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The NY Times Thinks SF’s Art Scene Is Dead. Local Gallerists and Artists Beg to Differ

Written by Peter-Astrid KanePublished Aug. 31, 2022 • 3:00pm
The art of Sadie Barnette at Jessica Silverman, from the artist's first solo exhibition on Nov. 19, 2021. This gallery has thrived during a shifting arts scene in San Francisco. | Peter-Astrid Kane/TheStandard

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The closure of two art galleries—the SFMOMA-adjacent Gagosian in late 2020 and the imminent shuttering of Palo Alto’s Pace Gallery, both of which are reopening in Los Angeles—led to speculation in a recent New York Times article that San Francisco’s viability as an art market, if not its very soul, were somehow in jeopardy. 

To Pamela Hornik, a collector in Palo Alto who spends part of the year in Manhattan’s gallery-filled Chelsea neighborhood, the premise is simply untrue.

“The presence of Gagosian and Pace neither makes nor breaks the San Francisco arts scene,” she told The Standard. “I don’t think either one was ever at the center of it.”

Both galleries are globally recognized, the kind that pop up in Aspen or at Art Basel Miami Beach, and which brought blue-chip artists to the Bay Area. Pace, in particular, functioned almost like a museum, producing a significant Picasso show, while Gagosian’s final exhibition spotlighted the incredible Bay Area modernist Jay DeFeo.

“I can’t speak to what Gagosian brought to San Francisco because I wasn’t there enough. They brought a name brand, and I don’t know that San Franciscans want a name brand. They’re perfect for Los Angeles,” Hornik said.

The art of Sadie Barnette at Jessica Silverman, from the artist’s first solo exhibition on Nov. 19, 2021. This gallery has thrived during a shifting arts scene in San Francisco. | Peter-Astrid Kane/TheStandard

Jessica Silverman, whose eponymous Chinatown gallery has recently mounted exhibitions for the Oakland-based Sadie Barnette as well as the pioneering feminist artist Judy Chicago, spoke with the Times for the article. Reporter Robin Pogrebin, Silverman said, was curious about the intersection of tech wealth and the region’s art market—specifically, whether the ultra-affluent actually buy anything.

“She asked me, ‘Is the art world in Silicon Valley strengthening or weakening?’ I thought, ‘OK, San Francisco is not Silicon Valley.’ So that was interesting to me,” Silverman recalled. 

For Silverman, Pace’s closing is a “great opportunity,” allowing her to represent artists who would now otherwise be without a home in Northern California. 

“This community continues to thrive despite those galleries leaving,” she said. “It’s not surprising that a Gagosian or a Pace don’t need to be here, but that’s not to say that collectors don’t buy from those galleries. Of course they do! It just didn’t work for them, or they didn’t give it time to make it work. But it’s not a reflection on San Francisco.”

Silverman compared their exit to that of Hakkasan, the luxe Chinese restaurant whose San Francisco location closed in 2020 but which remains open in Abu Dhabi, London and Las Vegas. 

“San Franciscans are just into the upstart,” she said.

The art of Sadie Barnette at Jessica Silverman, from the artist’s first solo exhibition on Nov. 19, 2021. This gallery has thrived during a shifting arts scene in San Francisco. | Peter-Astrid Kane/TheStandard

Declarations that the city’s culture is dying are not new. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, James Stewart’s friend remarks that “San Francisco’s changed. The things that spell ‘San Francisco’ to me are disappearing fast”—and that was in 1958.

The Times article also notes the demise of the 150-year-old, debt-riddled San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) after a failed merger with the University of San Francisco. Granted, that loss is irreplaceable; virtually no other degree-granting institution in America focuses exclusively on fine arts while remaining independent of a museum or a larger university. With tuition approaching $70,000 per year and no guarantee of a career upon graduating into an unaffordable city, prospective students simply looked elsewhere. 

Still, it’s not clear that SFAI’s regrettable closure has much bearing on two galleries decamping for Los Angeles. 

“It fits neatly into the thesis of a struggling art community, but they’re obviously not related, and driven by completely different things,” said Tad Freese, a collector and a trustee of the San Jose Museum of Art.

Freese, who spoke with the Times’ reporters but was not quoted, further disputes the article’s premise, citing some of the same art-world players, including the soon-to-open Institute of Contemporary Arts.

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“There’s a big difference between two galleries closing and the vibrancy of a local art community,” he said. “I think it’s super-exciting what Ali Gass is doing with the ICA. The de Young has really stepped up their efforts on the contemporary side, where [curator] Claudia Schmuckli is doing amazing things. So are both of our university art museums, the Cantor [at Stanford] and the [Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive].” 

The art of Sadie Barnette at Jessica Silverman, from the artist’s first solo exhibition on Nov. 19, 2021. This gallery has thrived during a shifting arts scene in San Francisco. | Peter-Astrid Kane/TheStandard

Another subtext is that the tech world’s vast wealth has not translated into sufficient noblesse oblige.

“I’ve had artists say the same thing to me,” he said. “No question the Bay Area’s a very expensive place, and I’m sure everyone wishes the tech community were more engaged—but to say it’s nonexistent is frankly silly. Facebook funded free Friday nights at the San Jose Museum of Art. There are lots of examples of that.”

To him, the trajectory is positive, with budgets for museums such as his own doubling in a decade. Further, L.A.’s art world is different enough to make comparison an apples-to-oranges game.

“That community is driven by the film industry, which by its very nature is a creative endeavor,” Freese says. “The institutions in the Bay Area have been working hard to inculcate tech folks who have been successful into the visual art world.”

To a working artist like Diego Gómez, this entire debate is beside the point. A muralist, illustrator and comic-book fan with a penchant for transforming Abraham Lincoln’s face on the $5 bill into various pop-culture figures, he feels disconnected from the gallery and museum scenes almost entirely. 

“I go to SFMOMA sometimes, but I don’t really like it generally,” he said. “‘Modern art’ is just a beige piece of paper with a scribble on it—because art dealers decide what is quote-unquote real art, and a lot of the time it’s silly and ridiculous.”

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Peter-Astrid Kane can be reached at [email protected]




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