From the Archives

From the Archives – #Hashtags: The Squeezing of the Middle Class Gallery

Today from our archives, we bring you an essay that’s ripe for reconsideration. Though San Francisco—like many other cities—has seen the closing of several mid-level galleries in the last few years, recent events have been more hopeful. There are at least two new art spaces in the city, and this weekend more than 3,500 artists and patrons successfully turned their cooperative efforts toward funding The Lab during a live 24-hour telethon. Of course, questions remain: Is the tide changing, or are we simply moving toward new models? Will collectivity save us? At this point there are no clear answers, but we hope this buoyant moment will propel us toward exploring other modes and strategies that can ensure strong support for the arts at a regional level. This article by Anuradha Vikram was originally published on March 10, 2014.

Tracey Snelling. "Mystery Hour," Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco, CA, December 19, 2013 - February 1, 2014. Photo credit: John Janca. Courtesy of the artist and Rena Bransten Gallery.

Tracey Snelling. Mystery Hour, December 19, 2013-February 1, 2014; installation view, Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco, CA Courtesy of the Artist and Rena Bransten Gallery. Photo: John Janca.

#commerce #place-making #policy #class #gentrification

With their leases recently terminated, the mid-sized galleries at 77 Geary Street in San Francisco are the latest casualties of the massive wealth divide that plagues contemporary American society. Gallerists George Krevsky, Rena Bransten, and Mark Jawgiel were notified that their month-to-month leases would be discontinued to make space for technology company MuleSoft to expand into the building’s second floor. Patricia Sweetow Gallery, located on the mezzanine floor, has not yet received a lease termination but is in the process of looking for a new gallery space. Within the past year, other gallery tenants Togonon and Marx & Zavattero have departed 77 Geary in advance of the anticipated loss of space. Some of the galleries being displaced have been at 77 Geary for decades.

These circumstances, while particularly dramatic, are very much within the scope of experience for many mid-sized American galleries in multiple cities. Chelsea recently saw the departure of Postmasters for lower Manhattan, while Billy Shire Fine Arts is among the mid-sized spaces that have closed after years in L.A.’s Culver City. Meanwhile, the New Yorker recently reported that mega-galleries David Zwirner and Gagosian are doing record business. If the very top of the contemporary art market is thriving, one might ask why it matters that smaller galleries are closing and gallery districts relocating across the country. There are two main reasons why this news should warrant concern. First, mid-sized galleries represent the bulk of artists with gallery representation, for whom record auction prices are out of reach. For these artists, mid-sized galleries make the difference between maintaining a sustainable art career and abandoning creative work for more lucrative pursuits. Without them, artists must take second and third jobs, detracting from the time and energy they need to make their art. Alternative spaces, many of which are also closing, provide regional artists with visibility and community but can offer only minimal financial support. Casting aside the enormous community-building value offered by support for the arts, even the most dry-eyed capitalist ought to appreciate that mid-sized commercial galleries are the link between a community’s individual artists and artisans and a broader market for their goods.

The second reason we should all be concerned is because the plight of mid-sized art galleries reflects that of small businesses more broadly. While large, multinational corporations are buoyed by financial and political might, small businesses that represent the culmination of the American entrepreneurial dream are dying on the vine. These businesses may employ only small numbers of people directly, but their operations contribute to employment at other, related small businesses (including framers, shippers, and conservators in the art world), and they often serve as anchors in their communities. As small businesses abandon increasingly expensive downtown areas, there is a real risk that cultural homogeneity will result from their displacement by larger, less locally invested operations. Prior to the recent termination of leases at 77 Geary, several of San Francisco’s best contemporary art galleries (such as Steven Wolf Fine Arts and Catharine Clark Gallery) had already left downtown for points south. A move of two miles may not seem so alarming when contemplated on its own, but consider that even in Oakland—where many displaced San Franciscans are hoping to go—evictions are happening.

Marci Washington. "Sleeping Spell," Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco, CA, December 19, 2013 - February 1, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Rena Bransten Gallery.

Marci Washington. Sleeping Spell, Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco, CA, December 19, 2013 – February 1, 2014. Courtesy of the Artist and Rena Bransten Gallery.

Five-year-old Hatch Gallery has been at the heart of Oakland’s rebirth, as part of then-mayor Jerry Brown’s plan to revitalize the city’s crime-plagued downtown by supporting art. Indeed, Oakland has been an exemplar of this mode of public policy, referred to as “creative placemaking”: art promoted as a driver of economic revitalization in urban areas, and artists and gallerists given subsidies to open in vacant storefronts. Now Hatch is being evicted with little notice or explanation from a space that has been continuously occupied by contemporary art galleries for more than thirteen years, during which time it has gone from neglected to desirable thanks in large part to those tenants. Mid-sized art galleries are ill-equipped to withstand the costs of moving in such a hasty, unplanned fashion, and there is no guarantee that any of the recently displaced will reopen. Even if they do reopen, they will have to build a new audience in a new location and likely lose the critical mass of viewers that a downtown arts district provides.

Mega-galleries, like other multinational corporations, can operate from anywhere and need have little engagement with the local or site-specific. Mid-sized galleries must, by their nature, engage with local artists, audiences, and collectors. The capacity to sell to a broader clientele through art fairs allows these galleries to help artists from their own regions gain broader visibility. Mid-sized galleries are a front line where the local and specific can be related to more universal trends and experiences. It would behoove policy makers at all levels of government to take the squeezing of mid-sized galleries seriously as a threat to their efforts to use art to energize American cities, not as a by-product of a process meant only to enhance real-estate values.

#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.