In the fall of 1947 a New York art instructor teaching at the California School of Fine Arts (now San Francisco Art Institute), wrote to an artist friend: “The city is unspeakably beautiful & the weather is perfect …There is no doubt that by its visual attributes alone this city has earned the right to be the art center of the world, and that we must do something to bring this about.”
Professor Mark Rothko certainly understood San Francisco’s appeal; but his love of our landscape didn’t stop him from returning to New York after his stint at SFIA. Fact is, San Francisco, for all its great vistas and year-around mild climate, has never been a great art market and probably never will be due to its small population.
Nevertheless, the pool of Bay Area art talent has always been deep. One longstanding explanation for the discrepancy between art and commerce in this region is that we are too nature-obsessed; or perhaps the views from our couches (or beaches) are too good to need accessorizing with art.
Last week, however, locals got a jolt of art-world adrenaline when the SF Fine Art Fair (May 20-23) came to town, filling up the 50,000 square feet of the Festival Pavilion on the bay at Fort Mason. It’s the same venue that housed the San Francisco International Art Expo from 1998 through 2006 before running into financial problems; so attendees were both thrilled by the new fair (a production of Hamptons Expo Group which runs fairs in Bridgehampton, NY, in July, and in Aspen, CO, in August), and cautiously optimistic, seeking good omens in bad times.
Good omens came in the form of $300 million worth of works by more than 500 artists from some 80 galleries, hailing from New York, Los Angeles, Denver, Santa Fe, Denver, Chicago, Sacramento, Charlotte, Seoul, London, Berlin and Venice. Big-name artists included: Diane Arbus, Charles Arnoldi, Romare Bearden, Ross Bleckner, Charles Burchfield, Roger Brown, Jess Collins, Bruce Conner, Robert Cottingham, Richard Diebenkorn, Eric Fischl, Janet Fish, Sam Francis, Robert Frank, Helen Frankenthaler, Ellsworth Kelly, Jacob Lawrence, Jack Levine, Sol Lewitt, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Mapplethorpe, Shirin Neshat, David Park, Martin Puryear, Ed Ruscha, Laurie Simmons, Kiki Smiith, Masami Teraoka, Wayne Thiebaud and Peter Voulkos. Their works, along with pieces from 475 other artists were spaciously arranged and well-lighted under the Pavilion’s lofty roof in near-perfect art-viewing conditions.
Even the best flaneurs, or art strollers, need a break, however, and the fair offered a variety of programs and events to those in need of a chair. Pioneer gallerist Ruth Braunstein, whose Braunstein/Quay Gallery celebrates 50 years representing such artists as Peter Voulkos, John Altoon, Robert Brady, Richard Shaw, Ursula Schneider, Mary Snowden and Michael Stevens, was honored at a special ceremony with a Lifetime Achievement Award; her charity project ArtCare, a collaboration between the San Francisco Arts Commission, the San Francisco Art Dealers Association, will fund the badly needed maintenance of the city’s public sculpture.
Braunstein, when handed the microphone at the event, didn’t cast a reflective look on her half century in the art business; instead, she appealed for donations to ArtCare and received, on the spot, a $10,000 check from art patron and philanthropist Roselyne “Cissy” Swig.
The West Coast Art Collector’s Conference, consisting of 14 panel discussions emceed by Squarecylinder’s David M. Roth, offered tips on collecting sculpture, prints and photographs; framing; appraisals; how to buy art as an investment; the modernist art of India; how galleries pick their artists; the media’s impact on the marketplace and other topics.
Attendance, which was plagued by a malfunctioning sound system, ranged from full-house (media and the marketplace; how galleries pick artists) to moderate (Indian Modernism ) to practically nil (framing) — a shame since Paul Porambo of SF-based Fine Art Services, brought more imagination to the subject than one would have thought possible.
Special exhibits included a huge digital, interactive robotic sculpture, “Inflatable Architectural Growth,” by Chico MacMurtrie, in conjunction with San Jose’s Zero1 Biennial in September, and solo exhibition booths for five artists: John Altoon (Braunstein Quay Gallery, SF), Joachim Hiller (Walter Bischoff Galerie, Berlin), Klari Reis (Cynthia Corbett Gallery, London), Jenn Shifflet (Chandra Cerrito Contemporary, Oakland), and Jeff Wallin (Patrajdas Contemporary, Chicago).
The Bay Area art audience responded affirmatively, with 15,000 visitors participating in the four-day event. The Thursday night kickoff, a benefit for the San Francisco Art Institute (Rothko’s old employer, which was exhibiting work by its new MFA grads next door) turned out to be a tribal gathering of Bay Area art-worlders—with five times as many celebrants as the fair producers had expected.
The following morning, Hamptons Expo Group CEO and Founder Rick Friedman (himself a major collector of Abstract Expressionist art) enthused: “There’s a tremendous amount of interest in the show; a turnout of 3,000 VIPs that came in for the opening night—that’s extraordinary, in any fair in America…there are a lot of red dots, a lot of sales, some in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. This will blossom; it will be even better next year.” He praised the high quality of the work: “There really aren’t any weak spots on the floor. This is the only show I’ve seen in a long time that’s strong, front, middle and back.”
Director of Sales Max Fishko was similarly optimistic on Sunday afternoon as closing time approached: “We’re very interested in seeing the Bay Area become not only a national destination, but an international destination for the kind of art tourism you see centered around really successful art fairs — Art Chicago, Art Basel Miami Beach, the Armory Fair in New York.”
Just as important as the fairs’ “multiplying effect” in galvanizing new collectors and stimulating the market, however, are its psychological benefits to local artists, galleries, and museums: “The energy that an event like this can bring to an art market— it’s kind of a demonstration or show of force: ‘This is alive and well and you need to come here and pay attention to it.’ We all know how the wheels [of commerce] turn, but this is really a socially benevolent kind of activity.”
Whether the fair grows and thrives will depend on sales and whatever ancillary benefits accrue between now and next year. So far, the views from most of the participating galleries have been favorable, notwithstanding various glitches including a malfunction sound system, limited food options and catalogue errors.
Here, below, is a sampling of reactions from gallerists:
Ruth Braunstein (Braunstein/Quay Gallery, San Francisco):“I felt the fair had a lot of energy, whether you like the work or not. The work was not that adventurous—not anything you can’t see somewhere else. I don’t think that dealers made a lot of money, but there were huge crowds. A lot of the local people that you never see came, and attendance stayed pretty constant for the whole three and a half days. Fairs are very expensive, and people are tired of fairs. I don’t think it should be done every year—maybe every other year [alternating with Los Angeles].”
Katrina Traywick (Traywick Contemporary, Berkeley): “Art fairs are now an established way of doing business, especially for dealers that are not in larger art markets like New York or Los Angeles… I am very pleased with the energy, the crowds and the sales from SFFAF 2010. It will take some time to establish it as a solid, regional fair but this can be done. And it is a terrific antidote to the overcrowded and sometimes overblown mega-fairs in Miami and New York. It will take additional advertising and outreach both in the Bay Area as well as in other major West Coast cities: Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle etc.”
Peter Fetterman (Peter Fetterman Gallery, Santa Monica): “San Francisco is one of the great cities in the world, so in terms of an art fair destination it has so much going for it. Fort Mason, with its views, natural light and proximity to Greens Take Out makes it very user-friendly for us art fair warriors. There was good, positive energy all round and a genuine will to see it succeed. However, it’s really imperative that the opening night have a real sense of occasion. Here the organizers perhaps have to do some real subtle social networking and align themselves with a group that can deliver a well-heeled, sophisticated and seriously interested audience. This is hard to do from the East Coast, but it is the key to the show’s survival and growth. We look forward to hearing about new, positive developments so we can clear our schedule and continue to believe, like Annie, that "the sun will come up tomorrow."
Catharine Clark (Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco): “There were 15,000 people in attendance and that in and of itself was impressive and helped to keep energy and spirits high (for gallerists, collectors and patrons). The gallery sold work and met some people that we did not know going into the fair—the main reason to participate in any fair. The layout of the fair was clean and contemporary looking (no carpets—yes!); the collaboration with ZER01 was innovative and impressive. The outreach to the public was beyond expectation. The sound [and signage need to] … be improved upon next year…. I’d like to see more contemporary galleries participating from the far reaches of the globe.” CCG will attend next year and recommends that others do so, too. On the poor media coverage: “I find it scandalous that the Chronicle did not feel obligated to cover an event that 15,000 San Franciscans thought was important enough to show up to.”
George Krevsky (George Krevsky Gallery, San Francisco) concurs on the media being missing in action: “There was absolutely NO coverage in the SF Chronicle or West Coast NY Times, or TV coverage. Press in general was terrible.” He points out the absence of many blue-chip galleries: “This [fair] has some promise but I was disappointed with the number of qualified collectors who attended.”
Kimberly Johansson (Johansson Projects, Oakland): “My experience at the fair was unexpectedly good. Most of the folks I placed work with were new. They had heard of the gallery but had never made the trip over the bridge to see it in person. I think it could be even better next year if we could attract some strong galleries from afar and market to collectors out of the region and perhaps also plan more events for travelers.”
Michael Rosenthal (Michael Rosenthal Gallery, San Francisco): “The San Francisco Fine Art Fair was a welcome jolt to the San Francisco art world in scope, ambition and the range of things it gives you to think about. However, it is disappointing that out of 48 San Francisco art galleries, only 18 actually participated.”
William Havu (William Havu Gallery, Denver) “I was delighted with the venue at Fort Mason. What a view! I was also delighted with the overall quality of the exhibitors and what they brought.The fair organizers, Hamptons Expo Group did a great job in turning out the audience and promoting the event and, though I did not get an opportunity to attend any of the discussions, thought that having them added an extra dimension. We did manage to sell seven pieces, all paintings and all relatively small which didn’t pay the overhead, but it was better than we had done two years ago at RedDot during Art Basel/Miami. That fair was held at an unfortunate time economically and even though I don’t think things are a great deal better, there has been improvement. I would certainly do this fair again next year. Everyone was having fun looking and appreciating the art if not actually buying. It gave me hope and made me smile.”
Susan O’Malley (Curator and Print Center Director Institute of Contemporary Art, San Jose) “As a non-profit art space we were satisfied with the exposure and level of awareness we raised at the Fair. Ultimately, we are happy and encouraged that San Francisco hosted a modern/contemporary fair which we hope will become a catalyst for generating an important discussion about the Bay Area art ecosystem going forward. We’re excited about the possibilities and understand that it takes a village.”
Whether gallerists did good business or missed their goals, one thing appears clear: If the results of our informal and (and admittedly nonscientific) opinion poll continue to hold, many dealers will be back next year, expecting a more polished second year and better times as the recession (hopefully) fades. They will be evaluating the role of art fairs and the role of San Francisco in the international market, holding in the balance Rothko’s dream of a Bay Area art utopia.
Hamptons’ Max Fishko: “It’s a tough economy. It’s a rough moment to be taking risks. “We took a risk to come out here to do it and we were lucky enough to find people willing to take the risks with us.”
The San Francisco Fine Art Fair ran May 20-23, 2010 at Fort Mason.