Changes by Megan Wilson
Window of Bombay Bazaar in San Francisco's Mission District, 2000, photo by Megan Wilson
published in ArtSpan (in print), Fall 2000
We are in the eye of one of the most intense and thorough-going storms of acquisition and consolidation of wealth and power in history, one that is leaving a larger share of humanity out of its benefits while expanding its exploitive capabilities over them, and is able, at the very same moment, to tell the world with a straight face that it is about empowerment for all!
– From the Art Strikes Back Manifesto, 2000
I recently learned the three bedroom flats across the street from mine, on Nob Hill, are renting for $6,000 a month. Let me repeat that -- $6,000 a month. Commercial real-estate prices have risen 42 percent since 1997 in the Mission District, an area that used to be home to primarily working-class Latino families and much of San Francisco's Bohemian culture. By 1998 two-thirds of the residents in the Mission were new arrivals. The median price of a condo in San Francisco was $410,000 in August 1999 - more than a 40 percent increase from the previous year. San Francisco is in the midst of a major transformation as new money and bodies continue to move in and displace those who don't have the economic means to stay (or leave).
What does this mean for the arts community? So far what it's meant is a catalyst for change - both good and bad. Many artists and arts organization have been or are in the process of being evicted or their lease is coming up and the ominous question is who's next? Within the past year three of the most respected alternative commercial spaces - Four Walls, Scene Escena and ESP - have closed their doors. New Langton and SF Camerawork, both non-profit spaces that have been in San Francisco for over 25 years, are facing displacement as their leases end. Clarion Alley Mural Project's headquarters on the alley are being torn down for condo development, bringing closure to the project, which has given many artists, who are not traditionally muralists, the opportunity to create a public work. Developers are currently looking at the Redstone Building (historically the old Labor Temple). The Redstone houses The Lab, a non-profit gallery, several other performing arts spaces and at least seven artists' studios (including mine). This is the short list.
In contrast to such dire accounts, The Luggage Store, a non-profit space, raised the money this year to purchase their building on Market at 6th Street. There's also been the development of the Art Council, a non-profit charitable organization dedicated to supporting artists and educators in the visual and literary arts. Last year, the Art Council awarded ten grants each in the amount of $10,000 to individual artists.
Apparently the economic changes have also had a positive affect on the larger institutions. When David A. Ross, Director of SFMoMA, was asked if the Museum has been affected by the economic changes, he answered, "Of course it has, there is a greater comfort level with risk-taking, and a sense that the museum can one day be truly great." He also noted that "Dot-commies are not all alike -- not the people working there, nor the companies themselves. It is generally destructive to stigmatize people because of their jobs."
Likewise, I've heard from a number of artists who believe the economic changes have been encouraging to their work. "The changes in the economy have positively affected my work" says J.D. Beltran, "because it happens to be collected by a number of people who earn their money from this prosperity (stock brokers), and also because I was fortunate last year to be a rare recipient of a generous grant from an arts agency, the ArtCouncil, which was founded by an art angel (Chris Vroom), who I believe also prospered from such economic change here." Harrell Fletcher, formerly of the collaborative art team Fletcher/Rubin, concludes "It's hard for me to tell if the economy has made it more possible for me to get projects or if that is a result of my hard earned work. It does seem like there are greater possibilities though, more places to show, more public art, all of that." Artist Michael Stutz has benefited through the selection of his Pneumatic Dreamer sculpture to be placed atop the W Hotel. The project was funded through the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency's 1% For Art Program. Stutz also notes that the fabricators, the lighting designers, the digital imagists, all from San Francisco, benefited.
Though I question how much of a difference such tokens make in the long run when the cost of housing far outpaces any increases in individual incomes. What has made San Francisco so desirable for the creative culture that's flourished here was the ability it offered artists to live inexpensively so that more time could be spent making art. That cultural climate in itself validated the importance of the arts to San Francisco. I should also add that not only are artists being forced to leave San Francisco, but there is also a real crisis that we are facing with attracting younger and emerging artists to the area. Lawrence Rinder, formerly the Director of the California College of Arts and Crafts Institute, and newly appointed Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Curator of Contemporary Art at the Whitney Museum, has predicted that San Francisco is on its way to being a town like D.C. which does a lot of arts presentation, but has no base of local artists itself. The question now becomes how important is it to San Francisco to have artists living here?
There have been few actions made by the city itself to assist artists in securing affordable live/work spaces. The city's gesture to make special allowances for permits to build housing in commercial districts for people who wanted or needed to work from their homes - namely disadvantaged and/or desirable industries (such as industrial workshops and the arts) became a sham. Without a system in place to ensure the spaces were used for their intended purpose, the projects came to be known as "Lawyer Lofts." The response to that debacle has been a moratorium on building any new residential units in industrial areas, with few exceptions such as the 3rd Street Corridor. That decision has led to a shortage in housing, causing the epidemic of displacement in neighborhoods such as the Mission.
The new economic powers' answer to the space crunch is cyberspace, and while it doesn't offer much in the way of a place to sleep, some artists are taking advantage of this virtual expanse. A reflection of this was the San Francisco Art Institute's Graduate Exhibition this year, which featured a number of digitally based works. The Whitney Museum's 2000 Biennial Exhibition featured the work of (r)(tm)ark (pronounced art mark), a San Francisco-based web project (www.rtmark.com) whose "purposes are diametrically opposed to those of the corporate entities it imitates." Similarly, there are other locally based web projects that are receiving national attention such as TWCDC's www.BellagioArtGallery.com.
This virtual space is providing an opportunity for both artists and galleries to showcase work and bring attention to Bay Area artists from around the world. It is now possible to view an exhibition, without ever having to visit the gallery physically - offering the potential to significantly increase exposure. There is also the potential to open fundraising events, such as New Langton's annual art auction, to international audiences through sources such as ebay.com and to fundraise online through programs offered by companies like localvoice.com. Additionally, artists who would rather manage their own work than be represented by a gallery now have the option to do so through the web. Ultimately, it offers artists a home address that, for the time being, has relatively cheap rent and requires little physical space.
However, the greatest benefit I foresee developing from these economic and technological changes will be the work produced by artists in response and resistance to the current and continuing changes. Ironically, the work that has become the most popular representation of Bay Area work in the galleries locally and internationally, the graffiti inspired work by artists such as Barry McGee, was developed and grew out of the hip hop and punk movements of the eighties in opposition to the conservative political climate at that time. That's the work that will be historically significant as reflecting San Francisco's cultural legacy. Hopefully there will still be artists here to reflect upon the culture in the future.