Soaring rents have hit art galleries in downtown San Francisco hard. Last month, several long-established Geary Street galleries were evicted to make way for a software firm. Meanwhile, individual artists are also struggling. As part of our Priced Out series on the high cost of living in the Bay Area, we look at how the local art world is coping.

Courtney Fink, executive director of Southern Exposure, a 39-year-old San Francisco-based nonprofit visual arts organization that supports emerging artists
Anthony Luzi, president of the SF Art Dealers Association
Lisa Ruth Elliott, San Francisco-based artist who was recently evicted from her apartment
Eliza Barrios, San Francisco-based multidisciplinary artist
Fred Turner, director of the Program in Science, Technology and Society at Stanford University; and author of "The Democratic Surround: Multimedia & American Liberalism From World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties"

  • Guest

    I’d like to see some year to year tallies of how many galleries and artists are in the city, and some breakdown of the various causes of gallery shutdowns and exodi. For instance, what percentage of the gallery shutdowns are from evictions versus lack of demand? Some will surely be the latter because younger consumers aren’t buying as much as previous generations. I myself love art but have never bought anything as it is almost always too costly. There are far, far too many speculators out there driving up prices. Even prints are outrageously expensive these days. Consider LA artist and art teacher Alex Schaefer’s work; each painting goes for something like $25,000 and there are no prints. Examples of his work:
    With a cheap inkjet printer and photographic paper however, I can afford to make my own “print” of the great works I find online.

    The following graph SF rent versus NASDAQ suggests the problem is Wall St after all:

    • amylouise9

      it is the people who are moving in, that can afford the high rent that
      the galleries can’t, who can afford to buy original works of art such as
      you mention. There ought to be a way they can be helped along until the
      buyers have a chance to buy, then the galleries won’t have to move.

      • Guest

        Yeah but the unspoken elephantine topic in the room is the 1,000,000 plus homes in SF and on the peninsula that are were bought 50 years ago and paid off, whose owners may be working as janitors or supermarket managers but who feel quite fine staying put and not renting out extra space, because in the end the property tax rate encourages owning and that pushes up rental rates.

        • Guest

          What is the solution to this situation? You could raise property taxes so that they could not afford it… and they could move to Oakland, too? Then they can tear down those old, unsightly houses and put up condos and frou-frou retirement communities!

          • Guest

            The primary problem is speculation. Once prices have been pushed to the sky, the speculators, which includes Ellis Act evictors but also many current home owners who are greedy schemers, will put pressure on the political system to prevent the prices from falling.

            In an ideal world, the solution would be to attack speculation itself in various ways. But the mayor is on the side of the schemers obviously. So he needs to be replaced.
            Task #1: Replace the mayor.

            Perhaps one solution to this is to designate artist workshops as a different kind of commercial real estate that is protected, and maybe to have those workshops double as galleries. The public enjoys watching artwork being made.

          • thucy

            “Task #1: Replace the mayor.”

            Can’t happen too soon.

        • erictremont

          Yes, Prop 13 created perverse unintended consequences by encouraging long time homeowners to stay put long after their children have grown up and moved away and/or their spouses have passed on. The desire to avoid capital gains taxes and exploit the advantages of low estate taxes also encourages homeowners to hang on to their property too long.

  • Livegreen

    Just cut to the chase: move to Oakland.

    • thucy

      Oakland’s not inexpensive these days. The tech bubble (Dotbomb II) has severely inflated surrounding areas, many of which offer even fewer amenities than does SF. Due to rising prices in Oakland, there is a burgeoning colony of artists and writers in, I’m serious, Vallejo. Think about it. Vallejo.

      • Bob Fry

        And what’s wrong with Vallejo? Decades ago the cheap rents were in Carmel, now one of the most expensive areas in California. So move to Oakland or Vallejo or even Sacramento and make those places better.

        • Chomsky_P

          Good point. It is not a right to remain in an expensive city.

        • Robert Thomas


        • thucy

          Nothing against Vallejo, Bob, but having unwittingly acted to gentrify the Mission, then Chelsea, Williamsburg, Hell’s Kitchen, et cetera, I’ll pass. I’ve frankly fatigued of prettying up neighborhoods only to be priced out later, and if you were honest, you’d admit you wouldn’t be dying to head to another far-off place.

    • Guest

      Does anyone not see the irony here? Real estate speculators push artists away, but art galleries also profit from art speculators. It’s the middlemen who are the problem here… i.e. the speculators.

      It’s the people who don’t make anything but still think they deserve money.

      • Robert Thomas

        Frank bumps into a provocative point, here.

  • Chris

    I am an artist who has lived in the City for 29 years. I have spent the past eight months looking for 300 square feet to rent to continue as a stone sculptor and a woodworker. In times of social crisis I focus on mixed-media public installations to inspire conversation to ail our ills as a community. .The original destruction during the dot.com sent artists scattering into the streets and across the bay. This time around the remaining space has been bought up and chopped into 100 sq ft pods at $3.00 sq ft. No noise or dust allowed. The roving art installation I had planned (collaborating with Tech) to help bridge the divide between SF and Tech will not come to be.

  • Guest

    While artists struggle for survival, it turns out greedy tech workers have started a class action lawsuit against Apple and Google because they’ve been prevented from receiving even higher wages by jumping between the big corporations:

    While the suit may have legal merit, it does show the bubble they live in. They act as though they are a higher caste. They have an entitled mentality of “if we can take it, then take it.” But that same mentality results in their stealing your data and giving it to advertisers or the NSA, taking over public bus stops for shuttle buses, etc.

    • Guest

      It is the people who are moving in, that can afford the high rent that
      the galleries can’t, who can afford to buy original works of art such as
      you mention. There ought to be a way they can be helped along until the
      buyers have a chance to buy, then the galleries won’t have to move.

  • jamiebronson

    San Francisco’s “brand” is getting diluted. Where is the “brand manager” to protect the assets that are important to SF as a community? There is no stopping the tech industry or gentrification so stop wringing hands and develop a viable solution for not just artists but others like teachers, firefighters, PD, etc.

  • Ben Rawner

    I agree with the woman who mentioned the need for evolution. This displacement is an unconscious move into the cities. I was looking to move to Austin, TX from the bay a year ago and the urbanization was immense. All the landlords told me that rent were going up at an amazing pace. I then went and read articles about how this phenomenon is nation wide. San Francisco has been a leader I many different ways and now is another opportunity for SF to lead by example by finding real solutions.

  • Lucas

    I’m a professional photographer who lived in San Francisco for seven years. After meeting another artist, we were unable to keep up with the rental market while pursuing our art. We moved to Tracy where a 3,000 sq ft. house with a huge yard is the same rent as a 10 ft by 10 ft space in the city. The move afforded us the space – and seclusion – to produce more art. And, for the comment I just heard on air, the tech industry may be creative, but it’s not at all an art community by any stretch of the imagination

  • I work with a Gallery in the Tenderloin, our Director had the foresight to take the leap into a “less than desirable” area and it has been a positive force to the neighborhood. Also, one has to experience art first hand, no digital image can do justice to standing before the artist’s work.

  • John Lau

    Artists….take your place in line with other under appreciated groups. Substitute the word artists with teachers,and other public servants who are also feeling the economic pinch

    • Robert Thomas

      Teachers are a special case. They are highly-trained, highly-skilled and highly valued professionals who work for three quarters of the year. No matter how highly valued such a person is, a society WON’T pay them for working forty weeks a year commensurately with highly-trained, highly-skilled people who work fifty (or fifty-one or fifty-two) weeks a year. They won’t do this.

      Teachers HATE this issue. It’s the third rail of all salary negotiations and it’s the reason for the power (and the persistence) of teachers’ associations – they’re required in order for teachers to try to fill this income gap. It’s less pronounced where housing cost is less pressing but in places like the Bay Area the issue is inescapable. Teachers will always respond with “I spend all of my break quarter attending seminars” and “I spend all of my break quarter in preparation” and so on, but no one buys it. I don’t know what the solution is but the problem is unavoidable.

      • John Lau
        • Robert Thomas

          Whether Ms. Menden’s ability to negotiate a word problem is an apt comment on the innumeracy of the people, I won’t guess. If her cost calculus were applied universally to supervisors, most second-level managers at TJ Max would be hundred-millionaires. Where would that leave elementary school teachers in the housing market?

          It’s foolish to dismiss this problem with this sort of sophistry. I have a sibling who, with the support of the CTA through two four-year terms was elected to her children’s K-8 district school board. Though many issues were confidential and not repeated to me, I spent more than eight years hearing about the nitty-gritty of salary negotiations from both sides’ point of view. My sibling’s district had year-round school operations at some of its schools and this allowed a comparison of aspects for teachers working on alternate (but all thirty-six-week) schedules; the degree of loathing that YR scheduling induced in parents AND teachers was severe. I don’t like working fifty or fifty-one weeks a year either; I officially have six weeks of vacation a year but I and my coworkers are fully aware of the negative consequences of taking even half of it. Many employers in my industry have stopped accounting definite accrued vacation days and begun just handing them out on demand – not because employees take too much vacation but because of the tax burden the employers incur when employees refuse to exercise the benefit. That’s just reality.

          MUCH of the good will that teachers receive from the appreciation of their students’ parents is spent, through the loyal actions of their hard-bargaining advocates, trying to compensate for their short working year so that they can economically compete in their communities. As I say, the problem is both undiscussed AND inescapable. This, I saw, close-up. Pretending otherwise is silly.

          • John Lau

            One of my friends who is a High School Chemistry teacher responds:

            What about the fact that to do our job at *to minimum standards*, we have to grade, plan…etc. Yes, I realize there are those of us who put their feet up on their desks and work from bell to bell, never to really do any work outside of school. Those are the individuals who are blasted in the media as “average”. If our government, media, parents, continually blame teachers for not doing a “good job”…what does that really mean? I don’t think they expect the minimum. They expect us to stay late calling and conferencing with parents, generating lessons that stimulate critical thinking and discussion, accommodating for both gifted and special ed students in a heterogeneous classroom, give meaningful feedback on student work/progress, attend classes/conferences. Hell, even our own school lauds those of us who stay til 10pm each night and arrive early. What message is that sending?…well, to do a decent job teaching, one must not have a personal life, stay late every night, and be ok with the small salary because we get 10 weeks “off” during the summer. Ha. I’d like some of these people to even *try* one day teaching…any grade.

          • Robert Thomas

            I’ve heard and read the kind of response your friend provides a number of times. It generally amounts to something like, “Our task is very difficult. We work hard and attentively and are devoted. And yes, we work three quarters of the year.”

            They also include rather specious and exaggerated claims of work hours. I’m used to that sort of thing in my own work life. It’s a well known psychological effect that the thirty-six our work days one spent (during the 96 hours before the last day of the quarter, six months ago, for example; the sixty-hour week and long weekend one spent working on that phase-locked loop VCO problem before tape-out three months ago) any time in the past changes our perception of our typical work week.

            The perception of teachers’ compensatory demands by the media and careless members of the public is inevitably colored by their reliance on strong professional associations to bargain for them. The positions taken and actions of these advocates inevitably raise unduly high resentment among a society increasingly chafed by public employee labor organizations. As I say, I witnessed (not intimately, but pretty close-up) the progress of a number of these negotiations myself and learned how teachers resent the invocation of the three-quarter-year “third rail”. Negotiators have to mutually agree to look away from the issue.

            It doesn’t matter. Everyone who’s paid competitive wage in my industry and other similarly skilled people work long hours (at least semi-regularly) and have demanding duties, too. The difference between one or two weeks away a year (often spread out over time, in several long weekends) and sixteen weeks (not ten; even Ms Menden mentions the 180 day year) is a categorical one. Not least is this so because with the exception of the few common holidays, in the typical workplace others continue to work while one is away. In times past, a coworker might be assigned to do a vacationer’s work to keep it from piling up but those days are gone.

            If there’s a single thing that colleagues of mine complain of most about their work lives, it’s that especially once one has a family that there’s no opportunity for spending extended time with them. Both teachers and their not-teacher neighbors recognize that the three-quarter year is a perquisite uniquely valuable an incomparable. This is inescapable. But as I say, I’m entirely unsurprised by your friend’s response.

  • elvin padilla jr

    Build affordable space for the arts (like 950 Center for Arts & Education). Secure underutilized/vulnerable space assets for the arts (like Community Arts Stabilization Trust). Build affordable housing for all including moderate and middle-income individuals/households.

    Lastly, build an effective arts advocacy to get a place at the table. Affordable housing, bicycling, homeless services and several others – all sophisticated, accomplished advocacies. There is no equivalent for the arts. Hard work + political will + resources = solutions.

  • MM

    I’m the director of another local arts non-profit, and I agree with Courtney. Let’s discuss solutions! Both artists and technologists are creative problem solvers. How can we work together to come up with solutions? Working together rather than being at odds with one another.

  • Susan

    How about setting up “mini-galleries at Facebook, Google, etc? Perhaps by taking your art to the audience you can build both demand and appreciation for the arts in San Francisco. Not to mention that your art is now being seen by people who have the means to purchase, and perhaps sponsor, the arts

    • JR911

      This is the best idea I’ve heard on this topic!

    • thucy

      Susan, most of these people are already doing that. It’s no longer optional, nor is it a solution.

  • jamiebronson

    We left SF after being here for 16 years because we could no longer afford it. These artists have no larger right than anyone else to live here. That said, artists along with others that service the community like teachers and the like need a solution. A SOLUTION FOR ALL not just artists.

    • Guest

      Every place has teachers, cops, bus drivers. Artists are really a special group of people that need a leg up. Probably the reason why LA is a better location for the arts is that it’s city that by default values artists i.e. in the movie biz. SF values its VCs more than its artists.

      • Robert Thomas

        Artists need spaces and they also need community and a little bit of technical infrastructure. They benefit from amenities that allow the viewing (gallery-attending, theater-going, music-venue-enjoying) public to participate.

        The handful of places I’ve seen that suit this have in common that they are former commercial and even industrial districts with medium-sized to large-ish structures that have fallen into decay but not yet fallen down. I’ve seen this in New York, Chicago, Paris, Berlin. And Los Angeles. We see it in the Bay Area, too.

        In Paris, the rehabilitation (“gentrification” is a clumsy description) of a number of districts in that large city has also pushed out arts culture from some of its historical twentieth-century locations.

        It seems true also, however, that the buildings and districts that invite arts cultures (outside of purpose-built mega venues such as opera houses, symphony halls and so on) MUST migrate. They rely on tumble-down or near tumble-down buildings that the arts commerce often can’t keep in repair.

        That’s the advantage of Los Angeles – it’s the sheer size, which provides a wealth of opportunity for the re-incorporation of structures and districts that can offer buildings from former high-revenue activity that performers and showers can take advantage of, while keeping an eye on the next possible (near-by) opportunity. SF’s size makes this progress and process more precarious.

      • jamiebronson

        I don’t even understand what you are saying. Are you saying because every place has teachers, cops etc. we shouldn’t provide solutions for them too?

        • Guest

          There needs to be a basic solution for all lower-wage workers that does not involve paying them $100,000 each. Society needs to protect teachers, supermarket workers, janitors etc. from the speculators.

          But very few cities have a critical mass of artists and when that comes about, it has to be preserved.

    • thucy

      Well said, Jamie.

  • rital

    Speaking as the former director of New Langton Arts in the early to mid ’90’s, this contestation within the City of San Francisco has been ongoing for quite a long time now. As we recognize the stereotypic assignation of San Francisco as a hub of progressive politics and creative impulse is waning in the face of a longstanding policies ( harkening back to the early 90’s) in which the City rightfully encouraged business…

    However, this encouragement has not been balanced by an equal incentivization – an initiative that would ensure the stabilization of the arts communities- which forms the heart and soul of the appeal of San Francisco ( not to mention generates millions in revenue.) The notion that Courtney has raised – creation vs consumption is critical. Certainly CAST holds the promise of a valuable dynamic in this direction. The most obvious example of this is that a significant majority workers of the hyper present tech industry are living in SF as opposed to the more suburban enclaves of San Jose and Silicon Valley. The reason they are clamoring all over the Mission and Media Gulch speaks to their appropriation and installation of the signifiers of San Francisco hipstersdom into their respective work environments. These workplaces are often seen as a superficial analogy to the presence of the arts.

    In reference to the Mayors new initiative of the Made in San Francisco – where is the inclusion of the arts ? Have we retreated into the enclave of narrowcasting economic return simply to the crafts may this initiative be re-imagined to include the arts – in their myriad of expression?

    • Robert Thomas

      Do you think the way you write?

      • rital

        Absolutely, don’t you? I tend to think of it as reflective of the rich cultural diversity this city has to offer –

        • Robert Thomas

          The second sentence has no predicate.
          What is “a significant majority workers”? I would *guess* that “a significant majority [of] workers” was intended, but since a small fraction of the Bay Area’s technology workers lives in SF, something else must have been meant.
          The last sentence is indecipherable.

          • Robert Thomas

            “Have we retreated into the enclave of narrowcasting economic return simply to the crafts may this initiative be re-imagined to include the arts – in their myriad of expression?”

            Ah! Did you mean something like,

            “Have we retreated into the [habit] of [assigning] economic return [only] to the crafts? May this initiative be re-imagined to include the arts – in their myriad of expression?”

            These are sensible questions.

            Is “narrowcasting” an “enclave”?

          • rital

            Wow! Apologies for the typos – just attempting to get something in during the broadcasting of the program.

            Do you really just want to carry on with your snarky remarks as opposed to engaging in a productive exchange addressing the critical issues at stake here?

          • Robert Thomas

            Not if you’re going to be like that about it.

  • JR911

    I am wondering from the artists what the incoming tech workers are like as consumers? I’m not in tech, but I have the outside view that these workers are a mix of software engineers with limited interest in art or culture, or young often wealthy people who would rather party than contribute. Unlike expensive artistic cities like NYC, Paris, etc, SF lacks a large middle and upper class of mid-aged to older art patrons. Are my assumptions about young tech workers being uninterested in arts correct, or are they good customers?

  • Damienr

    Part of the issue with techies is how accepting the SF Art community is of accepting techies. I am a techie that came to San Francisco 15 years ago. As a techie, we are a group of extremely creative beings many, such as we engineers, are big makers and creators of technology are. I found the SF artists so snobbish in their “if you don’t have a lot of piercings and spiked hair you are not a real artist” attitude that I quickly moved to Oakland where I enjoy organizations like The Crucible that let me create my own art in their community by night and don’t care that I create new technology for a better world during the day. Techies come to San Francisco because this is where other creative people are. Accept them as creative people and they will help you grow as artists.

    • thucy

      “I found the SF artists so snobbish in their “if you don’t have a lot of piercings and spiked hair you are not a real artist” attitude…”

      That’s a terrible aspect of the weak SF art scene. I remember it well, it’s what motivated most of us to go to NY or LA, where people were more openminded and more talented.

      SF collectively hasn’t produced anything meaningful in years. Sorry to say it.

    • Guest

      Techies who create real art are a small minority, in the way that techies who are bodybuilders are a small minority. Most techies are more interested in gadgets 24/7 and any creativity by them will be on display at the next Maker faire. Most techies have no feeling for and are numb to art, as well as many other topics.

  • catherine L

    At the Veterans + Community Media Center we have a plan, and a building with a wonderful landlord who wants to keep it a community center at the nexus of 4 major neighborhoods at Market and Valencia.

    We are the intersection of art, technology, civic engagement and community, and we bring together artists, public media, veterans, makers, and techies. We have a studio with a green screen, gallery space, classrooms, and social space where the community have had public forums, Open Studios weekend, fellowship meetings, and classes in acting, improv, Google docs, WordPress, and painting.

    But we have no sustainable funding. We are scrambling to get a plan into place to seek funds and develop a long-term plan and organization. Who can help? We’re seeking investors in community, and looking for funding partners who want to promote the arts, civic engagement, and technology with the SF community but we need more time to develop. We hope that partners in technology and digital media can support a physical space for the community to gather, share, create, and show.

    Come to our installation show “The I (Eye) in Media” the weekends of March 15,16 and 22, 23 to see it in action.

  • Gladys Castle

    I’ve been living in Vallejo for 39 years and have seen it including its downtown be a town where nobody wants to go to over the years due to crime, decreasing morale from military base closure, etc. That is changing – the artists from SF , Emeryville , and surrounding cities come to this city and want to change Vallejo for the better . I see several art galleries there in downtown and there is a center called the Hub where not only artists and families can gather during community events.

  • discussmuch

    I just read through all the comments and am dismayed that not one of them mentioned the fact that the artists who are complaining about being displaced by the techsters, are part of the same group that displaced the working class Latino immigrants who populated the Mission district decades ago. Sad.

    • jamiebronson

      White people gentrifying white people. It’s ironic isn’t it?

      • Robert Thomas

        We allow artists much, including a degree of relief from the burden of self-examination.

  • Joey Brunner

    Aren’t artists also part of the gentrification process? How many Latino families were pushed out when the Mission became “beautified” by artists? We all play a role in this cycle. This should be a discussion about how to builds better, stronger communities (across the economic spectrum) that take all residents into account. Also, how can we re-envision gentrification as a positive model for alternate forms of redevelopment where people of lower means are introduced into well established neighborhoods?

  • Menelvagor

    i really dont mean to be offensive, but I would never describe SF as beautiful. Actually, I always felt SF was dirty and ugly. Sorry.

    In all developed societies the arts is preserved and subsidized. It is a reflection of a more enlightened society. NOt in America. And not in the new neo-con America.

    In my experience, techies, engineers–dont appreciate art, are slightly obtuse, dull and narrow-minded–one track minds. Not holistic or well-rounded human beings. Clearly there are exceptions–but in general…

    teachers should be the highest paid profession–and public. The fie arts should be subsidized, esp. where heritage is concerned.

    Cops should not be paid any more than they are. We should have community cops who live and love and police thier local community–on foot. Under the authority of democratic town councils.

    All community professions (cops, teachers, nurses, transit,) should have–require–benefits such as free accommodation. All such professions should have at least a 2 bedroom flat provided by the community, the state, the institution, whatever. It only makes sense. Then their meager salary becomes so much more–and the economy will boom. That’s spending money.–On the arts, on techie toys, on organic foods, on amusement…

    p.s this is what they do in CHIna and the economy booms. poor working people people are not really poor. China is more humane and developed than america, in many ways. IN America we seem to hate our fellow man–pitted against each in an eternal war of individualism. That’s why our economy sucks the big one.

    we have to decide if want to live in a society or continue to self-destruct because of a few–a FEW–greedy demented people in control of everything (including the media).

    • Guest

      San Francisco is only dirty and ugly in the Tenderloin. LuLz Having
      more cops walking around on the street won’t get rid of the cancerous
      drug culture or hidden drug labs that are all over san fran. Equipping
      them with better surveillance and crime detection technologies, would
      make the current police force more effective and i think would serve as a
      force multiplier for each individual cop.

      China is a repressive
      country, they think they’re communists but they’re acting very
      capitalistic these days – cut throat capitalism with Stalinist style of
      government. 🙂

  • Amy Cancelmo

    After 9 years in the Mission, Root Division too is losing our space and prepping for relocation amidst rising rents. http://rootdivision.org/transition

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