Hashtags: Crossing the Lines

#capitalism #markets #institutions #gentrification #innovation

Two recent unconventional gallery openings on the West Coast have upended expectations about how the commercial and nonprofit sectors of the art world correspond to and interact with one another. Hauser Wirth & Schimmel’s seven-building complex in Los Angeles’ downtown arts district is a commercial gallery with institutional ambitions, promising thematic exhibitions, high-profile loans, publishing, and scholarship. Minnesota Street Project, located at 1275 Minnesota St. in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco, is uniting ten different galleries in a cooperative setup that includes shared exhibition space and joint events. While both entities are for profit, they’ve adopted nonprofit conventions that speak to the art market’s shift away from exhibitions and toward art fairs, which reduces the value of the monthly rotating shows that are standard in the majority of commercial galleries.

Exterior view, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, 2016. Image courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Joshua Targownik / targophoto.com

Exterior view, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, 2016. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Joshua Targownik/targophoto.com.

A comparison of these two new spaces is fruitful; they are as different from one another as they are from the average gallery. Hauser Wirth & Schimmel is a partnership between one of Europe’s most esteemed blue-chip galleries and Paul Schimmel, the former MOCA chief curator whom many credit with putting Los Angeles artists from the 1990s on the map. Fueled by cash and name recognition, HW&S continues the established Hauser & Wirth model of developing exhibitions that go beyond the traditional gallery functions of representation and sales. The motivation is not necessarily philanthropic, although the new HW&S does appear to have, if not a public mission, a strategy for public engagement that emphasizes accessibility as well as scholarship. The education program, headed by former MOCA public programs curator Aandrea Stang, will bring leading intellectuals to give public lectures and offer tours of the exhibition to schoolchildren and the public, free of charge. These museum-like activities make the gallery into a destination, one that incentivizes visits by collectors who favor the biennial and museum circuit, and who are increasingly unlikely to make the trip to a gallery just to buy art.

Exterior view, 1275 Minnesota Street. Image courtesy Minnesota Street Project.

Exterior view, 1275 Minnesota Street. Courtesy of Minnesota Street Project.

Minnesota Street Project also creates a destination, one that features emerging and middle-class galleries that have felt squeezed by the costs of San Francisco real estate and international art-fair participation. The ten member galleries operate out of relatively small individual spaces and share packing, shipping, and kitchen facilities as well as the rotating use of two larger exhibition spaces. Artist studios for SF-based artists are also provided at a separate, nearby location. Again, the emphasis is on establishing a scene that will attract and motivate collectors. Alternating the exhibition programming in the larger spaces will provide a contrast to the familiar mode of hosting annual shows by the same ten artists that generally populate a gallery’s roster. Combined events promise to draw crowds and press interest to confer legitimacy on emerging galleries and artists. Importantly, the collective space engenders a network of support in a typically fraught, and often isolating, line of work.

Interior view, 1275 Minnesota Street. Image courtesy Minnesota Street Project.

Interior view, 1275 Minnesota Street. Courtesy of Minnesota Street Project.

Just as the shapes of these new galleries reflect the face of a changing art market, their modes of operation speak to the challenges of gallerists who are trying to adapt to a world in which not every in-demand artist lives in New York, London, or Berlin, and not every titan of industry believes that art is a worthy investment. San Francisco currently rivals Manhattan for the nation’s costliest real estate, but Silicon Valley riches have yet to translate into serious support for the arts. The most successful attempt to engage them so far appears to be The Battery, the private membership club that has launched several successful partnerships with Bay Area galleries since 2012. Their model of working with guest curators and galleries to organize exhibitions prefigures Minnesota Street Project’s rotating exhibition spaces.

Installation view, ‘Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947 – 2016’, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, 2016 Courtesy the artists and Hauser & Wirth.  Photo: Brian Forrest

Installation view, Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947 – 2016, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, 2016.
Courtesy of the Artists and Hauser & Wirth.
Photo: Brian Forrest.

In downtown Los Angeles, the arrival of Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, along with Sprüth Magers and Maccarone, could herald an art bubble. Gallerists, curators, and artists—myself among them—have flocked to Los Angeles in the past few years, seeking something like the visibility of New York without the dismal winters, brutal summers, and crushing rents. Despite the appearance of a boom, most Angelenos agree that the abundance of wealth in Los Angeles has not yet come to bear fully on the space of contemporary art. Support for the major museums has often come with a tangle of strings attached, and while midsize arts institutions and middle-class galleries can tread water, they do not always attract revenues commensurate with their stature. There are risks to these ventures, which seek to drive a level of interest and investment that has been slow to build by other means.

Breezeway, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, 2016, with installation view: Shinique Smith,  Forgiving Strands,  2015 – 2016. Image courtesy the artist and  Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Joshua Targownik / targophoto.com

Shinique Smith, Forgiving Strands, 2015–2016; installation view, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel breezeway, 2016. Courtesy of the Artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Joshua Targownik/targophoto.com.

Minnesota Street Project will get a boost from the enthusiasm of the new residents and the novelty of the site. Yet we will not know whether the experiment is truly successful for five or ten years, at which time the anchor galleries that drive the bulk of collector interest could relocate and leave the weaker ones to struggle as has happened at 49 Geary and elsewhere. HW&S is banking in part on LA’s ability to meaningfully address the intractable homeless encampments in downtown, a mayoral promise that has yet to materialize. More broadly, these large investments in commercial galleries come at a time when the art communities in both cities are threatened by gentrification, rising rents, and a lack of collector engagement that means most measures of value or significance are established by New York, without California’s contexts or interests in mind. This encourages a superficial approach to regional talent that skims the most visible artists from the scene without establishing a pipeline to ensure continued investment in the artists that have not yet broken through to the blue-chip level. LA and SF museums have likewise reduced or curtailed consideration of local curators for staff positions—another stream of support for the regional art community, championed by Schimmel’s generation, that threatens to dry up for younger artists. With these trends, the arrival of big art-world players could snuff out these emerging scenes as easily as they could be supportive, by draining California’s already-vetted talent and failing to cultivate the next generation.