October 10, 2013

Can Artists Afford to Live in San Francisco Any More?

sisyphysSFMOMAat6kThe rent is too darn high in San Francisco.

Worse yet, it’s too high for artists who come to the city looking for the culture that made it famous.

Remember the Beats? Those broke writers and poets who flocked here from around the country, coming for the cheap rent, the bookstores and the cafes? Or what about the hippies? The anti-authority generation looking for idealistic solutions to the problems of war and killing. They made this their home. They had their Summer of Love here in 1967. Admission was free.

Or what about the jazz scene in the Fillmore where anybody could pay a few bucks and catch Billie Holiday or Louis Armstrong? What happened to that? Yeah, what happened to all that?

Too much of a good thing, I guess.

Now, with rents in the $2,500 – $4,000 range common all over S.F. the kind of rag-tag subcultures that built the city’s reputation are unlikely to take hold anymore. In fact, it’s starting to look like the Bay just can’t provide the circumstances for a thriving art scene – at least not the kind it’s been known for. Maybe the future of the arts in the Bay will be all about the web and about technology, with little sense of historical context?

Don’t get me wrong though – there are a lot of great artists who come from affluent backgrounds – many do – but should they be the only ones able to produce and create without constantly having to wonder where their next meal is coming from? Or should all artists now aspire to be tech entrepreneurs as much as art stars?

It worked for Sophia Amoruso, CEO of Nasty Gal, who couldn’t get full ride scholarship to art school, so instead she used her photography skills to build a clothing empire now worth an estimated $250 million.

But seriously – do the math – if a four year BFA from the two leading art schools – the San Francisco Art Institute and the California College of Art – costs around $125,000, that’s a lot of student loan money. Factor in four years of rent at even the bargain price of just $1,500 and that’ another $72,000. So just rent and tuition alone are about $200,000 for that BFA! But rent is a lot more than that, so think $250,000 or $275,000.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you are spending all your time hustling up how to pay your crazy rent and get food, your art will be less of a priority. I know idealists will argue that if you are a true artist you will make your work no matter what your situation is. And while, yes, that is technically true, my answer to that is try saying that same thing to a homeless artist. If you haven’t met any before, I can tell you it is a sobering experience. Seeing anyone become homeless is heart breaking enough, but seeing an artist become homeless is enough to make you cry.

O.k. but what if you can hang in there and make it all work for you without becoming a real estate agent or a barista? What if you can find just enough work to pay the bills, but not quite enough to really save money? What if you teach, as many of the MFA programs recommend?

Well, even if you end up teaching, the hard truth is that there are just not enough teaching jobs. What’s even more egregious is that the unions have effectively been crushed – so even great teachers with MFA’s typically get new contracts each semester. There’s no job security. And there’s certainly little or no retirement for older artists – and curators for that matter. So what are older people in the arts supposed to do if their rent suddenly goes up or they get evicted?

Is the only option then to move away? Or should artists remain in town and be really, really poor, accepting it as the price to pay for choosing a life in the arts? Or should artists just retrain and go back to school for something else so they can afford rent? Are there any solutions to the Bay Area Brain Drain Renny Pritikin noted here in Open Space back in 2010?

Just the other day SFist reported how about 100 artists and students are facing a mass eviction from a live/work space building on Market Street and 6th. The units there are supposedly illegal and although people have been their for ages, they are being kicked out. Will that real estate be turned into lofts outfitted with brand new stainless steel appliances?

With rents more expensive now than it is in Brooklyn and some parts of Manhattan, San Francisco is in serious danger of losing what has made it special. From the Beats to the Hippies to the LGBT movement, the city has always been a refuge for outcasts and underdogs. Now it’s becoming a refuge for the wealthy.

Let’s hope maybe the city council realizes that while the new money in town is providing a bigger tax base, it is also forcing out all the less affluent people in the arts who built the culture that attracted the new money in the first place.
Lest we forget, Allen Ginsberg’s HOWL was first read at Six Gallery (3119 Fillmore Street) in 1955 with poets Neal Cassady, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Phillip Whalen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Kerouac all attending, introduced by Kenneth Rexroth and painter Wally Hedrick. Here are the famous first lines:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz…

Follow Chris Cobb on Twitter or Instagram

Comments (12)

  • Connie Goldman says:

    Hi Suzanne…. I was referring to Renny’s initial list of artists. His list of artists didn’t include any artists outside of SF, unless I’m mistaken. (Please let me know if I am.) I think they should be acknowledged because there are some very good ones. Many chose to live in places that they could afford so they’d have time to make art. All that aside, I agree that rents are now ridiculously high everywhere in the Bay Area. It’s a terrible situation. When the artists I mentioned (and myself) moved to the hinterlands rents were still relatively low. I would go so far as to say that there are still affordable rents in Sonoma County. But they’re far from SF. That choice means that the artist will not be at the center of things, something I know many artists need or desire. But a move should be considered if an artist is faced with the choice of making or not making their art. It’s tough. But it’s not like your art is dead if you move away. That’s my point. What all of this means for the arts in SF? I’m can’t see into the future, but it seems logical to conclude that it doesn’t look good IF you measure by how many artists live there.

  • Suzanne Stein says:

    hi Connie — while I don’t think Chris is discounting artists further away from the city center (his post is about SF specifically) these are both good points to consider, re: artists who have managed to stay and continue making work here, and greater Bay Area locations that are also still affordable for artists that might help keep a thriving, if scattered, working artists community alive. On the other hand, even Oakland rents are rising sharply at the moment, and have been for the last five years — and it’s been a long time since I think anyone would look to Marin or Sonoma as spots for affordable rent. I agree that moving away to place where one can have time and space to make work is crucial — but if (younger and older) artists generally speaking can no longer afford to live and have time and space (and crucial civic support) to make work in and around the Bay, what happens to the culture here? I think also for many younger artists, making art is in no way separable from immediate, embodied presence and engagement with others.

  • conniegoldman says:

    I wonder why artists who live in the outlying areas such as Marin and Sonoma, etc.. are not counted. There are artists who have lived in these areas for many years. They moved there because it was far more affordable than SF. Their work is first-rate and they show in some of the best galleries around. For example, Patsy Krebs lives in remote Marin county (Haines), Chester Arnold (Catherine Clark) lives in Sonoma County, Ned Kahn is in Sonoma County (MacArthur “genius” award), etc. Their voices are just as vital as those listed. They figured out ways to make it financially and continue to make strong and relevant work. Are they too old to count? An artist doesn’t have to live in the thick of San Francisco, especially with the access the web provides. I understand that young artists may want to have that network, but if moving farther out means one can continue to make art, the choice seems to be pretty obvious to me.

  • For anynone else who might feel artists complaining about being evicted or not being able to find living wage jobs is annoying, here is an eye-opening piece by Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi on the situation students are in: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/ripping-off-young-america-the-college-loan-scandal-20130815

  • @sfpainter – just to clarify, were you able to earn the $200,000 needed to pay for your degree while you were “working full time” and going to school full time? And did you earn an additional $600,000 or more to buy your house from your paintings? Really? Or did you go to school when school cost $1,000 a year and homes in SF only cost $150,000? Life was very different 30 years ago.

    I would also add that not selling does not mean you are making bad art. Sometimes an artist’s work goes through phases and some phases might be more commercial than others. An artist also might not have the right audience either, even though their work might be good. It takes time to figure that all out.

    You are correct that that self-assessment is always in order, but I hardly think articulating the challenges artists face, like being evicted from their homes, is whining.

  • I agree with Susi: Stop whining, create great art. Work fulltime to help pay the bills as an artist. And if an artist keeps having “show after show” and does not sell, then you need to look hard at your talent or lack thereof.
    Those who are complaining here just would rather pass the blame on some external source for their lack of success or funds, than take full responsibility.

    Not everyone can afford to live here. That’s reality.

    And for the record, I paint full time here in SF, own my own house, have gallery representation, and built up investments over the past 30 years to ALLOW myself to paint full time. You can do it too. Best of luck.

  • Oh stop whingeing! Artists were braver and tougher in the past. They pioneered in places nobody else wanted (or dared) to be. I lived in the East Village NYC in the 70s. #postapocalyptic #dangerzone #creativeboom There are always cheap places to live and make art. Feh. Crybabies.

  • @jeffery – Hi Jeffery, I believe you misunderstand my point. I am talking about how artists are being driven into poverty. Don’t get me wrong – it is entirely possible to live in the Bay Area and be poor. The sad truth is that it is also entirely possible to have show after show and never sell your work. My point is that there are few career paths after art school and that to have a decent paying job in the arts is such a challenge that many simply move away. And that it’s a bad thing for the scene when so many leave because it has an impact on historical memory.

  • Yikes! If this is true, someone better inform SECA and let them know their program can only last a couple more years! SF is a great art city and there are pockets of affordable places to live that keep the “danger” at bay. Get some roommates and maybe share some studio space — it’s worked and is working for a lot of SF artists. Have you seen the list of artists for this Saturday’s art auction at Root Division? Looks like a thriving community to me.

  • Timely post, these questions/issues are percolating throughout the SF artist community with fervor. Just last week KPIX featured a relevant story on the Tenderloin artist community: http://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/video/9377485-latest-tech-boom-brings-change-to-san-franciscos-tenderloin/

  • Bdub, Until the same thing happens in Oakland, which it is. Very soon I will no longer be able to afford my rent in Oakland and will have to move further out.

  • Oakland. That is all.

See all responses (12)
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!