From the SUBMISSION series; c. Mitche Manitou, 2014

From the SUBMISSION series; c. Mitche Manitou, 2014

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In the last several months, the shifting socio-cultural landscape of the San Francisco Bay Area has become the focus of the international media, primarily in response to the rise of new technology and its aftereffects. Protests over tech commuter buses as potent symbols of gentrification and displacement, and scuffles among strangers in public spaces over Google Glass and its invasive surveillance technology have become San Francisco icons in the media. Suddenly, all eyes are on San Francisco as the center — or, perhaps, epicenter — of technology’s quaking authority over the 21st-century global community. In this regard, the city of San Francisco (really the greater Bay Area) has become a test case on the impact of rapidly escalating, brand-spanking-new wealth and its relationship to new technologies, privacy, public resources and social infrastructures. San Francisco has become a cautionary tale: Everything happening here can happen wherever else technology companies are setting up shop, which is everywhere. This article is the first in a series that will explore how this shifting terrain is dramatically impacting the livelihood of artists.

But, first, why should anyone care that the Bay Area is changing? So what if some tech entrepreneurs are sitting pretty with the 1%? Wealth disparity is nothing new, and cities change all the time: people leave, people arrive, businesses launch, businesses fail. It’s all a cycle. Even this current dot boom is part of a cycle of booms and busts in a community long focused on booming. And yet this time is different, in part because of the devastating impact new wealth is rendering on the fragile infrastructure of San Francisco’s homegrown art scene and its artists, as well as small businesses, nonprofits, advocacy organizations, lower income communities, families with children, immigrants, the mentally ill and homeless, and the generally disenfranchised.

Last week, longtime San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker wrote an article about the recent displacement of galleries due to exponentially inflated rents. He noted, “As far afield as Toronto and London, mid-level art gallery businesses face extinction by fast-growing, cash-rich enterprises hungry for office space in top locations.” Faced with an abrupt change in location, some galleries consider reinvention, while others simply disappear. (See KQED’s article on gallery closures and the ongoing Priced Out series for more.)

From the SUBMISSION series; c. Mitche Manitou, 2014
From the SUBMISSION series; c. Mitche Manitou, 2014

Recently Rena Bransten, George Krevsky, and Patricia Sweetow Galleries were priced out of their downtown locations at 77 Geary. Still others have closed in the past few years, including Don Soker (evicted and looking for a new space), Eli Ridgway, Guerrero Gallery, Marx & Zavaterro, Michael Rosenthal, Togonon Gallery, Triple Base, and Queens Nails. In Oakland, Mama Buzz closed in 2012, Swarm Gallery shuttered last year and Hatch Gallery announced its eviction this month. The absence of these physical spaces is a loss in the larger scheme of things, whether the individual galleries were popular or not. Galleries offer culture, community gathering spaces, and space for discourse, while exporting local artists and importing new ideas — all free to the viewer. In a conversation for this article, recent Guggenheim Fellow artist Michael Arcega, formerly represented by Marx & Zavattero, speaks of a familial sense of loss in the wake of the gallery’s closing, “So long as I kept making work that was relevant, they supported me and made an effort to create a support structure for my work. It’s very different now without that.”

Recently several prominent galleries have also relocated away from walk-able, BART-adjacent areas of downtown to less accessible reaches of the city in Potrero Hill, including Brian Gross, Catharine Clark, George Lawson, Jack Fisher, and Hosfelt galleries. Adobe Books, and the eponymous Adobe Books Backroom gallery, relocated after an extensive rent hike last year. The Thing Quarterly owners Jonn Herschend and Will Rogan contemplated going out of business after losing their lease and finding rental prices untenable in the Mission. They ended up finding new offices in the Tenderloin.

Several nonprofit organizations have also recently dissolved, including the Museum of Craft & Folk Art, Cell Space, and Visual Aid. Going back only slightly further in cultural memory, one could even consider San Francisco’s New Langton Arts or Oakland’s 21 Grand in this list; though perhaps not direct casualties of the tech boom, their respective closures heralded an indifference to the demise of smaller art organizations that is now commonplace culturally. These shifts in the art scene are exacerbated by the absence of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (closed for renovation until 2016), the San Francisco Arts Commission Main Gallery (closed for renovations until 2015), and the pending closure of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive later this year (for relocation, also to reopen in 2015).

From the SUBMISSION series; c. Mitche Manitou, 2014
From the SUBMISSION series; c. Mitche Manitou, 2014

It is an astonishing amount of change in the Bay Area’s compact art scene, especially as these changes also represent a significant number of artists’ exhibitions and public events suspended or cancelled during transitions, while still other artists are without representation altogether.

The art community is an ecosystem that survives on the health of the commercial galleries. It is, to be blunt, how many artists make a living and promote their work. If you care about living in a community of art and artists, the health of the whole scene matters. The ripple effect of losing commercial galleries is that nonprofit organizations also receive less support and this then jeopardizes opportunities for artists to make art, eclipsing art at the grassroots level.

Notable here is a consideration of the type of organizations that have been compromised — for the most part, these are experimental venues that offer platforms for new and challenging contemporary art by living artists. There has been no surge of new spaces to fill their absences. The most prominent “arts organizations” formed in the wake of tech wealth have been notably privatized and pointedly pitched at the wealthy elite, such as the members-only Battery. Last October, San Francisco-based writer Anisse Grosse wrote in the New Yorker that response to the spectacle of the Battery’s opening reflected “the bigger issue at hand: San Francisco itself is turning into a private, exclusive club” and noted the resulting loss of the “city’s celebrated counterculture” as being replaced by condominiums. The avant-garde and the iconoclasts are receding.

From the SUBMISSION series; c. Mitche Manitou, 2014
From the SUBMISSION series; c. Mitche Manitou, 2014

Courtney Fink, Executive Director of Southern Exposure, recently observed that despite the influx of sudden new wealth, the gap between small and large nonprofits has only widened. “Some key smaller artist-focused organizations are now trying to function on less than $300,000 a year, while SFMOMA undergoes a $555M expansion.” Like many in the art community, Fink recently received an Ellis Act eviction on her rental apartment in San Francisco. Due to real estate escalation, she is anticipating leaving for the East Bay after nearly twenty years in the city.

To understand how these shifts have wider implications, consider the ripple effects of Fink’s contributions within and beyond San Francisco to see what is potentially lost when creative people are forced to leave. Alternative Exposure, the regional re-granting program Fink initiated between Southern Exposure and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, has funded $421,000 to 120 Bay Area alternative art endeavors since its inception; it has also served as a model in five other cities around the country, including Kansas City, Chicago, and Houston, and has distributed more than a million dollars in grants to nearly three hundred projects nationwide. I was a recipient of an Alternative Exposure grant in 2008. Last year I was one of three jurors to select grantees. The grant is the only one of its kind in the Bay Area that regularly funds new, experimental models of cultural production, annually distributing record amounts of funding in the midst of local economic changes and dwindling resources for artists. It is difficult to imagine the community without the support this program has provided. And yet, the director of the organization that has pioneered this grant can’t afford to live in the city. “More than 75% of the projects we fund with Alternative Exposure are now East Bay based. Artist run activities can’t thrive in San Francisco anymore. The proof is in the absence of affordable space.”

As the repercussions of these changes gain momentum, art and culture are rapidly diminished. Many have shrugged off stories of artist evictions, or gallery closings, or nonprofits going under. “Get over it. Change happens,” is the common refrain of the indifferent. At issue here is more than just change, but rather how change forecasts the future. “The city is now showing the symptoms of edging out culture after so many spaces have closed. How will artists, or students, or philosophers, or anyone who doesn’t participate in the technology economy ever afford to live here?” asks Arcega. “What will San Francisco be like in ten years, if we continue on this trajectory?” At the rate things are going, it isn’t hard to imagine San Francisco without artists or a grass roots art scene, even though it should be unfathomable.

All images courtesy of San Francisco-based artist Mitche Manitou, whose series SUBMISSION was recently featured at alternative space Right Window Gallery in the Mission in February 2014.

Editor’s Note: The original version of this story reported that the 77 Geary galleries were evicted and was corrected to say that they were priced out; it was also corrected to clarify that The Thing Quarterly relocated after losing their lease.

Priced Out: New Tech Wealth and San Francisco’s Receding Art Scene 14 April,2014Christian L. Frock

  • yayoi

    Everybody buy a piece of art this weekend!

    • What if the art is bad?

      Should I buy it anyway?

      • nemo295

        There’s plenty of great art out there to choose from.

  • Deidre Wilson

    Triple Base Gallery closed it’s doors for other reasons besides being priced out.

    • Deidre Wilson

      and was replaced by another arts space

  • long time artist

    “The ripple effect of losing commercial galleries is that nonprofit organizations also receive less support and this then jeopardizes opportunities for artists to make art, eclipsing art at the grassroots level.” How did you come to this conclusion?

  • JugsPutin

    Welcome to capitalism, folks. This is the naked truth about what will happen to all of us who don’t happen to fall into this decade’s roster of The Fortunate.

    A man named Charles Bowden wrote a book a long time ago about Juarez, and about the effects of “free-trade capitalism” had on the city, and Mexico in general. That book was called “Juarez: The Laboratory Of Our Future.” Look it up, figure it out.

    That’s where global capitalism is heading. And if you think that the refrains of the Indifferent are going to somehow cease or be tempered by some sort of nascent humanism, think again. We are raising our children to think like this – and those with the privilege and the luck to have the skills to earn the money will tell their kids the same lies.

    • I’d rather not subscribe to your particular newsletter.

      It sounds fatalistic with a sure-fire outcome.

      Almost like you’re trying to sell me something.

      • nemo295

        Not selling–explaining what’s happening all around us. And it will only get worse until people wake up and insist on something better.

      • JugsPutin

        Yes, you think I am trying to sell you something because you live in a society where everyone is engaged in salesmanship.

        I don’t have a newsletter, or a blog, or a pulpit to speak from. I don’t even have a name. In fact, I am fundamentally against all displays of narcissism. The only reason I throw my words out into the wind is because I am concerned that the current inclination towards a capitalist/libertarian viewpoint will create a horrible, unequal world for my grandchildren to inherit: I am afraid that if there is not a significant push towards more egalitarian and utopian ideals of togetherness, equality, environmental stewardship, sharing, etc. in society, then the Few with power and money will use technology to yoke the Many into an existence that turns humans into expendable production units – as in past instances of naked capitalism, that existence is only served to make a small percentage of people rich and comfortable. That concern interrupts my workflow and causes me to respond to what I read.

        (By the way, fate is no excuse for half-hearted attempts, or laziness, or anything else that the individual has power over. Even if the asteroid impact is imminent, there is no reason to stop the machines from burrowing under the earth and creating some sort of life-sustaining bunker, even if it will only prolong life for another decade at most… So that classic libertarian argument against my viewpoint that says I merely seek to create a society of drug addicts and pleasure seekers dependent on the teat of a dysfunctional and bankrupt state is inapplicable…)

        Anyway, I don’t think you understand fatalism.

        • What you say makes sense but I lost you in the asteroid impact.

  • Troy

    I counted 11 art galleries/organizations within a 6 block radius of my condo near 24th and Valencia.

    • 11? That is clearly not enough art galleries or orgs.

      If you live in a condo you have “obviously” displaced an artist or “would-be” artist so you now have a social “contact” and “duty” to start creating some “art”.

      Good or bad, art is art. How dare anyone co-opt what it means to create art?

      Tell us about your struggle to acquire, reside and manifest in your condo.

      /s is there a sarcasm button?

  • flimbus

    Space… the final luxury

  • rbbbc

    Interesting read. But frankly, I don’t think the framework of this conversation should be about “new wealth” or technology. I understand the issue to be more about San Francisco’s lack of affordable spaces, the city’s restrictions on new housing developments, and perhaps the ways in which art experiences have not kept up the interests of broader society.

  • Stephen Vincent, poet & artist

    Very good article. No young artist or writer – say with the support of a substantial trust fun – can afford to live in San Francisco. Anyone who knows the history of significant artists and art movements in this town will know it is because of affordable rents for the makers and producers. The City – much similar to Manhattan – is being flattened as a place for art making. Condos on Valencia Street that start at 1.7 million are for who “you can guess”. The fix is in; we know the winners and it is very sad. We mourn the losses, we mourn the City’s culturally desolate future.

  • David Grace

    I say “Hang in there!” These boom & bust cycles create just as much opportunity to buy the collections of the zillionaires when they lose their shirts in the downturn.

  • David Grace

    One aspect that I find disturbing about the current economic situation is that the blame is put on the .com economy.

    I suspect that the biggest money driving the ‘growth’ is corrupt. Hearing about people driving around with cash enough to buy houses and condos, with premiums enough to beat out competitors, smells like money laundering.

    Blaming the spiraling prices on .com seems like diverting attention away from the real source of the problem.

  • Levi Voelz

    It’s clear that more value is placed on things consumers are buying or using, such as apps and products tech companies make, rather than art. Who determines value? The consumer. If consumers placed more value on art, then art would thrive. Unfortunately, most tech companies’ consumers don’t live in San Francisco, the Bay, or even California. They are from all around the world. Those consumers are indirectly responsible for the increase in property value in SF.

    The reason tech companies have moved into San Francisco is because their workers demanded to live there. Why? Because it’s a cool place to live—it has art and culture. Because their jobs are so valuable, more so than an artists, they are driving out the things they value. Which, reminds me of a poem:

    “Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
    By each let this be heard,
    Some do it with a bitter look,
    Some with a flattering word,
    The coward does it with a kiss,
    The brave man with a sword!
    Some kill their love when they are young,
    And some when they are old;
    Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
    Some with the hands of Gold:
    The kindest use a knife, because
    The dead so soon grow cold.
    Some love too little, some too long,
    Some sell, and others buy;
    Some do the deed with many tears,
    And some without a sigh:
    For each man kills the thing he loves,
    Yet each man does not die.”
    ― Oscar Wilde

    The deeper problem is that most consumers don’t value art as much as they value technology and instant gratification. Most people who run businesses don’t value culture and the environment as much as they value money.

  • Amy Cancelmo

    After 9 years in the Mission District, Root Division is losing its home on 17th St. and prepping for relocation amidst rising rents in SF. Read the full story:

  • Ɠ⊙иƶǾдҡĿдиɗ

    Move to Oakland. Cheaper, cooler, better weather. The arts and music scene keeps growing out here while it shrinks in SF.

  • Donna Marchesano

    As an Artist and long term resident It makes me cry. To know that individually as well as collectively we as humans will never be mind, body and spirit healthy without the creative effort of all of the arts that colors our world and mirrors our hearts. Now to know that this city I so love is loosing the art beat of it’s heart is awful. THAT’S NOT AWESOME …………. IT”S AWFUL. Yes there is plenty of great art out there to choose from. Maybe we should but SF artists on an endangered spices list and have a world wide fundraiser.

  • Nick

    It’s presumptuous to warn that “Everything happening here can happen wherever else technology companies are setting up shop.” Most people on both sides of this issue can agree that San Francisco’s housing situation faces specific challenges that are far from ubiquitous in urban America.

  • San Franciscans have nothing to fear from gentrification. New wealth will fund new art because rich kids need something to brag about at their cocktail parties. San Francisco’s new tech elite philanthropy is unique, but its social salon habits are old East Coast style:

  • While you mention the exclusive club aspect, you don’t touch on what people who live in SF call “entitled.” As put to me today by an artist, “too many of the young techies feel a sense of entitlement.” I asked her why. “Because of how they were raised, and because they can get what they want with their wealth and apps.” Translated into what I can understand, enough of the Millennial Generation techies are spoiled brats for the city’s culture to be increasing of that quality.


Christian L. Frock

Christian L. Frock is an independent writer, curator and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work focuses on the intersection of art and public space. Invisible Venue, the curatorial enterprise founded and directed by Frock since 2005, collaborates with artists to present art in unexpected settings. Frock’s writing has been featured in art ltd, Art Practical, Art&Education, Daily Serving, FillipSan Francisco Arts MonthlySFMOMA Open Space, and, among other publications.