The word provincial is sometimes thrown around when discussing the art world in San Francisco. There are the usual complaints that one hears in many metropolitan areas around the country—that few collectors are serious and that the arts are underfunded—but recently there is also the alarming sense that the city has been losing its reputation as a haven for intellectuals, radicals, and weirdos due to the tech boom. The cost of living is soaring, threatening the strong and still growing art scene. Some feel the cultural fabric of the city is unraveling.
At the same time, there is a belief internationally that there is now money to be made in the Bay Area. The powerful Pace Gallery now has two venues just south of the city, in Menlo Park and Palo Alto, Larry Gagosian opened a branch of his empire across from SFMOMA last year, and a local stalwart, Berggruen Gallery, opened up on the same block as him this past week, which also delivered the clearest sign of a sea change: two simultaneous major art fairs.
The two fairs were at opposite sides of town—one fair was nestled in an historic national park near palatial homes and a marina, while the other laid claim to a humbler, burgeoning scene surrounding abandoned shipyards. Fog Design+Art was back for its fourth edition, appearing again at the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture, part of a decommissioned military base in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area that is home to the SFMOMA Artists Gallery and the City College of San Francisco Art Department, and soon, the San Francisco Art Institute Graduate Center as well as more convention spaces like the one that housed Fog.
In contrast, Untitled, a Miami event since 2012, which was making its debut in San Francisco, occupied an abandoned shipyard structure at Pier 70 in the historic working-class neighborhood of Dogpatch, nearby artists’ studios and the ambitious Minnesota Street Project, which opened last year with ten permanent galleries, flex spaces for guest galleries, a screening room, a common area with stadium seating for film and performances, and more. Altman Siegel Gallery, a closely watched gallery for emerging art, has also relocated from Downtown to a huge new space in Dogpatch, which T: The New York Times Style Magazine has dubbed the “next great art neighborhood.”
Makers and doers from the Bay Area and abroad were out in force for the fairs. Filmmaker John Waters was spotted at both Fog and Untitled, as were collectors Mera and Donald Rubell, Art Basel Americas Director Noah Horowitz, Armory Show Director Ben Genocchio, and Viennacontemporary Director Christina Steinbrecher-Pfandt, as well as Susan Swig, a SFMOMA trustee and Fog Committee member. Architect Mark Jensen of Jensen Architects, who has worked on several Bay Area art venues, including Fort Mason, Minnesota Street Project, and the 500 Capp Street Foundation, was also seen mingling at both. Other notable visitors at Untitled included Mia Locks, co-curator of the 2017 Whitney Biennial, and Ari Wiseman, deputy director of the Guggenheim Museum, and plenty of Bay Area collectors, including Penny Cooper and Rena Rosenwasser, Alka and Ravin Agrawal, Robin Wright, Joachim Bechtle, and Nancy S. Forster.
Dealers reported strong sales at both fairs, though the word of mouth had it that those at Fog did better than those at Untitled, which is perhaps unsurprising since Fog’s included many well-established dealers—55 in total—like Paula Cooper, David Zwirner, Lévy Gorvy (the first joint outing of Dominique Lévy and former Christie’s exec Brett Gorvy), Marian Goodman, Berggruen, Haines Gallery (another S.F. gallery), and David Kordansky. They were joined by a few international galleries, like Kurimanzutto of Mexico City, which was showing impressive Murano glass pieces by Jimmie Durham. Blum and Poe, which now has galleries in Tokyo, New York, and L.A. was also there, and rumor had it they were scoping out locations for a possible Bay Area space. (Asked about that today, they declined to comment.)
Matthew Marks sold an Ellsworth Kelly sculpture, a sculpture by Ron Nagle, and a Paul Sietsema painting—all to San Francisco collectors—and New York collectors Shelley Fox Aarons and Philip E. Aarons were seen visiting the booth of San Francisco’s Jessica Silverman Gallery, which included furniture by Los Angeles–based artist Julian Hoeber, a continuation of his previous work inspired by a speculative fiction dystopia.
A few galleries opted for solo displays. Altman Siegel had photo works by Sara VanDerBeek, and several sold. Another local space, Ratio 3, featured an enticing display of one-of-a-kind ceramic plates by local Mission School artist Barry McGee (who was at the fair with his wife, Clare Rojas) alongside accessible mixed media painting assemblages and a painted surfboard. Theo Elliott, Ratio 3’s director, told me they sold numerous works to both regular and new collectors.
Fog presented a series of discussions about design and architecture and performances, perhaps none more impressive than a reenactment of Yves Klein’s Monotone-Silence Symphony at Grace Cathedral—a rare third performance in the U.S., which was organized by Lévy Gorvy, the representative of the French artist’s artist estate. Consisting of musicians holding a chord for 20 minutes and then remaining silent for 20 minutes, the piece and its stunning, spiritual location were a poignant counterpoint to the hustle and bustle of the fairs.
Over at Untitled, Los Angeles’s Night Gallery featured paintings my Andy Woll that sold out early, François Gehbaly Gallery sold all of its Neïl Beloufa works, and local dealer Aaron Harbour, who runs spaces called Et.al and Et. al etc., said he sold a major work by Eamon Ore-Giron to a Miami collector while quipping that the fair was great for “cementing relationships.”
Untitled offered its own array of programming—dizzying in its scope—that included radio programming by Radiooooo.com, talks at the bar hosted by the local CCA Wattis Institute that was designed by artist Oscar Tuazon, and performance throughout the weekend at locations in and around the fair. In conjunction with the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, local artist Arash Fayez reenacted (loosely speaking) a scene from Mohsen Makhmalbāf’s 1987 film Bicyclerān, riding a bike in circles around the fair’s interior until he could no longer physically do so.
A majority of his circling happened around an art-making workshop held by the 500 Capp Street Foundation in homage to the late San Francisco conceptual artist David Ireland’s practice of routinely making concrete spheres by tossing them back and forth in his hands for hours—the “senseless” act earning the title Dumbball. Visitors enthusiastically made their own Dumbballs to take home. Ireland, who died in 2009 at the age of 78, was known for his incredibly laborious undertakings, and the foundation featured a series of nine Schemes (1988) that he created for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles that included huge mounds of dirt excavated from the basement of his home, which is now an historic home/museum run by the foundation.
Untitled’s roster of over 45 galleries came from ten different countries, including Germany, Spain, and Norway, with a focus on emerging artists. The lineup, which also included a significant number of galleries from New York and Los Angeles, was put together by Omar López-Chahoud, Christophe Boutin, and Mélanie Scarciglia, and featured a section of large-scale works (Monuments, in Untitled’s parlance), including a Parker Ito installation presented by Los Angeles’s Château Shatto that filled the expansive space, which was designed by SF architect firm Ogrydziak Prillinger Architects. Overall, the fair felt vibrant and raw—full of visual and multi-sensory experiences at every turn, and fresh, current art, events, and dialogue.
Highlights at Untitled included Anouk Kruithof, at Casemore-Kirkby, exhibiting photo-printed swaths of latex that were draped in eerie and seductive ways (she also presented a solo exhibition of her work at the gallery’s Minnesota Street Project location the same weekend); at Bogotá, Colombia’s Instituto de Visión, simple yet poetic solo booth of paintings by Otto Berchem; and the presence of excellent Oakland galleries, like City Limits, an artist-run space showing mixed-media paintings by Facundo Aragañaz, and interface gallery, which featured subtle objects by Lauren McKeon, like Encrypted Phantom (2016), a beeswax candle with drone dust, as well as large-scale photo collages by Nando Alvarez-Perez mounted on industrial metal frames.
New York’s Denny Gallery presented a tight installation of paintings by Russell Tyler, Justine Hill, and Erin O’Keefe. The gallery’s director, Robert Dimin, said that works by all three had sold and said that visitors were “inquisitive, curious, and genuinely interested”— adjectives not always associated with the audiences at certain other art fairs.
It is easy to be cynical about the quick commerce of art fairs, but they have their merits, especially in a city with a scene that is still growing while facing serious financial hurdles. The fairs’ deep-pocketed participants add to the economy, while nurturing and fostering a new and growing collector base.
It feels like the city has been gaining momentum over the past year, with the newly expanded SFMOMA and Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive reopening, the art fair scene expanding, and the robust programming of experimental galleries like 100% and experimental institutions like the CCA Wattis Institute. With the addition of new business models, like Minnesota Street Project, and heavy-hitters like Gagosian and Pace, San Francisco is showing that it is a strong and viable voice in the wider artistic landscape, a place where quality and intellect just might precede glitz and superficiality.