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Interview: ArtPadSF’s Maria Jenson

ArtPadSF Founding Director Maria Jenson

We in the Bay Area think of ourselves as being on the cutting edge of culture.  Yet when it comes to presenting and marketing visual art, it’s lately fallen to others to generate fresh ideas.  A case in point is Maria Jenson who three years ago moved here from LA.  She mapped out a vision for an alternative art fair based, in part, on the time-honored formula of injecting art into a neglected neighborhood.  The site she chose was the rock ‘n roll-storied Phoenix Hotel, located in the Tenderloin.  The immediate area may be the picture of urban dereliction, but the hotel itself is an oasis: swaying palms, swimming pool, outdoor bar, DJs, performances, installations and video projections – plus 38 galleries stationed in the hotel rooms which, from May 16-19, are transformed into micro salons. Below, Jenson talks about the project.

 –David M. Roth

What is ArtPad and how did it begin?

Relocating to San Francisco from Venice, Calif. in 2010, I sketched out some ideas for an art fair concept based on the salon-
style gallery [Salon Oblique] that I ran for 5 years.  I am fond of creating community and commerce in a setting that is festive, fun and conducive to making deals. I’m also a fan of the smaller art fairs, especially those in dynamic and edgy locations.  During that time I also became a fan of Chip [founder and CEO of the Joie de Vivre hotel chain] Conley’s books, and serendipity led to our meeting.  When I proposed a hotel fair to him, he informed me that an art fair had taken place at the Phoenix Hotel years before, and after a series of meetings he decided to become a producer on the project, and it’s been a very fruitful collaboration.
When you began what were your goals?
For many years I’ve studied how people socialize and interact around art.  When I lived in New York and LA one of the things that irritated me was the level of pretention at art openings.  I found it ridiculous.  You don’t need to have that level of drama.  Art should be fun and festive and engaging.  When I moved here after doing the salons that was one of the things I wanted to bring to this project.  I wanted to create a unique annual event that would capture the hearts and minds of the community and provide opportunities for new galleries and more established artists to connect with a different audience.
What makes ArtPad unique?
It’s really a collaboration. So whether it’s an exhibitor or one of our partners or a fiscal sponsor or an artist — everyone has a chance to participate in the creation of the event itself.  The producing and directing team isn’t dictating everything that happens.  We’re open to people coming with their ideas and seeing how we can collaborate together.  Also, the producing team, besides Chip and I, is a very diverse group.  I’m sure you’re well aware of Peter Selz [founding director of the Berkeley Art Museum and former MOMA chief curator], so there’s not a lot I can say about him that people don’t know already.  But he’s a very strong advocate for the arts and it’s unique for him to put his name behind an emerging event like this.  We also have great gallerists on board like Luis de Jesus from LA, as well as locals like [gallerists] Steve Zavattero and Heather Marx and Steven Wolfe who’ve thrown their weight behind this homegrown project.   We also have Marsea Goldberg of New Image Art in LA.  It’s a great group.
When you first attempted to enlist community support for this project, not everyone was on board. There were naysayers.  What were they telling you and how did you respond?  And, in the process, what you have you learned about the San Francisco art community? 
One thing I’ve learned is that nothing is more motivating hearing someone say, “It can’t happen here.  Or, nobody will show up.  Don’t even waste your time.”  Or, “I really like you, you’re a very nice person but I just don’t see how this will happen.”  But I also feel it’s important to listen to those opinions, because there are aspects of truth in just about everything someone can say; so what you want to do is slow down your rate of reaction and consider: what are the challenges of doing an event like this and what are the limitations of the physical space? What are the limitations of the neighborhood?  What I discovered is that the limitations are precisely what make this project unique: being located in the Tenderloin. To locate such an event here I think is almost critical to these neighborhoods finding strength.  Because what happens is when people come to the fair, the local restaurants and business all benefit from that traffic.  It tends to go a long way, I think, toward making people feel good about the neighborhood they’re in, despite the fact that it’s one of the most challenged unloved parts of the city.   
In San Francisco taking an oppositional stance can sometimes, by itself, generate a lot of energy.
That’s exactly it.  This is a very rebellious community as well. Chip himself, is on some level, a rebel.  And I am obviously a rebel. I haven’t been here that long; so to take on anything in the commercial art world when you’re still an outsider might brand you as suspect.  But it also means you’re willing to take a risk and be willing to fail.  And I think that’s a big part of the success of this project.  All of those vulnerabilities and risks have made this something that people have responded to.
You’ve described your job as something akin to a community organizer.  What are the different constituencies that you have to unite to make this event work?
The art fair is its own universe, if you will.  That universe is populated by artists, art dealers, media, corporations, vendors and city government.  Each one becomes part of the fabric that you have to stitch together in order to make this project work.  I liken this process to juggling multiple personalities and agendas.
How many galleries are participating this year and how many visitors are you expecting?
We have 38 galleries. And we’re expecting over 10,000 visitors this year over the course of four days. 
One of the goals, obviously, is to make sales.  Have dealers’ expectations been met?
You have to analyze it year-by-year and gallery-by-gallery.  Some dealers have done quite well at ArtPad. There have been sales in the 5-figure range, which is pretty incredible for a project like this. (We had someone sell a piece for $40,000 last year.)  And then there are dealers who have not done that well, frankly.  Some of this has to do with just the fickle nature of this business: one man’s treasure as they say.  I’ve visited fairs in New York and heard similar results, so I’d say we are right in there in terms of how many dealers do well, how many break even and how many don’t perform well. There’s no way of pinpointing the specific reason for anyone not doing well.  We just try to make sure we’re doing our part to bring a good audience to the fair.
The mix of galleries seems to always be changing. Year one, it was very grassroots — a mix of artist-run galleries and more established galleries.  What does it look like this year?
When we launched this project, I was given the green light in December 2010 — around the holidays — and I had to pull off the whole production in May.  So it became a very by-the-boostraps, locally supported launch.  The next year, when we started working with SFMOMA [whose SECA program is a beneficiary] we started attracting more galleries from out of the area, galleries that been in business longer and had more developed programs. This year we’ve continued that trajectory in that we’re growing our in our appeal to those types of galleries who do multiple art fairs, who have a track record, a developed aesthetic and artists who are internationally known.   Today, we have just a few artist collectives.  So there’s been a definite shift in who’s on board. But I still like to make room for a couple artists collectives and new galleries, because I think that’s important and a part of our mission.
In looking at the program – the exhibits, galleries, lectures, events, performances and installations – are there any that you are particularly excited about?
Every year I’m challenged.  I don’t really think I can say there’s one thing that I have as a favorite.  But I am very excited about Andrew Benson’s piece, especially for the opening because he’s presenting a version of it that won’t be seen any of the other nights of the fair.  It’s called Shine Bright Plastic Diamonds [a digital mural that will be projected onto a building adjacent to the Phoenix Hotel.] We’re also going to have an on-site TV production that is situated here to capture all of the events, plus my favorite, the synchronized swimmers [Tsunami Synchro] are coming back, and I find them thrilling.
I’m curious about Lucas Murgida and the Locksmithing Graduate Institute.   What’s that?
That is a very curious performance.  It’s a series of classes that will teach escape tactics.
Sounds like Harry Houdini.
Every year ArtPad is known for doing or showing something outrageous, and this might be one of the edgier parts.  It will challenge the viewer because it is very hard for people to see a person who is restrained, and Lucas is going to show people how to free themselves.  If you look at it psychologically, it’s about how to throw off the shackles so to speak.  I think that’s the idea.  And there’s no more visceral way of experiencing it than literally being tied up.  It’s perfect for ArtPad because there’s always something slightly weird happening in one of the rooms.  Last year, if you recall, we had two SFAI graduates [Eliane Lima and James Mitchell Perley] who took over one of the spaces and had a very risqué film [a tribute to the late filmmaker George Kuchar] that they created here and then showed, and I think it falls in line with visitors’ expectations of discovering something they really weren’t anticipating.  It lingers.  It stays with them.
The year before it was Jeremiah Jenkins in the role of Blue Collar Bushido, samurai construction worker.   
Yes, that’s right.  We’re continuing a tradition here.
What is the biggest challenge involved in putting on this event? 
Every single aspect is a challenge.  The main one is being in the center of all these moving pieces and managing them. 
What part of it gives you the greatest personal satisfaction? 
It’s a feeling of watching people have discoveries, whether they’re discovering new artists, which is at the top of the list, or if it’s someone coming and discovering the Phoenix, the Tenderloin, or people meeting each other and having great conversations.  I think the whole thing is of a piece. And if you removed anyone of those it wouldn’t hang together.  Buying art has to be connected to the experience.  It’s about walking away with a great piece of art and a great memory.
Any other thoughts you’d like to share?
San Francisco is a very important art destination.  It really is on the global map.  A lot of important art movements come out of San Francisco that don’t happen anywhere else.  It’s a city of tremendous collaboration, and I think the local art community here is one of the most supportive communities for the arts I’ve ever experienced – even more so than LA or even New York.  There’s a commitment here.  As for the two fairs, there sometimes can be friction. Hopefully what will evolve is a spirit similar to Miami’s where everyone’s excited and there isn’t lot of judgment over which one is better. 
I also think San Francisco could handle another art fair, which I realize is a very controversial thing to say because it means more competition.  But I think there’s still space.  The slices of the pie are not that thin, and if the city would get behind all the disparate events that are happening over this 4-day weekend and help stitch them together – for example, by helping to sponsor transportation — that, I think, would make for a stronger, more unified experience, similar to what we see in Miami. 
ArtPadSF, May 16-19 @ the Phoenix Hotel, 601 Eddy St., San Francisco.

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