July 27, 2010

The Grass is ALWAYS Greener

Anthony Aziz. Drawing SFMOMA from Memory. 2010

The Grass is ALWAYS Greener AND that is OKAY

In February of this year, Renny Pritikin posted Artist Who’ve Left Town and 97 comments followed, confirming that this topic is one many find pertinent. Most of the discussion offered insight from those who have moved, those who have stayed or those who have considered either option, while other responses concluded that some (either participating in or following the arts) will often have similar complaints without offering productive means to achieve solutions.

In the post, Pritikin listed 60 artists who left town and 60 artists who have stayed. I was interested in the list of artists who left, not due to their departure, rather the varying level of successes I perceived within the group. Were all of these artists successful? Were successes a result of their move, and did it matter?

I attempted to contact several of those who left and offered the following assignment; draw the SFMOMA from memory. My interest for this assignment reflected how we relate to basic memories from our past  (and where we come from), and how images change or become distracted over time. I contacted approximately twenty from the list, and a few responded. Anthony Aziz was the first to send his drawing (above). Melissa Pokorny followed with her slightly abstracted staircase drawing (below).

The assignment was intended to be mundane, and it served no conclusion to the conversation at hand as I had found no real conclusion in Pritikin’s post and the discussion that followed. And what interested me most was this contradiction. The topic is extremely compelling and elicited so much conversation, yet no real resolution surfaced as to how the Bay Area could find the tools to support its own arts community while also seeking an unclear external validation from other important art centers. And how is this validation defined by those seeking it? And is validation needed?

I wanted to reflect on some of the conversation that occurred:

Zachary Royer Scholz was first to comment on the post stating “The problem seems not to be staying or going, but how each is done.” He continued, “Abandoning the Bay Area like the small town you grew up in and want desperately to forget is dysfunctional, but so too is pretending that the rest of the art world doesn’t exist.”

Others offered personal perspectives on their experience and Pritikin responded, reminding them that his desire was to obtain fact-driven responses, and that his goal was to “address the conventional wisdom about certain assumptions”

Anthony Discenza responded with “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?”

Melissa Pokorny. Drawing SFMOMA from Memory. 2010

Pritikin did find such data, and posted them: Facts, for a Change. Ironically, by the terms of these results, Bay Area artists fare well compared with artists in other cities. So is the essential question: Where do we fit in within the rest of the art world? Or is it How do we relate to the rest of the art world and do others take us seriously? And how can these questions be addressed when the data states we fair well in comparison? And with these facts, what can be achieved now?

I’d like to offer another perspective that was mentioned briefly in the discussion following Pritikin’s post; this conversation takes place behind closed doors, in studios, bookstores, galleries, cafes, and bars (more shit talking than conversation here) around the city, and not only within the Bay Area but elsewhere, and often the conversation occurs between individuals from other art centers. That is to say that within pockets of the Bay Area art community, artists are having critical conversations that relate to their peers in other art centers. Intimate small connections exist across geographical regions, and the ease to participate beyond your locality given the Internet should possibly be a priority for future collaborations as most of the conversations result in productive outcomes.

Renny Pritikin Prescription for a Healthy Art Scene

Prescription for a Healthy Art Scene.

One prescription to add:


Not to assume that these actions have not taken place. In the Fifties and Sixties, Bay Area abstract expressionists contended with competition for visibility with the New York School.  Others working from an Avante-garde, Dadist or conceptual background found themselves vying for visibility until Tom Marioni founded the Museum of Conceptual Art in San Francisco in 1970. During the eighties the punk scenes of New York, the Midwest and California began to emerge and integrate building a new platform for DIY culture. In the Nineties artists from California found themselves in conversation with other artists, street kids, graffiti writers, film-makers, skaters, surfers, and musicians in New York. The result of this activity was shown at Alleged Gallery (and others) in the Lower East Side from 1992 to 2002. And soon after the Mission School here in San Francisco was defined in an article by Glen Helfand. Pritikin himself referred to the group as “Urban Rustics and Digital Bohemians” and made connections between these artists and the curator of The Drawing Center in New York. In addition, balancing roles between San Francisco and New York, Larry Rinder made several Bay Area selections for the 2002 Whitney Biennial. With these examples (in addition, there are many others) and the facts Pritikin found placing Bay Area artists on a level playing field with other art centers, what elements from the conversation that followed his post can be addressed in a useful and productive manner, and how do we move on from here?

Ruby Neri, Untitled (Woman with Flowers), 2010 Oil on canvas on panel. Image courtesy of Canada Gallery

Recently in New York, I visited a few exhibitions with Bay Area connections. First Los Angeles based Allison Schulnik was exhibiting along with Ruby Neri at Canada Gallery. From the list of artists who left, Neri completed her BFA from San Francisco Art Institute in 1994, and a MFA from University of California 1998. You may recall her Horses found throughout San Francisco. Hailing from a long tradition of figurative painters and sculptors her work has matured, as historical reference points are carefully balanced with a humble yet energetic quality, resulting from an experimental and process based approach. In a conversation with the folks at Canada Galley I was surprised by their excitement to have someone visiting from California in the gallery to see this exhibit, mentioning that it is refreshing to have guests “who get it”, who can slow down to live with the work, as if everyone from New York has just been whizzing by onto the other exhibits nearby (there is plenty to rush off to). I was happy to “get it”, possibly the combination of our hippy-dippy-dreamy-druggy-headshop-digital-new-age-spectral-slacker (to borrow the phrase from a recent issue of Art Practical) environment, mixed with a sensibility for balanced critique and investigation is a good path to take. While I was in New York I also received a lot of criticism about the Bay Area, always preceded by “you’re an exception”. Were they just being polite? I can think of plenty of “exceptions”, and if those “exceptions” continue a path beyond the Bay Area is that not better for all of us?

Installation view of Tucker Nichols exhibition, 2010 image courtesy Zieher Smith

Balancing the notion of his natural relationship with the Bay Area and the hustle and bustle of New York City, Tucker Nichols was exhibiting at Zieher Smith and delivered a direct approach with confident findings to a dual coast conundrum. Michael Wilson writes in his Critics’ Picks for Art Forum  “The linear networks that appear in many of the paintings and drawings here seem to reference the metropolitan street grid by way of fields and hedgerows, while in his sculpture, the San Francisco–based artist racks and stacks found, made, and manipulated items in a style that fuses a metropolitan flaneur’s sensitivity to chance encounter with a beachcomber’s love of pocketable finds.” Upon visiting a multitude of summer group exhibitions it was refreshing not only to find a rare solo exhibition, but to discover a resolution noting our own desires to escape to comfortable locales in the midst of all the chaos and heat of the urban grid.

Elise Ferguson, C-90 Stare, 2010, Mixed Media. Image Courtesy of Morgan Lehman

Making my way through New York’s metropolitan street grid I discovered a scattering of Bay Area artists, former Bay Area artists, and New Yorkers in Default State Network at Morgan Lehman Gallery curated by Ryan Wallace. And this exhibition perhaps best exemplifies the potential of current interconnected relationships between the two regions. In 2004 Wallace, along with Joseph Hart traveled from New York to California for an exhibit in San Francisco. Connections were made between the artists involved with Mimi Barr Gallery and Adobe Books leading to a supportive network of shared critical discourse while also offering opportunities to participate in projects that related to those discussions. Relationships such as these have expanded the boundaries for each locality. Rather than seeking an external validation from other art centers, many artists, curators, writers, etc… have been embracing the strengths within each local demographic, thus sharing a varied perspective of intertwined art activities to an audience ranging between a multitude of regions.

The Grass is ALWAYS Greener AND that is OKAY.

Comments (9)

  • Thanks Brion for the stimulation.

    I’m SF born and bred, although I’ve come and gone plenty of times and will do so again. Currently I work as the Curator and Gallery Director for SOMArts Cultural Center and have been a practicing artist here for years. I don’t know where to begin this discussion.

    Let’s address our assumptions:

    • “There is a center to the art world” WRONG.

    In my school of practice, there is no art center anymore, and there hasn’t been one for a long time. The idea of “off-centeredness” as coined in part by a former dean of the San Francisco Art Institute Okwui Enwezor says it all. The world is a network of cultural hubs which mutually inform, some more so than others. SF is a cultural hub like no others, one that focuses on many forms of culture – edible, sustainable, sexual, identificational. Contemporary art is one subset of the larger field of cultural practice, which is why people are so attracted to SF b/c of the larger cultural influences.

    • “Success is tangible and objective” WRONG

    Success is amorphous and subjective. We define it as we see fit but there is no objectivity or ubiquitous form. Generally it is understood as $, power and influence (e.g. cultural capital), but largely that is falling to the wayside. More and more I see individual artist proscribe the values to it that they believe in. Some define it in terms of capital accumulation, some in terms of geographic reach, some in terms of number of friends on facebook, some in terms of number of solo shows, number of body scars from performances that got bloody (I recently witnessed this one in a bar).

    Quit often success is just being able to live a good life and make what you want to make. Look at 2nd Floor Projects, Margaret, just does what she wants and says fuck the rest if you’re not down. Whether you like it or not, this is the classic artist run space, the type for which SF is historic.

    Since working at SOMArts I’ve seen a wonderful new side of success, how people define themselves according to what risks they’ve taken in the work. I think today, success is varied, even more so than styles, especially when most artists have jobs that support themselves outside of their art, knowing that there is no possibility for that type of experimental work to be funded directly by gallery sales. Often this leads to amazing experimental forms.

    • “San Francisco is provencial” RIGHT and WRONG

    it is right in the sense that San Francisco is unique and has it’s own flavor, but wrong if this is taken pejoratively. San Francisco is a great place to live AND a great place to have an art career. SF is full of people who are willing to experiment with arts in new experimental contexts and that is what I love. People in nice clothes in dirty places and people in dirty clothes in the nicest places. True, many of SF’s best artists aren’t collected by SF collectors from SF galleries, but they are being collected by SF collectors who buy from NY or London galleries. This is weird and I don’t have an answer except that it is a great cocktail story to say that I got this piece, or that piece on my trip to London for the international equestrian invitational or something like that. I mean my girlfriend has an aluminum canteen from Tazmania which she loves, just because it is an conversation starter into the fact that wombats poop cubes. Case in point. Things from far away are that much cooler. Like wambat poop.


    All I know is that I’ve had my plate full for years and am not letting up and largely it is with people who support the arts in SF. In my life the SF community is great and world class. Many of the people I show and with whom I show all go to show in other places too (LA, Guanghzou, London, Lisbon etc).

    • “People are always leaving SF for NY or LA” Yes, I’ve seen some great people leave, Jon Rubin, Trisha Donnelly, Anne Collier and Mathew Higgs, to name a few, but the question is why? I don’t think it is because SF sucks at art or b/c NY is so much better, but that this town has always been a thoroughfare of sorts – The Golden Gate – an entry point. I guess we could analyze their living habits over time and see if all the people who migrate through SF end up settling down immediately somewwere else, but all of these people are from somewhere else too, often another big city such as London or Geneva. So why did they leave those places as well? I think that Ginsberg’s analysis of the road as a context in it’s own right is where these people fit in. Personally, I’m a traveler, not a migrant, since I’ve got too many ties here – grandma, sister, mom+dad, hot tub, job, cats, gf, Kung Fu Master, etc…. But that doesn’t stop me from continuously exploring. I’m planning a new performance in Guanghzou in the fall.

    Conclusion: It is easy to think that SF is a little pond and the big fish all move away, but this is a negative mindset and kind of self-deprecating. I like to think that as the little fish here grow into big fish, the pond grows too. We are much better for Higgs’s being here when he was, and I’m happy he has a place at White Columns. I have been meaning to visit him. My world is expanded knowing he is there – good point to make Meg! As we all move about we grow our networks and all of our ponds get a bit bigger.

    I don’t know where to stop so will end this ramble here. Rock on with the open road if you like it an don’t get tied down, unless you are into that kind of thing.

  • Meg Shiffler says:

    Brion –
    Thanks for sparking a great dialogue. I moved here just about five years ago from New York. Although artists in NY have a better chance of making connections to get their work shown outside of the region, they also struggle with exposure and interest from far flung curators and dealers. I think that each time an artist, curator or dealer leaves one region for another there is a responsibility to create opportunites for cross-regional dialogue. I lived in Seattle before Brooklyn, and now live here. During my tenure as Director and Curator of the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery I’ve exhibited artists from both my previous hometowns alongside Bay Area artists. I introduced Jillian Mcdonald’s work to SF a few years ago and now she is represented by Michael Rosenthal Gallery here. You can also look at how Matthew Higgs has continued to champion SF artists as a good expample. I think that migration of artists and arts workers can mean new opportunities if we remain connected and committed to creating forums that allow for artistic interaction. I understand that it doesn’t always work that way, but the realization that we are all capable of creating dialogue is an empowering thought!

  • In consideration to the “Artists Who Left Town” and “The Grass Is Always Greener” posts I found myself reflecting on a recent lecture by Robert Irwin at Mills college where Irwin did a great job of breaking down the perceived hierarchical structure of the fine art world and he replaced it with a linear model. I loved how he took fine art, off its pretty pedestal where powerful institutions like to sit at the top of the hierarchical pyramid followed by curators, then collectors, then writers, then galleries, then towards the bottom- artists (or some variation thereof) and then [Irwin] reconstructed a level playing filed where each party was codependent on one another. Without the inquisitive mind of the artist the curator would have nothing to consider, and with out the collector the gallery would be without a business to support the artist and so on. Anyway, I just starting thinking about this idea in terms of location, what is NYC without London, or Tokyo, or LA or SF? We each play a valuable role in this complex world of varying values and perspectives. Just keep doing what you do best regardless of your address.

  • Brion Nuda Rosch says:

    Brandon, the term “artist” is used in the post to define many disciplines, Thank you for your perspective as a writer. “Success”, well success is rather abstract. The term success itself is unclear, as is validation. For intent within the post, and to clarify, I am using the idea of success in terms of cultural capital, followed by financial success.

  • hi brion,
    thanks for such a thoughtful posting. i think the inter-connective aspect that you highlight is so critical. it really is not about either escaping this city or validating sf on any national or global stage. rather what desperately needs to be created is a productive global conversation that opens opportunities for other artists here and creates potentials for sf artists elsewhere. you highlight several compelling examples of how this is already starting to happen. i hope the piece inspires more people to forge new connections and deepen the conversation.

  • Brandon Brown says:

    Hey Brion,
    Terrific post, thank you!

    I think about these issues all the time and they obviously pertain to the larger community of experimental writing I traffic in.

    There’s a sense in the post and comments so far about an economic factor relating to making a life in a city. How one manages to pay their rent and survive and make art. I’m writing a post right now for OPEN SPACE on a group of artists in Kansas City—and there’s that question too, right? What lies beyond or rather between these epicenters of activity: LA, the Bay Area, New York. The answer is at least in part a lot of exciting and cooperative effort and extremely cheap housing.

    I was also curious about the meaning of “success” in the post. Do you mean financial success, or in terms of cultural capital, or neither, or both, or more?


  • Brion Nuda Rosch says:

    Joshua, Thank you for offering your perspective and reflecting on your travels. And Renny, by conclusion I am implying that your post and the conversation which followed brought forth more questions than definitive answers (conclusions), and in a manner that has the potential to harness the strengths of the community here and elsewhere, if everyone continues to remain focused on productive alternatives. I do appreciate the existential answers that were discovered, as I agree, we will always make a “meaningful reality for ourselves where ever we choose”. Thank you for your response.

  • Thanks for revisiting this process. I love the two drawings and wish you had gotten more.
    I did feel that the 3 months of comments did conclude, at least in my mind. Let’s see if I can articulate it. I took away that basically the answer is an existential one: we make a meaningful reality for ourselves wherever we choose. Friends, teachers, influences, students, neighborhoods, etc are chosen and have an effect on how we live our lives and make our work. Given the reality that we are as much citizens of the internet as of a particular community, and the relative ease of travel, it’s particularly silly to worry about where one is paying rent. It’s about making a meaningful life for oneself. People come and go all the time; there’s no finality to it. And the Bay Area is so rich in so many areas that bad mouthing it is a bad habit, a tic, or an excuse. The goal is to build community and raise the stakes wherever one finds oneself. Which is what Open Space is about, as is Art Practical, Stretcher, et al….

  • Being an artist isn’t easy, no matter what city or place you live in. New York is comforting to me because there is a platform for the arts and a history of creativity that is rich and exciting. Things happen in New York first and I like being a part of it. But, it’s also easy to get burned out. There’s a lot of junk to sift through. It gets tiring. Not to mention the insanely hight cost of living etc etc. New York or not New York is a topic that comes up a lot, or at least it did when I lived there. Leaving New York wasn’t easy. My beautiful girlfriend wasn’t so into it and most of my friends thought I went crazy. There’s a stigma about leaving New York – like if you leave you’re a failure or a loser. But, I learned to put all of that anxiety and negativity into my work and this became very liberating; very freeing. I see that as the greatest benefit of traveling – the freedom to reinvent your work. During the past four years I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled all over the United States and abroad. Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in Utah was a highlight. Marfa, Texas. Alberta, Canada. And how can you beat living in Europe? I had it very simple over there – living and working in the same sparsely furnished room. I made my paintings on the floor like a child. Washed my brushes in the kitchen sink. I had to make everything small so that I could afford to send it all back home. And home is what I started to miss after all was said and done. That’s why I’ve been living in my hometown outside Baltimore, Maryland for the last eleven months. I am blessed to have had this time with good ol’ mom.

See all responses (9)
Leave a comment

Please tell us what you think. We really love conversation, and we’re happy to entertain dissenting opinions. Just no name-calling, personal attacks, slurs, threats, spam, and the like, please. Those ones we reserve the right to remove.

Sign Up

Join our newsletter for infrequent updates on new posts and Open Space events.
  • Required, will not be published

Dear Visitor,
We regret to inform you that Open Space is no longer active. It was retired at the end of 2021. We sincerely appreciate your support and engagement over the years.

For your reference, we encourage you to read past entries or search the site.

To stay informed about future ventures or updates, please follow us at

Thank you for being a part of our journey!