Categorized | Special Reports

SF’s ‘Art Mecca Weekend’: May 19-22


Can San Francisco support three art fairs – all of them on the same four-day weekend, May 19-22?  Promoters are betting that it can. Rick Friedman, president of Hamptons Expo Group, which last year produced the San Francisco Fine Arts Fair (SFFAF) at Fort Mason, is back for a second turn with a group of local, out-of-state and international galleries. So, too, are his former top executives, Max Fishko and Jeffrey Wainhouse. With support from a group of dealers who were dissatisfied with SFFAF’s performance last year, the Brooklyn-based team created a competing fair, artMRKT, at the Concourse Exhibition Center, 7th & Brannan.  If that weren’t enough, a third event, ArtPadSF, funded by Joie de Vivre hotel chain founder, Chip Conley, will set up at the rock ‘n roll-storied Phoenix Hotel, providing an ultra-hip venue for Bay Area dealers who represent emerging artists.  

“We went from zero shows to one show to three shows having their moments in the sun,” says Friedman. “We’ve created an art Mecca weekend,” one that stretches from the waterfront to the Tenderloin to SoMa.   All of this activity, which began taking shape at the beginning of the year, left SF dealers a bit stunned; they were courted, for the first time ever, by dueling promoters who presented cases for how they’d produce a superior fair. Brian Gross, who sat out last year’s show but this year signed on with artMRKT, says: “I thought it was mildly amusing that in a town where it was questionable whether we could support one art fair, we are now going to have two art fairs, and now, as it turns out, three fairs.” Michael Hackett, of Hackett-Mill, who along with Catharine Clark, co-chaired artMRKT’s curatorial committee and encouraged the breakaway group, adds, “One really good fair and a couple of other smaller fairs that have less-well-known artists would probably be the right number.” 
Before SFFAF’s appearance last year at the bottom of the recession, San Francisco had gone five years without an art fair. Prior to that, International Art Exposition, operated by Chicago-based Thomas Blackman Associates, ran for seven years ending in 2005. That SFFAF drew an international group of 83 dealers, 15,000 paying visitors and $5 million in sales galvanized the art community and generated a remarkable display of cohesion and community pride. To the promoters, but not necessarily to some gallerists — who complained of weak sales, too many mediocre galleries and a lack of promotional spending — the fact that a fair of this size achieved even modest success brought into question the characterization that has always dogged San Francisco: that it is a creative hot spot but a weak market. 
Could it be that outsiders see something we don’t? Friedman, whose company also runs art fairs in Houston, Aspen and Bridgehampton, NY says, “San Francisco is one of the great tourist spots in America. Overall, there are more than 100 galleries. You wouldn’t have that number if there wasn’t a lot of interest. Additionally, there’s a very well-educated, affluent market that is used to having an art fair but no longer had one. We saw an opportunity to bring it back.” Buoyed by support from the San Francisco Art Commission, Friedman “jumped in and placed my bets.” The fair “did remarkably well in a short period of time.”  
Vik Muniz, “The Icebergs, after Frederick E. Church”, 2007, digital c-print 68 x 119” Photo: Rena Bransten Gallery. The gallery will feature a one-person show of the artist’s large-scale works @ artMRKT

Based on what happened last year we think there is a big enough base,” says Wainhouse on behalf of artMRKT. “We got a good response and we decided to do something else to continue and make it better.” His strategy: “create more collectors by bringing in more good galleries and by creating diversity.” “Our model,” adds his partner, Fishko, “is to go into the community and be an effective organizer.” Fishko, whose grandmother started Forum Gallery in New York in 1961, and whose connections to Bay Area dealers run deep, used his knowledge and experience to convince a number of former SFFAF exhibitors to switch sides. “He knows the business very, very well. He’s really the one who put his shoe leather into the last fair,” says Trish Bransten, president of the San Francisco Art Dealers Association (SFADA) and co-director of the Rena Bransten Gallery. 

Roy De Forest, “Painting the Big Painting”, 1993; acrylic and mixed media on canvas; 72 × 72 ¼ × 5¼” Photo: Brian Gross Fine Art. @ artMRKT
While the pair have curried favor with key dealers, they’ve inflamed their former boss, Friedman.  He’s suing, claiming they attempted to steal his show. “There are,” he maintains, “things you can and can’t do in business and I think they stepped outside those boundaries.”  Wainhouse, declined to comment on the lawsuit, but did allow that “a lot of the reasons” for the split between the two camps “were personal.” 
Acrimony aside, both fairs seem to be operating out of a fairly standard playbook. Job one is to fill a hall with the A-List galleries.  Job two is to create an attractive buying environment – one that also entertains and educates. Job three is to launch a marketing blitz accompanied by community partnerships at all levels, from big-league philanthropists and museum board members to street artists and nonprofits to critics and curators who will host panel discussions. 
artMRKT, for example, promises glitzy opening parties populated by socialites culled from top museum donors to whom it’s given free passes.  The fair has also formed what Wainhouse calls “cultural partnerships” with other movers and shakers of the Bay Area art establishment who he believes can turn out serious collectors. At the galas they’ll be plied with Chandon and wooed in an environment that features, according to Wainhouse, significantly better production values than last year. Among the attractions is a display of wearable architectural “dress tents” created by ZERO1 alums Robin Lasser and Adrienne Pao. (“When you walk in you’ll see the difference,” he pledges.) There will also be plenty of giving back. Benefits are scheduled for a number of SF nonprofits including Art Practical, Creativity Explored, Headlands Center for the Arts, Intersection for the Arts Southern Exposure and the art program at UCSF Medical Center. The fair lured some of SFFAF’s top-tier exhibitors (Hackett-Mill, Paule Anglim, Elins-Eagles Smith, Nancy Hoffman, Catharine Clark, Andrea Schwartz and the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art) across town to the Concourse; added several major local galleries (Brian Gross, Rena Bransten, Jack Fischer and Frey Norris) who passed on last year’s fair; and attracted international and out-of-town dealers, including Luis de Jesus from Santa Monica. The gallery count at press time was 65. Still, despite a vow to purge the show of sub-par dealers, the presence of certain questionable names demonstrates the difficulty of creating an A-List show right out of the gate. 

Frances McCormack, “Sprites at PLP”, 2008, oil on canvas on panel, 55 x 51” Photo: Elins-Eagles Smith Gallery @ artMRKT

The same holds this year for the SFFAF. Its exhibitor list contains at least half a dozen local galleries nobody’s ever heard of. Yet it retains some important ones, too, like Sundaram Tagore, a dealer of contemporary Asian art with outposts in New York, Beverley Hills and Hong Kong; Denver-based William Havu, which will exhibit its rising star, Emilio Lobato; SF’s Scott Nichols, a highly respected dealer of vintage B&W photography; Mill Valley’s Robert Green, who handles Sam Francis, Ed Moses and Paul Jenkins; and two well-respected LA photo dealers, Denis Bloch and Susan Spiritus. In all, SFFAF has 70 exhibitors on board, a clear indication that SFFAF remains competitive.
Promising attractions at SFFAF include a maypole, created by Bionic, a landscape design consultancy, built from three miles of rope situated at the entrance to the fair; a paper sculpture by the astonishing Paul Hayes; Happy is Forever, a performance by Nick Cope, sponsored by the Performance Art Institute (PAI); and scaled down versions of two well-received shows, Cream from the Top, Kathryn Weller Renfrow’s annual survey of MFA grads from local universities, and The Seduction of Duchamp, an installation based on a show of the same title that ran last year at ArtZone 461. The West Coast premier of Full Circle: Before They Were Famous, a documentary based on William John Kennedy’s photos of Andy Warhol and Robert Indiana promises to be a huge draw; it debuted last year Art Basel Miami. Money will also flow to good causes. This year’s beneficiaries are ArtCares, the SF Art Commission’s program for restoring public art, and the San Francisco Art Institute, which celebrates its 140th anniversary with a show of its MFA grads at Treasure Island. 
Chris Eckert and Martin Fox, “Auto Ink”, 2010, polychromed metal and microelectronics, 54 x 22 x 20” Photo: Michael Rosenthal Gallery; Doug Thielscher, “Trudy”, 2010, marble, wood, aluminum, soil, leaves, 68 x 21” 26”. Photo: McLoughlin Gallery; Jeremiah Jenkins, “Blue Collar Bushido” Photo: Ever Gold Gallery. All @ ArtPadSF
As for ArtPadSF, the Phoenix hotel event, you could call it the un-fair or the anti-fair. But don’t think of it as a hotel fair like those on Miami’s Collins Avenue where galleries hang paintings floor-to-ceiling in shabby, cramped rooms. The Phoenix’s rooms are spacious and chic and the dealers, many of them first-time fair exhibitors, have been asked to exercise taste by not showing – salon-style — every artist in their stables. “Going to a hotel room to see art is going to be a lot different than going to a big open-exhibition space,” Director Maria Jenson observes. “One is not better than the other; it’s just that art is designed to be experienced in a number of different contexts.” The Phoenix “makes it very intimate and it invites people to actually get to know the artists and the dealers. It’s a very social setting, and that’s what I think is most unique about it.” But that’s not all. Blackrock, the producer of Burning Man, is programming the music. Jasmine Moorhead, of Oakland’s Krowswork, a photo and video gallery, will be projecting videos outdoors onto a six-story wall. Artforum critic and instructor Glen Helfand is curating an event intriguingly titled “Swimming Pool Social Sculpture”.  And Cathy Kimball, executive director of the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, will moderate a photography panel. Exhibitors include: Michael Rosenthal, Johansson Projects, Krowswork, Swarm and Ever Gold, White Walls, and Steven Wolf; the former Mission District gallerist, Jack Hanley, from New York; and even three well-regarded Geary Street dealers: Gregory Lind, Patricia Sweetow, Toomey Tourell and McLoughlin Gallery, a newcomer to the block.  
Sohan Qadri, “Vedanta III”, 2007, Ink and dye on paper 55 x 39" Photo: Sundaram Tagore Gallery. @ SFFAF
Rosenthal, who’s carved out a niche with a stable of original and highly eccentric artists, embodies the ethos of the dealers who’ve signed on with ArtpadSF. “I did it because I thought it was a chance to do something interesting, not just to participate in a booth fair. For me, it’s about putting together a program that’s going to be interesting in the context that we’re showing, and I think they had some pretty good ideas.” Rosenthal will display Auto Ink, an elaborate mechanical device created by artist Chris Eckert and programmer Martin Fox. It randomly assigns participants a religion by tattooing Christian, Jewish or Muslim symbols onto the forearms of willing participants. 
“Out of all the confusion,” he notes, “there’s a coming semblance of excitement among the galleries that is really a positive sign.” Adds ArtpadSF Director Jenson who moved to SF from LA two years ago: “I strongly believe San Francisco is on the verge of a shift. It’s about something that exists right underneath your nose but it takes someone from the outside saying, ‘Hey don’t you know what a great city you’re in? Don’t you know what a great art community you have?” Yes. But to put things in perspective: These events aren’t likely to trigger an invasion of hedge fund managers. “There won’t be a ton of people who will hop on a plane and come out to San Francisco, but there will be once we build that critical mass,” artMRKT’s Wainhouse predicts.
The near-term hope, says Trish Bransten, is that collectors will be “able to “gauge how their local galleries measure up. That will give them a feeling of confidence, that their home galleries are as strong or even stronger” than those in larger cities. “It would be wonderful if we could remind ourselves – and the world – of how powerful a community and how strong the galleries here really are." 



5 Responses to “SF’s ‘Art Mecca Weekend’: May 19-22”

  1. I was just forwarded this blog and interestingly enough I have not written in…it wasn’t me. The comment I supposedly wrote wouldn’t have been my first pick for complaints although it would have been nice to see current, actual images of the fair fronts for all three fairs.

    I don’t find what you wrote particularly biased but I’m disappointed at how dealers and writers alike minimize the fact that Fishko and Wainhouse started their enterprise from their experience working with Friedman. We’ve all been critical of our bosses before (and could certainly do a much better job than them) but in good conscience, do we split and try to put them out of business? Trashing Rick Friedman’s ability to do fairs repeatedly, going to every town Friedman is doing fairs in and competing head on is obnoxious. Evidently our claim under the veil of “the arts” to be sensitive and honorable is a myth, demonstrating clear similarities between it an wall street. Shouldn’t we set a better example?

    No doubt a few questionable dealers were slipped in last years fair in spite of the vetting done by Catharine Clark and Michael Hackett…it certainly had it’s weak links. It seems though that the two defectors have learned how critical this is in paying the bills, especially in the early years of a start-up. Yes both fairs this year offered booths to some weaker dealers. Strike that one up to the fact that competition was brutal. Thankfully, next year there will be a more even playing field as Friedman, with the help of some honorable hard workers, has clearly shown that he can orchestrate a respectable fair after all.

  2. I have to say your editorial seems to be SLIGHTY skewed to the fair at the Concourse. I also question your picture depicting the venue since everyone I saw enter must have used the back door. I recall entering through a plastic/canvas temporary structure to enter the fair. I wonder if I went to the correct fair?

    • David Roth says:


      Thanks for writing. I worked hard to provide a balanced account, so I’m curious about where, exactly, you see bias in this story. -DR

  3. Patrajdas says:

    Nice to see some pre-show coverage, thanks! We’re excited to participate (@art-Mrkt) and the prospect of 3 fairs. Preview our offerings at the link.

  4. deb belt says:

    Great coverage. Thanks for the news.


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