San Francisco-based family-owned art supply store ARCH is being evicted from its Potrero Hill location after 13 years, KQED learned Tuesday evening.
According to Aaron Gordon, whose family has owned the building for roughly 40 years, the main reason behind the action is to shore up the structure; the family plans to spend over a million dollars on an earthquake retrofit.
The news comes on the heels of last month’s announcement that FLAX — another locally-owned art supply store — would be vacating its mid-Market street location to make way for condominiums. Combined with displacements at Meridian Gallery and 77 and 49 Geary, the announcement delivers yet another jolt in the slow-motion collapse of the Bay Area’s commercial art scene.
But the crisis is not limited to for-profit endeavors. On the non-profit front, recent closures at Intersection for the Arts and Root Division signal an increasing rate of negative change at all levels, not to mention the mass exodus of artists due to skyrocketing rents.
Susie Colliver, ARCH’s founder and owner, started the business in 1978 when she was just 25 years old. Originally catering to architects in two previous Jackson Square locations, the store started selling art supplies after architects went digital and demand for drafting materials dried up. Facing pressure during the first dot-com boom, ARCH relocated to the store’s current location in 2001. Colliver learned in April that she would need to be out of the building sometime this summer, possibly as soon as July 31, though she is negotiating for an extension to the end of September.
I must admit to being a fan. I live on Potrero Hill and attended graduate school at California College of the Arts, which is located just two blocks away. The secret behind this kind of operation is the staff, which may also be one of the challenges to keeping the doors open. Colliver says that the newest staff member has been at the store for over three years, while four others have been with her for over 20, and they are paid accordingly with full benefits. Their experience is invaluable. I cannot say how often I have gone into ARCH, detailed my latest crackpot scheme, answered a few clarifying questions and then walked away with the right tools for the job.
However, Colliver asks, with the current commercial rental market being what it is, how does such a business survive when the money is made through hundreds of sales of small items — like pencils and single sheets of paper — many priced under a dollar? Some might say that in a modern economy this kind of business is being replaced with online services, but any artist can tell you that there is a tactile quality to the way a pen or a brush moves and that the tooth of a paper can make a huge difference to the end result.
It is difficult to compete with businesses that require less space, carry less (or no) stock and can rely on venture capital to fund their rent.
“Money means different things to a business specializing in the sale of pieces of paper and pencils and erasers,” says Colliver. Where are the angel investors for art-related businesses, which operate on much smaller profit margins?
Tom DeCaigny, the San Francisco Arts Commission’s Director of Cultural Affairs admits that when it comes to assisting small commercial enterprises in the arts, City Hall is behind the curve. The mayor’s office recently released a plan to address the increasingly urgent needs of the local arts community, but its most developed portion deals with using city funds to aid non-profits ($2 million has been allocated to help arts organizations deal with rising costs). Additionally, the mayor has allocated $94 million to address the affordable housing crisis, which includes money for artists as well.
The third, and least developed — and probably most challenging — part of the equation is commercial, which includes places like ARCH and FLAX. Looking to other cities like London and New York as models, DeCaigny believes the pathway to more stability is through ownership. His office is working with “arts-interested” for-profit developers to identify solutions for places like ARCH and the commercial galleries recently displaced from 49 and 77 Geary, but admits that all the attention paid to the overheated local real estate market only fuels speculation, making available space even more scarce. The city is developing a suite of policy and zoning solutions to incentivize arts development, but will they strike that balance soon enough?
On a personal level, DeCaigny says that the FLAX announcement (and now the one from ARCH) stand out for him as real symbols of how dire the situation is for family-owned businesses to survive in the city. I spoke with him over the phone while he was on a break from a meeting discussing just that. “We live in one of the art capitals of the world and we aim to keep it that way,” he said.
As for Colliver and ARCH, they are currently exploring the options. “We would love to stay nearby,” says Colliver. “We enjoy being a part of the local arts community.” She hopes that there is someone out there who has space and can recognize that ARCH is more that just a store.
“We sell things that people need in order to do creative activity. You can’t have a thriving intellectual community without libraries and bookstores,” says Colliver. “You can’t have a thriving art scene without galleries and art supply stores.”