San Francisco’s Loss of He(art)

Oakland Art Murmur. Photo courtesy of sfbaywalk

Oakland Art Murmur. Photo courtesy of sfbaywalk

In late February, the SF Chronicle ran an article about the closing of George Krevsky Gallery, a staple in the San Francisco art scene for the past 30 years. The expansion of a tech company, called MuleSoft, located in the same building (77 Geary) has caused not only the closing of George Krevsky Gallery, but also Rena Bransten Gallery and Patricia Sweetow Gallery. These closings follow those of two other others, Marx & Zavattero and The Togonon, also located at 77 Geary. Although some galleries are forced to move elsewhere, many are closing permanently.

In the article, George Krevsky stated, “We live in a tough neighborhood, at the intersection of tech and greed. It’s impacted the world I’ve been working in passionately for 30 years.”

In the past few years, San Francisco has seen not only the closing of many art galleries, but also the flight of local artists from the city to places like Los Angeles.

Rising housing and rental costs are a main reason for both gallery closure and artist exodus. Tech companies, namely, cause a rise in rents for galleries, often resulting in displacement or closure; rents in Union Square, formerly a hub of art galleries, have risen by nearly $20 per square foot as a result of tech firms in the area, with some spaces renting at as much as $45 per square foot.

Furthermore, the recent art fair phenomenon (including events such as artMRKT San Francisco, San Francisco Fine Arts Fair and ArtPadSF) has also created difficulties for gallery owners, who find that buyers will visit fairs only and neglect the art scene the rest of the year.

This neglect is furthered by the increasing popularity of online art sales. On their website, Marx & Zavattero cite that the “brick-and-mortar gallery model is no longer a sustainable endeavor,” and many other galleries are finding this to be true. The closing of art galleries not only has an impact on the gallery owners, but also on the artists who depend on gallery sales as a source of income, as well as the greater economy.

When it comes to artists themselves, many are finding the sheer cost of living in the city too high. Life as an artist can be difficult, with an uncertain income, and while facing higher prices of housing and studio spaces, many are instead choosing to move across the bridge to Oakland, and many are making a further migration down to Los Angeles, where life is much cheaper; some artists are even finding they can rent twice the space at half the cost.
Although the city has historically done a great job in funding artist work, it has done little to help artists with housing, creating few affordable live/work spaces—as a result, artists are facing evictions, and choosing to move out of the city.

Some efforts have been made by the tech community to create communal spaces where artists can work, but this still excludes a large swath of artists whose work isn’t so “clean”— sculptors or oil painters certainly won’t be able to share a room with tech moguls. The Arts and Culture Commission has shown concern about this, as they are charged with maintaining the arts and culture industry, which contributes about 1.4 billion dollars a year to the local economy; the commission is currently studying the last artist exodus, which occurred around the dot-com boom, to see what might be done to handle the current situation.

In addition to the lower cost of living, many are also finding the art scenes in both LA and Oakland to be more vibrant, with energy similar to that of San Francisco in the ’90s. This draw of cheap rents and a vivacious community has also affected artists in other realms, like music. Ty Segall and John Dwyer, two kings of the SF Garage Rock Scene, have both moved to LA.

In an article on Pitchfork, Dwyer was quoted as saying, “I’ve been in SF for ages and I’ll always love it, but it’s time for new horizons. Seemingly overnight, [San Francisco] has filled up with phone-scrolling, blank-faced wanderers (particularly in my neighborhood). I prefer a taco to a vintage glasses store any day. So yeah, time to shove off. Seems like a lot of artists, visual and musical, are hightailing it out.”

A move to Los Angeles or Oakland offers not only an escape from high rents, but also a refuge among other creative types (the New York Times called Oakland “the Brooklyn by the Bay”)—while LA gives artists a chance to create new DIY art spaces in cheap storefronts, Oakland hosts monthly Art Murmur exhibitions, open for all to participate in. On the other hand, moving to Oakland also poses ethical dilemmas; San Franciscans moving to Oakland often displaces Oakland residents, so a quick shift of artists to Oakland is not the answer to a lack of space.
The rising cost of living is not the only impact the tech boom has had on artists, galleries, and the greater art scene in San Francisco. Many artists have cited a general feeling that San Francisco has lost something in spirit, that the surge of money-minded Silicon Valley workers and business people has resulted in a sort of city soul-death.

This could cause later problems for the city when it comes to serving as a global attraction; in an interview on KQED, Randy Cohen, who works at a nonprofit in Washington D.C. called Americans for the Arts, where he researches, advocates and promotes sustainable arts policies, stated “San Francisco has many positive attributes, but, globally, it’s thought of as a great cultural city. If your artists are leaving town, you’re putting a key component of your brand at risk.”

Rebecca Solnit, a local author, also spoke on this issue in an article in Guernica, where she wrote: “We’re becoming akin to a mining boomtown: a place overwhelmed by an influx of mostly young, mostly male people from elsewhere who are not committed to this place and don’t know it well and are transforming its culture to suit themselves. Monocultures aren’t healthy in nature; they’re not healthy in culture, either. And booms, when they go bust, leave a vacuum behind.”

Hopefully, this will be enough to prompt city officials to do something to keep rent under control or provide artists with incentives to stay. Until something is done, however, it seems that the artist exodus will continue. Still, some artists are deciding to stay, citing their sheer love and devotion to their city as enough incentive to remain behind.

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