From the SUBMISSION series; c. Mitche Manitou, 2014

From the SUBMISSION series; c. Mitche Manitou, 2014

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Last fall, San Francisco artist and curator Rene Yañez and his family were evicted under the Ellis Act after living in their home for 35 years. A brief overview of Yañez’s cultural contributions includes the founding of nonprofit arts organization Galería de la Raza, the establishment of Dia de los Muertos, one of the city’s premiere traditions, and the first Bay Area presentation of Frida Kahlo’s work in 1978, after it was initially rejected by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

In response to Yañez’s unceremonious eviction, performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña published an open letter to Yañez expressing his outrage over the city’s changing values. “This is the new San Francisco,” wrote Gómez-Peña, “a city that’s been sold to the seven most powerful internet corporations, and now you’ve become collateral damage, just some nuisance to be pushed out of the way by yet another greedy landlord marching along to the triumphant fanfares of the not-so-virtual takeover of our city.” In the time since, many others, including numerous artists, have been evicted or have simply priced out of their homes and studios.

As these stories emerge, some point out that the Bay Area has always been widely known as a transitory space for artists. Many have lived here for a time, then moved on to cities like Los Angeles or New York, where the art markets are more aggressive. Though opportunities for commercial success have always been somewhat limited in the Bay Area, artists and other creative types have chosen to move here for a variety of reasons: unparalleled natural beauty, divine weather, progressive politics, and, at various times until recently, relatively affordable live/work space, among other reasons. The appeal of the Bay Area, it was once explained to me by an artist, was that it allowed for and even encouraged risk-taking and experimentation, in ways that other art centers like New York didn’t, for lack of space and high cost of living.

San Francisco, and indeed the greater Bay Area, has seen several iterations of booms and busts in its relatively short history. Invariably these periods are compared to the Gold Rush, the historic touchstone of wild prosperity for a select few and grave adversity for everyone else. As far as the financial implications go, the writing is on the wall — social media spawns new stories about outrageous San Francisco rents every day, with one-bedroom apartments in the Mission going for as much as $5,000 a month, depending on who you ask.

San Francisco photographer Scott Hampton recently parodied the situation in a photo essay on The Bold Italic. Hampton’s images feature For Rent signs displayed on planter boxes and manhole covers, among other marginalized spaces around the city. An accompanying live Craigslist ad describes a dumpster as a “33 sq. ft. waterfront condo.”

Popularized on Facebook, an earlier project titled Everything Must Go: San Francisco also posted fictitious notices on Craigslist under items for sale, lost items and missed connections. One ad, filed under “wanted by owner” sought the “ORIGINAL Mission District ($1).” Documentation of each ad is archived on Tumblr.

With signs of a runaway real estate boom in full effect, the conversation shouldn’t be about vilifying technology sector workers — a common refrain — but instead questioning the corporate sector’s ability to absorb public resources while deftly avoiding reciprocal civic investment. In a March 12, 2014 article Bloomberg reported, “The largest U.S.-based companies, including Microsoft, Apple, and Google, added $206 billion to their stockpiles of offshore profits last year, parking earnings in low-tax countries until Congress gives them a reason not to.” The same article further estimated that this money amounts to an “annual revenue loss to the U.S. that ranges from $30 billion to $90 billion.” Simultaneously, there is no sense of these companies taking a corresponding philanthropic interest in the communities that house their workers or their headquarters — no massive influx of cash for public resources, such as transportation, or education, or housing.

Though one can argue that San Francisco has always been a city in transition, it has also long been defined by its commitment to cultural diversity and creative communities. The city’s investment in these values has, in fact, nurtured some of the most important cultural movements in the country. As the city evolves to reflect different values, privileging wealth and private enterprise, what will become of the civic responsibility to nurture and support artists and art communities at the grassroots level?

I contacted several current and former Bay Area artists and curators about San Francisco’s recent shifts, changing values and artist exodus — their perspectives are profiled here.

renny pritikin

Renny Pritikin

In 2010 longstanding Bay Area curator Renny Pritikin posted an open-ended article on SFMOMA Open Space that listed artists who’d left and those who’d stayed in the area up to that point. The article and resulting commentary invoked a healthy dialog about the Bay Area’s art scene — to the extent that readers continued to read and post comments two years after the initial publication. Now four years later, the extensive comments read like a pre-apocalyptic time capsule, with little anticipation of the cultural shifts evident today. There is scant mention of Facebook or Twitter. It represents, as a social document, the precipice of major changes in the cultural landscape — before the pervasive influence of social media on our everyday lives and the booming presence of the tech industrial complex.

“I see the current situation as exceptional, an earthquake as opposed to daily miniscule tremors in the usual economy of artists making the decision to stay or go,” Pritkin said recently. “I don’t feel, as some of my friends do, that this bubble too shall pass like the last one. This feels permanent.”

lisa dent by carolyn lambert

Lisa Dent

Former San Francisco gallerist Lisa Dent, who operated an eponymous gallery in the city from 2004 to 2008, has observed the shift in wealth and its impact on artists across the country from a different perspective. As Director of Resources and Award Programs at Creative Capital, a funding organization that supports artists, she says, “I just don’t see room for experimentation. Creativity takes time and space and does not always bear financial fruit within a fiscal year. I find many artists to be very impatient, causing them to present work too quickly or get into agreements that are financially based and do nothing to push their work forward in formal, intellectual or conceptual ways. Past ideas just get regurgitated and we all learn nothing in the process.”

glen helfand

Glen Helfand

Longtime Bay Area art critic, curator and educator Glen Helfand moved to San Francisco in the 1980s and began participating in local culture in the 1990s. In the time since, he has written for SF Weekly, Bay Guardian, and Artforum; in 2002 he coined the term “Mission School” when writing for the Guardian about Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen and Chris Johanson, artists whose work today is synonymous with San Francisco, and indeed the Mission, all over the world. Helfand has also organized shows in many venues, most recently a series of exhibitions at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, and has taught at several major art schools, including California College of the Arts, Mills College, and San Francisco Art Institute, where he organized public programs and lectures for the last eight years. After his rent more than doubled last year, Helfand moved to Oakland after failing to find anything he could afford in the city. “It was sobering to realize that my cultural contributions didn’t mean anything when it came to a place to live,” he said. “The thing I keep thinking about now is that question of what keeps me here if there is such a loss of what might be termed an artistic/alternative culture soul to San Francisco. Living outside the city, I have to wonder about what it is that will keep me coming back.”

Andrew Schoultz

Some artists are reluctant to talk about displacement because it runs counter to a sense of ruthless optimism inherent to the Bay Area. Many are committed to seeing positive possibilities in recent changes, even if these possibilities come at the expense of others. Artist Andrew Schoultz, a former fixture in the San Francisco art scene, spoke about this pervasive disinterest in negativity in a telephone conversation for this article. “A lot of people would say, you know, ‘Get over it. This is happening.’ Only when someone is personally affected or someone they know is displaced does the conversation change.”

Schoultz was evicted from his first San Francisco apartment in the 1990s boom and persisted in the city for 17 years before opting to move to Los Angeles earlier this year. “San Francisco isn’t conducive to having a family,” he said. “The city’s turned into a culture of extreme entitlement. There isn’t a philanthropic interest, it’s cutthroat with an air of privilege that wasn’t part of the first dot boom. Even the murals that some companies commission for their offices are a low investment in the community: if they change their minds later, they figure they can just paint over them.”

josh hagler and maja ruznic

Josh Hagler and Maja Ruznic

This sense of the longstanding art community’s disposability is widely shared by some and dismissed by others. Artist Josh Hagler, who earlier this year moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles with artist Maja Ruznic, sees it as changing values, and notes that if he belabored the point on Facebook, some friends would respond with distanced explanations of economics. “A common sentiment, ‘I guess ‘they’ will just have to learn to adapt’ seemed to afford them distance from feeling and experiencing what is going on right now on the ground.”

For Ruznic, whose family arrived in the city in the 1990s as refugees from Bosnia, San Francisco is home. Her mother and sister still live in the same rent-controlled apartment from when they arrived. The stability of their living arrangement is a source of constant concern for the artist, who admits to struggling so hard to survive in the Bay Area that she supplemented her rent with credit cards. It is “a sad unfortunate situation facing not only artists, but all those not in the tech world,” she said.

walter robinson

Walter Robinson

Longtime San Francisco artist Walter Robinson, who has called the Bay Area home his entire life, is planning to move to New Mexico later this year. “Although we could stay, we are not liking what San Francisco and the Bay Area have become,” he said. “Money is an issue insofar as we are at an age where the numbers have to make better sense to get us further down the road. This is a young and wealthy person’s town now… I’ve seen it go through all these changes over the years, but things have really changed here in the last year. People ask me, ‘Aren’t you going to miss the Bay Area?’ And I say that I already do. It’s not the same Bay Area it once was before.”

rene yanez

Rene Yañez

Rene Yañez believes city arts leadership needs to take a position about the changes confronting artists and nonprofit cultural organizations. “I want to see the San Francisco Art Commission take a public stance on what is happening to the art community,” he said. “There is a long history of San Francisco and the city supporting artists — the arts commission should be tackling this issue as part of their agenda, organizing panels with artists and giving the community a chance to have their say. We need public events with artists and the new tech community to figure out how to create an audience and to discuss the future of San Francisco’s culture.” Asked if he imagines leaving the city, he said, “I am trying very hard not to leave, but spaces in the Mission have now become a status symbol.”

Moving Forward

Perhaps because the Bay Area has seen artists come and go habitually over the years, it’s tempting to assume a kind of stoicism in the face of the present exodus. Certainly there are many great artists here still. The cultural community remains tight knit, if somewhat polarized by the debate about how to consider recent shifts. Many are focused on the immediacy of so much displacement, including an organizing entity online called Defend the Bay Area, which offers to coordinate assemblies and other events for a kick-off week of actions through April 5, 2014. Others are interested in exploring an equitable relationship between art and technology. An open Facebook group called Re-engineering: Art/Tech/City, composed of hundreds of artists, writers and the like, offers “a public forum for solutions… where art and tech can flourish.”

Similarly, Artup is “a platform for discussion and tangible engagement focused on issues of cultural economics, modes of production, and the confluence of technology and art.” Fiscally sponsored by the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts and organized in partnership with Bay Area online arts journal Art Practical, Artup organizes “meetups” and distributes a periodic grant to support projects that engage art and technology.

Behind the recent attrition of artists, art nonprofits and commercial galleries, pressing questions remain about how to cultivate sustainability in this new paradigm, questions that extend well beyond the concerns of the art community. Is this a crisis? Or is it an opportunity for reinvention? For anyone who cares about living in the Bay Area, with all of its sunny diversity, it should be seen as both.

This is the second in a series by Christian L. Frock that explores the impact of new tech wealth on artists and the art community. The first article titled “Priced Out: New Tech Wealth and San Francisco’s Receding Art Scene” explored the impact on galleries and non-profit organizations and was published on March 7, 2014. Forthcoming installments will consider local changes in relation to the arts across the country, relevant histories and new strategies to preserve the arts and their legacies.

Priced Out: San Francisco’s Changing Values and Artist Exodus 10 April,2014Christian L. Frock

  • julieg

    Excellent article. I agree with Renny Pritikin and Walter Robinson that this feels permanent. SF and the Bay Area are very different now. I have been involved in the Bay Area arts scene most of my life. I lived in SF and Redwood City my entire life until I moved to Pittsburgh, PA last year. In addition to my own work I was on the steering committee for Silicon Valley Open Studios, on the board of the Peninsula Arts Council, and co-produced Art on the Square in Redwood City. After my divorce I no longer had a mortgage from 1987 and simply couldn’t afford to live in SF or much of the Bay Area. I chose to move to Pittsburgh because it reminded me a bit of the SF of my youth with its blue collar roots, hills, old houses, and three rivers (not unlike the Bay and Pacific waters surrounding SF). I think the Rust Belt cities offer a fantastic opportunity for artists because of the extremely low cost of housing and studio space. Lots of interesting stuff going on in the arts here. Another reason I chose Pittsburgh is that it has a decent economy and job market and has reinvented itself from the time when the steel mills left town. I was able to buy a gorgeous old house with a huge attic that I can use as studio space in a nice neighborhood for the price of a down payment in SF. Still, it breaks my heart that SF is unaffordable for the typical family. I come from a family of artists. My grandmother became a painter late in life and lived in an old Victorian on Haight & Divisadero, My parents had a studio on Steiner and later on 9th Ave. & Lincoln. All cities change and evolve, but I wish SF wasn’t becoming a place that only the wealthiest can afford to live.

  • lulusf

    “People ask me, ‘Aren’t you going to miss the Bay Area?’ And I say that I already do. It’s not the same Bay Area it once was before.”
    This resonates with me. It’s very sad to watch this happen before my eyes. It’s heart breaking….litterally. It’s so disgusting to hear people say things like,” just deal with it, things change”. It’s my home….was my home. My roots are here, my memories are here. This was once a city that had a place for everyone. We had a neighborhood just to fit your liking and we lived next to each other peacefully. Now it’s just people with money wh have no regard for their neighbors and the culture that is currently there. It’s all about me me ME with these people. The art community was a beautiful thing here and I miss i dearly. There are pockets here and there, but it’s not the same, the feeling, the soul…’s slowly desolving and migrating. This city will always be beautiful no doubt, but it’s soul….it’s inner beauty, that is what we are loosing. The people, the culture, the art, the history, that is what made this place so attractive. now it’s going to be tasteless like white bread.

  • Ben Gazi

    I agree with the greater sentiment here, but that last thing we need is another f#@king panel. We need funding and outright support…

  • Keepin it real

    Being displaced is sad, but do you honestly think that a landlord would subsidize your living till you die? You had it good for the last 20 or so years as inflation greatly exceeded your rent control increases. Maybe the blame should not be directed towards the “greedy landlords” but to those who failed to secure a standard of living for themselves over the last 20+ years. Stop blaming the 1% (which, by the way, I am far from being in), tech firms and all the sort, and start taking responsibility for yourself.

    • Justsomeguy

      This is the attitude of people that so easily dismisses other people/lives that they don’t understand. Sure, people need to take responsibility for themselves. How about companies taking some responsibilities for THEIR LIVES, and how it affects the world, the environment and as we are seeing here, the hard-working, cultural blood-line of communities, living just down the street. But then again, this is America and the Spanish, French and English didn’t give two wags about the ‘Culture’, they displaced.

      • $311151

        Though Keepinitreal put it overly harshly (in my opinion), you didn’t answer his question, which I think is valid. I agree there is a crisis. I disagree that the crisis can or should be solved by tying *individual* landlords to the *individual* tenant that happened to be in the place at a certain point in time. This does nothing to address the problems that have been mentioned, such as housing for young families, for teachers, firefighters, etc. who are trying to start their lives now.

    • moo

      what exactly do you mean by “to secure a standard of living?”…to be able to make $200,000 a year? so that you could afford to rent $5000/mo 1bd apt? then how? one could work very hard but earning only $40,000 a year, but you makes it sounds like those people were not taking responsibility for themselves.

  • Linda

    Very good read….should make us all wonder “what will it all end up being ” Detroit was a city of industry and when that left there was nothing to hold it together . I hope SF will put up a bigger fight to keep its artistic culture and beauty .

  • keith

    Yes we’ve already lost much of what we identified as San Francisco, a city of refuge and cultural experimentation for immigrants, queers, artists, and leftist social justice activists. But my experience in the dance community does not resonate with the idea of SF as transitory. Sure there are many who come for a few years and then move to LA, NY, Portland, Berlin, or somewhere else to have kids, but many many dance artists stay here for their entire lives and contribute to SF in giant ways. I could list many dancer-choreographers, that even if they live in the East Bay or Marin have been a part of the SF scene for 20 or 30 years. Many of us rent, therefore many of us have already been evicted, and the rest of us are hanging on with aging fingers. Our landlords are often older than we are and almost no rent control units can survive their death, because either the building gets sold or the inheritors, with more speculative visions and lousy ethics, want more money.

    • $311151

      But what are the inheritors to do? (By the way, I’m a priced-out person myself, not a landlord.) Mom and Dad buy a building and raise you in SF. You become an insurance broker or a teacher or an attorney. You do OK, send your kids to college, and now you are 59 and Mom and Dad are gone. You want to retire to Costa Rica. Are people in that situation supposed to give up their own retirement in order to ensure housing to their tenants?

  • And I thought the internet was supposed to be the great equalizer. Man, was I misled or what?

  • MarkPritchard_SF

    “… one-bedroom apartments in the Mission going for as much as $5,000 a month, depending on who you ask.”

    Depending on who you ask? What kind of journalism is this? Surely you can do better.


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.