. Some of them weren’t here the 3 to 5 years I wanted. But as you suggest, I don’t think adding names changes much…there’s of course another 100 artists at least that could be added to both lists…your list is mostly younger people I don’t/didn’t know….

  • Bob Callaway says:

    Not to belabor the point, but I can think of many other artists who have left the Bay Area in the past six years or so:

    Tauba Auerbach
    Ellen Babcock
    Chris Ballantyne
    James Bewley
    Sarah Bostwick
    Elizabeth Chiles
    Anne Collier
    Jim Gaylord
    Tanya Gill
    Theresa Gooby
    Robert Gutierrez
    Matthew Higgs
    Xylor Jane
    Jo Jackson
    Chris Johanson
    David O. Johnson
    Casey Logan
    Reuben Lorch-Miller
    Brendan Lott
    Keegan McHargue
    Anna Maltz
    Christian Maychack
    Jill Miller
    Jason Mortara
    Donal Mosher
    Toban Nichols
    Marisa Olson
    Eamon Ore-Giron
    Mitzi Pederson
    Ben Peterson
    Adam Rompel
    Oliver Halsman Rosenberg
    Tucker Schwarz
    Bayeté Ross Smith
    Laura Splan
    Molly Springfield
    Ryan Thayer
    Zefrey Throwell
    Daniel Adam Turner
    Jon-Paul Villegas
    Will Yackulic
    Paul Zografakis

  • Marisa Hernandez says:

    I think you’re absolutely right about “expectations”–I think I expected a “I’ve-got-a-rocket-in-my-pocket” meteoric rise to the top of the Art World and that didn’t happen as we all know!–(all those SF hills went to my head!)…. aaah the hubris of youth! BUT, it really was an amazing ride!! and I never would have taken that ride had I not moved to San Francisco. SF is a place to Out yourself, in the broadest way possible. That is the TRUTH. thanks for starting this dialogue–it was kinda cathARTic. thanks Renny! and if you’re ever in NYC, give a shout out and we’ll toast to the “good ole days”! Cheers, Marisa

  • A national consortium of arts funders is going to soon issue its report on a massive survey of US artists conducted last year. Its goal was to study the impact of the recession on artists’ income, but it also has general data on how artists make a living and market their work. 451 Bay Area artists were interviewed, about half of them visual artists and the report indicates when the local results differ from national results. The research apparently was very rigorous in being inclusive so there’s a good chance that it will be accurate to the whole field. I’ll try to look at it more when it comes out.

  • MARISA! So nice to see your name. Thanks for the thoughts. It seems like one of the threads running through the histories people are posting is among the people who left, a certain nostalgia for something unnamed about SF that is missed. Of course it could just be your youth! But I suspect it’s that plus a bit of that cooperative spirit that has also been mentioned. I’ve heard the “good place to start but bad place to be mid-career” a lot over the years. The implication is that after emerging, one expects to start making a living by showing and selling enough, and that step in the process fails people here. But it didn’t happen for you here, nor in NY. So is it SF that was the problem? or the expectations? That is, I was a huge fan of your work, as you know, but unless one is making work that is readily marketable, expecting commercial engagement may be an illusory goal….

  • Marcella I like the positive nature of not automatically defaulting to the flaws of the scene, but looking to things that are particular to and special about the art scene here. Nobody talks about it but I suspect that some of these things–like cooperation among artists and among institutions–are in part what keep some people here. I think my post on Tuesday will list some of the things like that that I think about.

  • i think that if one is looking for stability, the choice of being an artist, anywhere in the world may be a misguided one.
    i am also disturbed by the definition of what an art career should be. it seems that success in completely informed by the notions we get from the ny artstar machine. i am still baffled by people that engage in the art world w/ hopes of fame. there are much better arenas for this and honestly, art will never be able to have the reach pop culture has. because it is not what it is about.

    attending kamau patton’s “icons of attention” at ybca last night, reminded me of a very unique situation we have in sf: the possibility to bridge visual arts w/ other cultural communities in a very easy way to great results. in this case kamau reached out to the amazing experimental sound community we have in the bay area. because of our city’s small physical size, proximity can be negotiated with much ease and we should take advantage of that. and really do it in a committed, serious manner. looks like bam and its new programming under larry rinder, is also trying for that.

    again seems that the majority of the problem, as always, is the limited flow of cash. how can we get the ppl with access and oveflow of it (believe me, there are many here) to join in the cause?

  • Michael I like your and Steve’s vision of a more cosmopolitan sense of floating among opportunities with at least an emotional if not literal home base somewhere you love, ie here. I like my idea of calling you e-citizens or some such. Where your body is, where your work is, where you have a home, where your lover is, are not necessarily all the same at any one time. But what happens when you get older and want a family…or tired of The Road…

  • Marisa Hernandez says:

    I was part of the ’01 artist diaspora. My reasons for leaving San Francisco were myriad. After 7 years or so of “doing the rounds” at all the public and edgier art venues in San Francisco, and a couple of SECA nominations, I felt as though I’d hit the ceiling. The dotcom bubble bust provided the final propulsion –Aaron Noble and I were ejected from our very cheap and grand live/work space which we shared on Clarion Alley, so I thought “I’m outta here”… Aaron went to L.A. and I came to NYC.

    Several years before I left San Francisco, in an attempt to create a bridge to the other California art center, I curated a show at SoEx [“Lo-Cal”] which brought together SF and LA artists who I felt shared a *California* sensibility. To this end, Melissa Pokorny and I did a few road trips to L.A. for “art reconnaissance”. In the process, I became keenly aware of SF’s “stepchild” status in the ArtWorld.

    Since my departure from SF, I have separated from the Art World and abandoned the idea of art stardom. As I look back, those years of incubation, discovery and art friendships were amazing, and made possible in large part because of the great ethos of artistic community there ; I met some of the most brilliantly talented people during that period of my life. I’ve not had the privilege/good fortune of such a vibrant, supportive community here in NYC. There is however, in my mind, a Never Never Land quality to San Francisco that felt like a hindrance to me somehow–when I left, I felt ready to move on. I’ve often thought that SF makes *art emergence* possible, but not a whole lot of opportunities for *advancement*. As it turns out, NYC has not been the Promised Land for me artistically, but it has provided some much needed growth opportunities in other realms. I will always have a special place in my heart for SF and my SF homies. SF has never been short on talent –> it is short on money and art-frastructure.

  • Michael Arcega says:

    Hi Renny and all.
    I couldn’t resist commenting. This topic has been a subject of great interest for some time now. It seems to ebb and flow, which probably correlates with each emigration.
    I agree with most, if not all of what Anthony has said, especially in the previous post. I think that there is a strong mark or identity that living in the Bay Area imprints on someone that has practiced here for a minimum or 3-5 years. When they leave for greener pastures, most don’t easily forget their friends and colleagues. Rather than see it as a negative impact on the local culture- a brain drain, I have found these mini exoduses to be helpful for those of us that stay. It creates a global network of artists with a certain elasticity or magnetic draw back to the Bay. I think that Steve Lambert is a great example of this. Also, many curators that started here continue to visit and call on the talent that have stayed.
    I’m not sure if this statistically factors in, but I felt that there is a grey area in such a polarized dialog.

  • Anthony Discenza says:

    Whoa, I stepped away from this thread for a day and it has exploded! Clearly, this is a pretty charged issue, so I want to commend Renny for bringing it up. And I should reiterate that I think his call to try and get some sort of objective handle on this problem is a good one, precisely because there is so much emotion surrounding it; as others have pointed out though, it’s extremely hard to bring a concise analysis to bear on something like this. Another (somewhat obvious) complication is that the two main cities that seem to continually come up in these discussions–NY & LA–are so very much larger than the Bay Area; in some ways I think this quantitative difference leads to certain distortions in our perceptions. I think in this case, size differences do lead to qualitative differences. if SF had 12 million people in it, the scene here would look radically different. It’s deceptively easy to look at NY and focus on the hype, glamor and money–but the flip side of that picture, something that Steve touched on, is a vast population of struggling, unknown artists no one will ever see–there’s so much disparity there. Along these lines, one thing that has occurred to me since getting involved in this thread is that there’s a bit less hierarchy among artists here, less attitude (note that I didn’t say no attitude, just less). I do think it’s easier for better- and lesser-known artists to meet on equal terms here. Maybe it’s simply a factor of being in a smaller city, or maybe it’s a product of a seige mentality, but I think it’s something we shouldn’t necessarily take for granted. I do think we should try not to spend so much time wringing our hands, and formulate ways to actively enage the problem. Following Marcella’s lead, perhaps one good strategy might be for folks here to band together more, maybe self-organize shows in other cities that incorporate a mix of people from here and other places, putting the emphasis on linkages in ideas, approaches, and content–rather than trying to define some sort of distinctive regional “brand” for ourselves. (I personally always felt that the hype around “the mission school” in the long run only served to re-inforce negative assumptions about the Bay Area, but maybe that’s just me…)

  • In NYC, they complain that the center of the art world has shifted to London or Berlin. The SF art world (a.k.a market) has a challenge to face up to by creating something unique and provactive with world class rigor. When I discuss with people back home in NYC the Bay Area at scene, I call SF “the workshop” because it is a good place to develop but not a good place to stay. The social baggage of being pc and socially aware will evenutally mature or become cache in years to come and maybe that is what SF does best.

  • Renny,
    It is a pity you’ve framed most of my comment as an attack. My main challenge—if you want to see it that way—was parallel to what was also questioned by Discenza: who is this list for, what is your goal, etc? Do you have an opinion on how this will help artists improve their likelihood of remaining in the Bay Area? How will this list help the Bay Area overcome its negative image, to become that vital art center both you and I know it already really is?

    I may have misunderstood this post of yours as a call to action, where actually it is just a thought experiment. I guess I can’t tell if you’re actually serious about this database, when you write something like:” I am desperately interested in what the answers to those questions would look like, but have neither the time nor inclination to actually do that research.”

    Surely you must admit that the extensive 120-person alphabetical list(s) was created under some standard, a standard making them “good” enough for your list. Are they artists you know, you’ve worked with, are considered professional, etc? All the questions you’re looking for answers to (“I am interested in learning the existential reality of the Bay Area art support system that is measurable: grant dollars available, teaching jobs available, residency opportunities available, exhibition opportunities available, etc”) could be determined without writing up a list of qualifying artists—they could have been asked directly, maybe bringing those oral histories to this forum. All the artists you listed are ones that actually succeeded to a certain extent within the system, either here or outside the Bay Area. Doesn’t that create a lop-sided data set? Yes yes, you admitted right off the bat that this was by no means a comprehensive list, but every time someone of your stature in the SF Bay Area art scene makes a list, it separates out those who’ve “made it” by your standards in contrast to those that didn’t.

    You might think I threw you a red herring, but I think that saying it will “take a village” to actually make change through the use of an objective database pushes off this “Why Artists Leave Town?” subject onto others. The village is obviously here, reading your blog posts, so realistically, if knowing this data can improve the outcome of our SF Bay Area’s team performance, how do we get this study started?

  • Thanks for chiming in Mr. Lambert. I think your career might be a new model! Usually artists stay here and think what might have been, or go and never turn back, or go and come back, or go and pine for “home,” or stay here and make it in NY (or elsewhere), which has always been the goal of the few who have done it: Barry McGee, Nayland Blake, the late Larry Sultan, et al. But I suspect you are inventing the new model: THE E-ARTIST, who doesn’t really live anywhere except where opportunity lies, and doesn’t valorize one community over another but takes each for what they have to offer and good-naturedly enjoys it all.

  • Steven, thanks for your comment. One thing that Bill James does is try to cut problems up into little pieces, solving them in steps that are clear and bite-size, and that add up to insights about larger problems. So for me the last thing I’m interested in doing is trying to research who is a good artist and who is not which clearly is a waste of time, so you have set up a red herring, ie, suggesting that I’m proposing what I’m not, then attacking it. (my list of artist does not anywhere imply it’s a qualitative list). Making change is a whole other issue, one that I suspect “takes a village” to address.But I know that change only begins with knowledge. I am interested in learning the existential reality of the Bay Area art support system that is measurable: grant dollars available, teaching jobs available, residency opportunities available, exhibition opportunities available, etc. At the same time I’m indulging my interest in biography by asking for oral histories of how people have made choices.

  • Oh another reaon why I left, I wanted my hair to be shorter. (LOL). Sorry it is snowing out there. another reaon why people might leave Sf, it never snaw, or get really hot.

  • yes, I agree there wasn’t much of a critical diologue that I felt I could contribute to,

  • I felt there was little or no room for an artist who is Indian from the UK. I really enjoyed my time in SF and what I was doing. I met some great people, artist, writer, critics, collectors. But i never felt that peole really didnt understood my perspective. if it worth anything I left SF in my 40’s, actually in my late 30’s. I think that is another reaon i left, which is beyond the art world, I don’t think i could be in Sf in my 40’s, and that is personal.

  • Renny,
    Creating a database of this sort is an interesting endeavor…if the resulting data could be used to actually improve the SF Bay Area art scene. Who would be in a position do implement changes based on the resulting data?

    Creating a database of artist’s stats and experiences might be more difficult than it seems initially. I’m interested in “running” with your baseball analogy further, because it both answers and poses quite a few questions related to the setup of the database. But I’m questioning how to translate what we “know” about the SF Bay Area into statistical facts, then apply them to our conventional wisdom about the art scene. Are we playing Artball by your rules, or mine?

    What immediately comes to mind is, again, who would be in a position to utilize this data? Would it be for artists (players), art admins (managers), gallerists (team owners), etc? Unlike the Major League Baseball as an institution, there is no singular “system” who could “rule” on the current situation of stats, in order to keep the players on the team, so to speak…cause we’re not talking about just salaries here…or maybe we actually should be?

    Like has been mentioned before and above, artists that can make a living off their art not only feel better about the SF Bay Area, they probably stay put as well. This probably true about any region. I think it is fair to say that if an artist living in the Bay Area has a yearly show at a gallery plus a decent teaching gig, they can afford the steep cost of living in the Bay Area, and they’ll stick it out (is that a pun?!?). If you can’t make a decent wage and can’t get a decent exhibition every year, and like Anthony said, you are young and willing to bust ass in order to stand out, you’ll take on NYC or LA, just to try your luck.

    Also, I know I’m stealing a base-tangent here, but where in your database do we put SF Bay Area “natives” who left and within 3–5 years came back to stay, besides all the financial/exhibition walks or strike-outs?

    Continuing with the idea of the database, I’m also thinking about the actual stats you wish to collect. In baseball, we’re talking about stats that effect every player AND are quantifiable in percentages. Every catcher (sculptor), pitcher (painter) and baseman (photographer) has the ability to catch, run, bat, etc. Artists do not all fit the same rules or patterns: there are artists that can’t draw, artists that do a song and dance bit, artists that can create/write/curate/admin all-in-one…and not to mention artists that have pure charisma and can make the dealers PAY ATTENTION!! There is no quantifiable way to say “this artist is better than that artist” without playing the “this is who I know and I’m going with that relationship-based context to tell you what is good” game.

    You talk about being tired of people mouthing off the SF Bay Area, well, I’m tired of seeing lists upon lists of who is an artist of merit, because they all fall short, all of them. And please don’t get me wrong—I appreciate the work and the personalities of many of the artists you listed, but unless you really invest in ALL artists who have left/stayed in the Bay Area, you’re just showing off who you know. How many players can fit in your dugout?

    So, I’m just going to take a shot at your initial questions, because as you’ve commented above, you’re not looking for the personal anecdote but for the conventional wisdom, or assumptions:

    – 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?
    I left for Europe in my 20’s, came back in my 30’s. That is a factual statistic. Still, I’m investing outside my studio art practice and into the Bay Area critical art scene because I need the feedback loop. But I invest in every city I live in, so I might not have a typical reason why I am here, however, I do like playing in this particular stadium…

    – Are teaching opportunities a key factor in staying or going?
    Yes and no. When I do teach in the Bay Area, I definitely do better financially, but like Anthony, I reinvest all the gains into my work. When I’m not teaching, I’m hustling so much as a freelancer that I definitely make less art. That is a fact that can be statistically rendered; I’ll show you my batting average, I mean timesheet.

    – Is having, not having, or losing, a gallery affiliation a factor?
    I think that if one relies on a gallery, then yes, of course. But, I’d like to see the ratio between artists in the SF Bay Area that identify as full-time artists to artists that actually work full time on their art AND have/don’t have a gallery. I think that is a HUGE reality check, and a disparaging one at that. When I get gallery representation, I’ll let you know how much more “active” I can be as an artist…you can definitely say I’m still playing my hardest in the minor leagues, talking to agents, etc…

    – Do these lists in any way shed light on whether the Bay Area is a vital art center?
    Of the two lists of artists you suggest, my first reaction is that I’m much more knowledgeable of the ones that have stayed, and granted many of them have been professors of mine. Of course, most of those artists on your list are ones that exhibit regularly in the commercial galleries, so they are the players you often get when buying your bubblegum card pack. Maybe what is most interesting about your lists is thinking about whether or not the SF Bay Area art world continues to pay attention to those that leave, as in there is some form of distrust or envy that occurs when artists change leagues?!?

  • i am very glad that this conversation is happening. it is something i obsess with on a daily basis. for the past year i have been responsible for developing the artistic programming at a sf gallery (noma gallery). on my first semester there i paired their already chosen nyc w/ bay area artists i like and thought could develop a good interaction w/ the nyc work. and this semester we are doing some mixed solo shows featuring both nyc and sf artists. i have to say that i find it extremely misguided to say that sf artists are unable of a critical approach. yes, there are people here that cannot talk about their work at all but i know of a lot of ny artists on that same boat. there may be a lot of the “i just do/like cool shit” here, but on the same token i have come across extremely thoughtful people. i try not to waste my time engaging ppl that do not want to participate in a dialogue. that said, some ppl are amazing artists that just do not have the gift of gab but are nonetheless great. you can usually tell and make yr choices.

    that said there is a very definite difference the way new yorkers handle their practice. it is more aggressive and serious. but i am not sure what that adds to the work. a lot of times it can veer towards the comical.

    the problem seems to me a monetary one. not enough money circulating in the local art world. as a matter of fact i was having this conversation with a collector last night. my question for her was since there is possibly a lot more money in silicon valley than nyc, how does one funnel someof that resource and interest into the arts in sf? she seemed to think that the key is to feed the lions with a game based in capital juggling. i’m new to this so still trying to figure that one out. but i guess what she was saying is that these ppl should be enticed w/ artstars and once they are in you can “pounce” w/ the local artists you believe in. eh. not sure what i think of this, but it could be true.

    all my nyc friends that i’ve invited here for a show have been extremely willing and easy to work with. they also seem to have a great time working here. no matter how big or small of a name they are. my hope is that by mixing things we can create an outside interest and hopefully catapult our own.

  • Renny you are calling me out! I suppose I have to say something…

    I used to hassle so many friends who left the Bay Area for New York because it seemed like a death sentence. So many of the young artists I knew left for New York and their work ended. They went too early and didn’t have a strong footing for their practice. They ended up working arts related jobs, or unrelated jobs, and not making anything anymore. That would be an interesting part of the research – how many leave and fail?

    When I left it wasn’t some strategic career move – I got the fellowship at Eyebeam almost by accident. I assumed it would be here for a year. Now it’s been about 3 and a half. I hate that I am doing what feels like the same thing in NY that I did in SF and getting further with it. That here I turn down teaching jobs and there I could barely get one. My career in the last few years hasn’t really been what I’d call a “control group” either, but it’s still frustrating. What’s more frustrating is the offers I got when I told people I was moving. All the sudden commissions and commercial gallery show offers came! One time within 5 minutes of telling the same person I was moving, they said “you know, if you ever want to show here…” I lived there my whole life to that point… so frustrating. So, back to the data, what percentage of support from local arts orgs goes to local artists? The SFMOMA, YBCA, the commerical spaces, the non-profits – what are their ratios for representing/supporting bay area, ny, la, and international artists? How much do they play into that whole thing of not seeing the great things right in front of you?

    I feel like I should add, I defend the bay. I spend a few minutes on it about it in almost every talk about my work that I give and how it is such a part of my approach to work.

    I’d love the bay area and would like to come back. But I also feel like I’ll go wherever place would support me the best. Norway, Berlin, NY, SF… dare I say even LA. I feel a little like a mercenary. But I want to do my practice and enjoy my life.

    See you when I’m back at the Headlands this summer.

    Steve Lambert

  • renny pritikin says:

    Robert K: what I want to know is what it is that you miss every day?

  • Renny, I am so glad you brought this up in such a thoughtful and reflective article — and that the community response on this page lays bare the same reasons I left the Bay Area to continue writing and painting: the Bay Area is such a young place (and sometimes full of overconfident amateurs, yes) but perhaps the loudest supporters for the arts in San Francisco are actually community activists who strive to gentrify neighborhoods through non-profit establishments … not the young artists. Rather, my experience there was quite flat as I saw how easy it was to be considered “an artist” among peers, and that a “gallery” was relative to who you were talking to. Innovative? Maybe. Democratic, sure. But it just didn’t allow me any space to write or draw without being incredibly aware of that the public spectacle, and sometimes the psychosis of the artists, was more fascinating than any potential critical stance or insinuation in the artwork. Perhaps certain artists leave to get away from the name-dropping noise on the street, and search instead for a serious conversation about direction and professional development? And, yes, … the money doesn’t hurt, either.

  • renny pritikin says:

    Anthony, sorry if I came across as rude…I tried to point out how touched i was by your note. I’m not bored by personal stories at all actually, but by complaints about the Bay Area, just cause I’ve heard them for so long and I don’t know how to evaluate them. I very much appreciate your paragraph about research; I wish I had included that paragraph in my blog. I am desperately interested in what the answers to those questions would look like, but have neither the time nor inclination to actually do that research. But I’m hoping someone out there someday will do so; I know foundations have done parallel research, such as how the arts impact local economies, for example. I want, in fantasy, the next time someone puts down opportunities in the Bay Area, to be able to say, “There are exactly the same number, per capita, of art school teaching jobs in the Bay Area as there are in x.” Or, there are 275,000 dollars available each year in artist grants for residents of the Bay Area counties, and x amount available in x. So I wouldn’t be subjected to assumptions any more.
    Carolyn: Hi! I really appreciate your clear and generous discussion of how you came to move to LA. Short of the kind of dream research I crave, having a case history of, say everyone on both lists, would be fascinating to read. Do you think that perhaps the “dead end” perception you had of the Bay Area was self-fulfilling, that you just weren’t old enough (nor had your MFA) to have the network to achieve the level of success you have found in LA?

  • I left because I felt that most performance artists who made a career of it, had east coast connections. Many times, the cultural art world doesn’t look west of he Rockies, and even if they do, they are connecting with people they met east of the Rockies.

    When you are born and raised in the Bay Area, you have to leave to get connected with the rest of the universe.
    It always surprised me that in most of my artistic circles, there were few bay area artists that were born and raised there.

    I left to Chicago to become Artistic Director of a literary arts center, and I discovered some incredible artists here that changed my work, and my approach to work. I also realized my work received more pub the farther east I travelled.

    I agree with Carolyn, tho: the best painters (artists) come from SF…though they might not be too good at talking about their work. The Bay, in the end, is less business-oriented, and those that are more business-oriented or have business-oriented teams or advisors have been able to navigate.

    However, I believe that some of my best artistic work, connections I’ve made have been from the Bay Area. I miss it every day, and constantly come home to show work, perform, and stay connected to my homeland.

  • I think it goes beyond funding and job opportunities.
    The same NYC vs SF attitude seem to apply to other creative endeavors. During the years that Francis Ford Coppola lived in SF, he was continually harangued and undervalued by local media, at the same time that he was receiving accolades in NY, Europe and elsewhere. There’s a pervasive provincialism in SF that never seems to go away. But if one moves out and “makes it” elsewhere, then he or she is lauded as a former native.
    When it comes to funding public art projects, often to the tune of millions of dollars, the SF Arts Commission has a blaring track record for ignoring local=based talent.
    Those attitudes also apply to professional writers, e.g. NYC is the center of the universe, the only place where SERIOUS talent and intellectual pursuits can be found. That said, in the past decades, many excellent and successful writers (some originally from the East Coast, as am I) ply their craft in northern California (Michael Chabon, Amy Tan, Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, Leonard Shlain, just for a start).

  • Hi Renny,
    Thank you for a great blog on this issue of artists choosing to stay in the Bay Area or leave. I know that this has been a sore subject with you for some time. I guess I’m in the artists who chose to leave. I left the Bay Area to go to grad school at UCLA. I grew up in Los Angeles and my family still lives here. I felt that I wanted to reconnect with my family and tap into the wealth of support they could offer me. ( Not so much in the financial sense, but emotional) Also I was excited about the prospect of working with the artists/ professors at UCLA. I wanted to bring my work to a larger audience, who could provide more financial support for my work and critical dialogue. All of those things have happened to a certain degree. Although being an artist is difficult where ever you live. When I moved out of the Bay Area in 1998, I felt that although I had had so much support from non-profit institutions , small galleries, and Yerba Buena for the Arts, I was barely able to make a living from my work. I did not have gallery representation. The feeling in the air was that galleries in SF only represented you if you were very established or if you were from New York. None of my friends had gallery representation, except Marisa Hernandez and Rigo. Teaching was out of the question, since I did not have a Masters yet, but it also seemed like the opportunities were few and far between. This is pre-CCA in Potrero and during the great exodus, when artists and other low to middle class renters were being evicted from their apartments. I have found that in LA, there are more opportunities to work in the field, either as a teacher, a fabricator, an artist assistant, a designer, a small business owner, etc. As a previous person commented, the economy has to support the arts from the ground up, from collectors, museums, galleries, universities, all the way down to the barristas. I’m an adjunct teacher, piecing together an income from several teaching gigs. It’s hard work, but I have time to make my work and day dream. All that being said, times have changed, travel and the internet have made our communities closer and have given artists more access to a world market. I’ve seen how the artists in the Bay Area who stuck it out, have garnered international support for their work, folks like Stephanie Syjuco, Barry McGee, Rigo, Andrew Schoultz, Kota Ezawa, Phil Ross, and Hung. Liu. San Francisco gave me the tools and space to become an artist, I worked with great folks who saw my potential and fostered it with great love and support, like Carlos Villa, Agustin Pozo,Kim Anno, The Luggage Store, yourself, the Meridian Gallery, Arnold K. and countless others. Thank you! I once heard it said down here in LA….the best painters come from SF…though they might not be too good at talking about their work.

  • SF is heavily dominated by a conceptual, politically correct, overly theoretical approach and other outdated trends. I think this partly based on SF’s deep insecurities about it’s own irrelevance and lack of intelligence so the scene tries compensate and catch up but just gets it wrong. Curators here tend to be concerned with things like identity politics for instance when most of the international art world could care less at this point. The result are many embarrassing group shows of mediocre work put together to forward a curator’s specific cultural/political agenda as opposed to recognize new and interesting art. There is very little space here for all the exciting trends in contemporary painting to be recognized and allowed to flourish.
    There is also a ridiculous unending trend of artists here who make work that looks like skateboard/surf board design. Stuff that is thought to be “edgy” but really is just very safe and boring…call it the Jack Hanley syndrome.
    It also seems like the artworld in SF constantly rewards and recognizes the same people over and over again. When it does recognize new talent it is often artists whose work looks very similar to the already recognized established Bay area artists. Its very hard for younger artists doing something different from the SF mainstream here to break into the scene because the scene wants to endlessly promote the same thing over and over again.

  • Such a great conversation here, and one that means a lot to a person who has toggled between the East coast metropolis under discussion and this San Francisco indecision about where it, as a city/scene, might stand. Must confess that I still stand by old man Hickey cited above, from that book released over a decade ago: Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy. Which essay to choose? Maybe “Romancing the Looky-Loos.”

    This is an essay about artistic communities and not markets. And not that I discount the real research called for here, and the real economic base that makes anything possible, but Hickey’s point is that people, their perceptions, their friends, and how art circulates among them is what really matters.

    His suggestion: “everything that grows in the domain of culture, that acquires constituencies and enters the realm of public esteem, does so through the accumulation of participatory investment by people who show up. No painting is ever sold nor essay written nor band booked nor exhibition scheduled that is not the consequence of previous social interaction, of gossip, body language, fashion dish, and telephone chatter–nothing transpires that does not float upon the ephemeral substrata of “word of mouth”–on the validation of schmooze.”

    I’m very interested in the conversation about Bay Area schmooze here. How does our scene pump up or even have a volume?
    The Hickey is here, probably not linkable: http://www.tablive.net/LookyLoos%5B1%5D.pdf

  • Anthony Discenza says:

    Point taken, Renny. Those are real questions that are worthy of real research. However, they’re different from the way your framed your question in your initial entry. My post was an attempt to respond to your question about why people chose to stay or leave by offering my personal experience of being here, and to share some of the thinking behind my decision to stick around. I’m certainly open to an interrogation of the assumptions underlying that decision. But since your whole point seemed to be to explore the relation between the facts & the perception of the Bay Area scene, I felt that, as an established working artist who has chosen to remain here, my experience of the environment here had a certain degree of relevance to the discussion, albeit slight. I’m sorry you felt it was tedious, or off-topic.

    In light of your response then, after re-reading your first post I find I’m uncertain of what we’re supposed to do with your two lists. Can I infer anything specific from them? No, I don’t think that, in their current form, they’re able to reveal much in the way of factual insight. There are great artists on both lists, of a range of ages, backgrounds, and degrees of professional success. But if the list is just complied off the top of your head, what “objective” criteria are we supposed to use by which to conduct a comparison? If you’re really looking to get statistical a la Mr. James, you’d have to break things down by age, education, representation, sales (or lack thereof;) level of critical attention, whatever, some set of formal parameters through which an analytic comparison can take place. Otherwise they’re just two lists of artists you like, some who still iive here, some who don’t anymore. If we’re truly hunting facts, then perhaps we need to start with a specific premise to test. For example: Do artists who leave the Bay Area after some initial recognition here enjoy a measurably greater degree of success than those that stay here for many years? (Of course, we’d have to have some specific parameters in place about how we’re defining & measuring that success–that alone would no doubt trigger an endless debate) problems of definition aside, this would certainly be something worthy of actual research, though I’m not sure it can happen on a blog. But maybe someone out there is aware of some actual research in these areas that’s already been conducted?

    Assume though that we can marshall such data–what is the goal? In what way do you envision the information obtained by such research would be used to effect change? This is in no way intended as a hostile question, I’m just curious. What do you hope to find?

  • Anthony, what I’m trying to get at here is to address the conventional wisdom about certain assumptions: that there are fewer per capita opportunities for artists; that there are fewer per capita collectors; that there are fewer per capita teaching jobs; gallery opportunities; publishers of critical journals et al. I’m calling for real research. So I find long litanies of the ills of the region tedious–I’ve lived through a million of ’em and I’m sick of ’em. What I’m doing is daring us to back up what we say with facts not opinions.

  • August Northanger says:

    @renny, Originally, I’m from NYC though I’ve lived in SF for over 10 years now. My choice in staying here is more tied to my SO then my own preference or professional gain. I did move back to NY for a few years and then back to SF due to grad school. Now that I’m back in SF, my west coast gallery still promotes me as a New York artist.

    As far as my colleagues who moved away, many of them went to MFA programs either in LA or around NY… i.e. CalArts, UCLA, Yale, Hunter, Columbia, etc. A few went to CCA and SFAI, but it seems like for every one that stayed, four left.

    Anthony raises a good point about the lack of criticality in the Bay Area arts scene. There needs to be higher critical discourse which I suppose would involve the efforts of our local curators, art writers/critics, and critical theory curriculums.

  • The fine art scene here is too concerned with political correctness, community building and social outcomes. Funding is explicitly tied to this mindset. There is no critical community. It feels like a wasteland.

  • Anthony Discenza says:

    As an artist who has been living in the Bay Area for almost 20 years now, I have a complicated reaction to this discussion. For my own part, I’m aware that remaining here has probably not served me professionally. Opportunities for showing my work have been limited, and there has been virtually no financial support, which in turn has severely constrained–perhaps even stunted, to use Will’s term–my ability to produce and develop work. Every time I show, I go deep into a financial hole that takes months (if not years) to climb back out of—only to plunge back in again. Too much of my time and energy is taken up with an office job, but without it, I would be unable to pay my bills, let alone make art. I say this not to kvetch (although I could) but simply as an exemple of what many artists face here–my situation is in no way unique. And as so many of us have experienced, I have had only the most modest success in getting much exposure outside the Bay Area—I’ve seen NY gallerists’ eyes almost visibly glaze over when I say I’m based in San Francisco.

    At the same time, I think that I have been unwilling to trade in the positive aspects of living the Bay Area for the elusive, will-o-the-wisp promise of success in NY or LA. While being a professional artist here is difficult, my day-to-day life here is a lot easier. Having lived in NY after college (and working as a preparator at a very high-end gallery in the early 1990’s) I had a keen awareness that although returning to NY might in theory increase my professional opportunities, functionally they would likely fall to zero, as I would find myself even more radically constrained in my ability to produce any actual work. I’d be working full time, living in a miniscule space, run ragged by the expenditure of energy & money needed to get by in a place like NY. In my 20’s I could handle it, sort of; at least there was a kind of romance to it. But as I’ve gotten older, that sort of existence simply holds no appeal to me. I decided I wasn’t willing to trade more than I already have just for the dubious value of being able to go to openings at Gagosian every month. Having had a first-hand view of that world when I worked at Sonnabend at the tender age of 22, I had few illusions about the likelihood of success in that peculiar arena. In the end, I felt, I’d rather struggle here, where frankly it’s a lot easier to be struggling. Here, at least I have more time and more space to make work. For me, it was the lesser of two evils. But, like so much in life, it has been a trade-off. That said, I feel a certain commitment to this region. I don’t think the answer is for everyone to just bail on the Bay Area. And I hope that in some way I’ve been able to contribute something to the community here, less perhaps as an artist myself, but more through the work I do with grad students at CCA.

    I do agree with much of what has been said, particular Zachary & Will’s comments. As someone who grew up on the east coast, I have never shaken my perception that there is a subtle but pervasive lack of criticality in the environment in Northern California, not only in the arts, but universally. By this, I in no way mean to suggest that there aren’t a lot of fiercely intelligent and talented people out here—there are. But there’s something in the general mindset that doesn’t tend towards critical rigor and in-depth discussion. Instead, there seems to be a tendency (again I must stress that I’m speaking very generally) towards self-involvement that cloaks itself in an easy-going attitude: You do your thing, I’ll do mine; everything’s cool. What’s unspoken in that equation is that no one really cares what anyone else is doing, beyond a superficial “that’s awesome!” Besides hanging out at openings and being part of a social scene, there’s too little willingness to participate in a rigorous engagement with ourselves, with each other, and with an international community. I’m not pointing fingers; I’m in many ways as guilty of this as anyone else. But, I do think it’s something we need to recognize and actively work together to change, and so I would echo Zachary’s call for the art community here to get more serious in our thinking and talking about what we do. We need to look harder, think more deeply, and be more critical with each other. We should not, as too often seems to be the case, somehow confuse criticality with negativity.

    At the same time, I think Will hits on a separate but more challenging problem: The engine of a vibrant international art scene is unfortunately money, and there is not enough of it here. There are not enough serious collectors of contemporary art in the region, and it seems that many of those that do reside locally too often go elsewhere to view & purchase work. Not that everything should be about sales, but the reality is that money drives things, at least in the US. Like Will, I’m uncertain about the prospects of this situation changing in the near future. But maybe having this kind of conversation is a start.

  • We know that money is a huge factor, but I’m hoping to find out more. August, what has led you to stay? What is your perception of what led your specific ’01 colleagues to leave?

  • August Northanger says:

    Didn’t old man Hickey say that the Bay Area was “Bermuda Triangle for artists”? I don’t think that assumptions are based on lack of talent within the community, but rather opportunity. New York will always be the financial juggernaut with European roots while people like Broad and now Deitch bring the cash and cache into LA. With that said, artists must go whenever their best opportunities can be found.

    Since I graduated SFAI in ’01, a lot of artists in my year have moved to either New York or LA.

    Btw under the “Sixty that Left”, you could easily put Kehinde Wiley on that list if your criteria is 3-5 years (in the Bay Area). Good jump start though!

  • Lopez Muller says:

    Irrelevant? Well if one of the city’s leading curators thinks it chock full of amateurs then probably yes.

  • My personal experience, as a curator who focuses on underground and emerging artists in the Bay Area, has been that the best artists indeed leave for the greener pastures of the Big 4 (LA, NYC, Miami and Chicago) if they want to make a career out of making fine art. The Bay Area is simply too weak of an art market to make a living as a fine artist … there isn’t enough money flowing in it, and serious collectors are all in (or shopping in) the Big 4.

    It saddens me that a place with as vibrant a creative culture as the San Francisco Bay Area lags at fifth place behind the Big 4, but those cities hold the center of gravity and momentum of the *business* of art, and always will unless/until there is a greater cultural appreciation for the type of underground arts that flourish here.

    Underground artists can make a living in the Bay Area as graphic designers, or baristas hanging their work in a few small galleries to be enjoyed by their friends, or work making custom gates in a metal shop … but time and again, the best fine artists that I’ve shown for their first exhibitions have all left town once they got their feet under them. And frankly, good for them, because they would have had their financial (not creative) growth stunted here. Unfortunately, as much as I wish I did, I don’t see anything that encourages me to think this trend will change.


  • Thanks for the thoughtful and clearly heartfelt response. Seems like you’ve been thinking about this; I suspect many of us do, a lot.
    At the risk of taking this off on a tangent I didn’t intend: Nayland Blake used to talk about the Grateful Dead Syndrome in Bay Area art: endlessly repeating oneself forever because everyone is too polite to say anything critical…

  • This is a vital question… thanks for asking it.

    I see no real trend in either these lists or in my own experience. As we get older and more entangled (spouses, kids, etc.) moving becomes harder. But, those commitments also require financial stability that can force migration. In the end it is a very personal and idiosyncratic choice in which ambition plays no small part.

    Regardless of whether there is a trend, I think it is unclear whether staying or going is better for either the artist or the community. For every artist that has left and found success there seem to be several who, cut off from their connections, have disappeared. That said, great talent has also languished in the Bay Area and been overlooked by national and international art discourse. Abandoning the Bay Area like the small town you grew up in and want desperately to forget is dysfunctional, but so to is pretending that the rest of the art world doesn’t exist.

    The problem seems not to be staying or going, but how each is done. Successful artists that stay can increase the aggregate quality of work being produced here, particularly if they teach, or actively engage in mentoring younger artists. Successful artists that leave can, not only increase the visibility of this region’s art elsewhere, but if they don’t disavow their roots, can champion the Bay Area’s significance as a site of cultural production.

    To end our marginalization, I think we need to stop looking elsewhere for validation, but we also need to stop hiding. I too am tired of the larger art world being dismissive of the Bay Area scene. But, I am also sick of the lazy bay area mentality that embraces a hippy-tinged, art-brutish belief that art shouldn’t be justified or discussed, but just done. “Dude I just like to draw” does not describe an artistic practice. We can’t be lazy, or hide in not trying. We need to stop whining and start critically engaging what it is we are doing. We need to push each other (the best kind of support), critically engage with the work being produced here, and take an active role in defining the position we occupy in the global art context. This is not just the task of artists, but also of Bay Area collectors, curators, art historians, and arts administrators. To end our marginalization we cannot either flee or hunker down. We have to buck up and assert our place at the table. Whether you end up leaving or staying, it is a tall order, but not an impossible one.

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