Megan Wilson

Artweek,'Viewpoint' by Berin Golonu, January, 2001


A series of articles about gentrification, eviction and displacement in the arts appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle last October, revealing the following grim facts: commercial real estate space in downtown San Francisco has tripled in the past five years, fetching anywhere between $55 and $81 a square foot. Furthermore, the economic boom that generated these astronomical rates shows no sign of slowing down.

What does this mean for galleries and nonprofit exhibition spaces located in San Francisco? For gallery owner JennJoy, someone who was committed to displaying work by emerging local artists in her 49 Geary Street space, it has meant packing up and moving out of town. She closed her gallery in December and has since relocated to New York. For long-standing SF Camerawork, a nonprofit photography gallery, it meant getting displaced from their 35,000-square-foot space when their rent increased by 560 percent after their 5-year lease expired. Camerawork has temporarily moved in with New Langton Arts, and the two nonprofits are now sharing office and exhibition space. Although both Camerawork and New Langton plan to continue their programming, their coexistence in the same building will undoubtedly limit the frequency with which either one will be able to mount shows. The articles in the Chronicle listed many other arts groups who'd recently been evicted from their performance and exhibition spaces, calling attention to the fact that the apparent survival of the arts in San Francisco has reached a state of crisis. Even though I think it's important to reveal the facts, to call attention to how real estate developers and landlords are screwing over artists and arts spaces, and how city officials have forsaken the cultural well-being of this city to make room for big business, I can't help but think that the grim statistics circulated by these types of reports perpetuate a general sense of anxiety and negativity in members of the local arts community. Every other day, I hear of another artist or arts professional leaving the Bay Area to relocate to some other locale that supposedly supports a more vibrant arts scene.

Rather than feeding into this negative hype, I'd like to focus on a flurry of more affirmative (and rather unusual) activities that have taken place in the Bay Area art circuit over the past few months. This column is dedicated to the creative thinkers who've organized some remarkable happenings on a grass-roots level, individuals who, despite tough odds and makeshift circumstances, continue to champion the need to display art in whichever context or capacity they can. Undaunted by rising rents and real estate costs, these people have challenged the idea that art needs to be hung on the walls of a gallery or museum. Instead, they've chosen to stage their works in some rather unexpected places-the streets of the Mission District, the announcement consoles in the BART station, the hallway of an insurance office downtown-successfully introducing their art to audiences who don't fit the profile of the average gallery goer. Witnessing this upsurge of experimental activity and alternative display practices-often tinged with political overtones-encourages a belief that the creative spirit of this city will continue to thrive, even in a corporate world that is decreasingly receptive to the arts.

The most vocal response to the forces of gentrification came from Art Strike's Back, a series of performances and protests organized by a team of community artists and activists and held in the Mission District over the course of seven weekends last summer. What was once a neighborhood for artists with affordable rents, the Mission has probably been the most drastically altered by the influx of capital. Upscale boutiques and expensive restaurants have opened up next to the small Latino groceries and dive bars that have been in this neighborhood for years, thus hiking up the area's rents. The Mission is now a "trendy" destination that attracts throngs of wealthy patrons to its bars and restaurants on the weekends. This is exactly the crowd that Art Strike's Back hoped to target as its audience. Some of the performances were confrontational, as in the one organized by Gordon Winiemko. Accompanied by two body-guards and a Spanish translator, he randomly passed out eviction notices to flustered bar and restaurant patrons.

Other performances engaged social critiques, as in a staged manhunt for the last Mexican in the Mission (supposedly a dying species in a once Latino neighborhood that is now becoming increasingly homogeneous) while others were more entertaining than political, as in the one staged by Shelley Cooke and her husband; this wasn't an in-your-face performance, just a beautiful display of two people sharing a profound experience: an interracial couple, dressed in traditional Mexican dress, sitting across from one another and sewing themselves together with long pieces of crimson thread while gazing intently into one another's eyes. Many passersby witnessed the event, and the reactions were varied. Some looked confused, asking bystanders what was going on. Others were amused, asking if it was a wedding or commitment ceremony. Someone threw a handful of rice out of a second-story window. A mariachi band came by briefly to serenade the couple. And at one point, the high-strung proprietor of the bar in front of which the performance took place, came out with her bouncer in tow, telling the performers that they had to leave.

Even though the reaction to every Art Strike's Back might not have been unanimously positive, the performances were, if nonetheless, an affirmative way for the artists to take a stance, assert their presence and make their work visible to audiences that might not have given a second thought to the cultural well-being of this city. It might not be entirely fair to point a finger at dot.commers, with the generalizing argument that their presence is the main cause of displacement and artist's evictions in this city. But it is, nonetheless, important to draw these people's attention away from matters of personal gain-even for a split second-and to encourage them to take an interest in what goes on within their expanded community.

Andy Cox, of the collective Together We Can Defeat Capitalism, is another guerrilla artist who stages his work in public spaces where he can capture the most eyeballs. I first encountered his work by accident, while waiting for a train in the BART station. The train platforms have video monitors that update riders on which train is arriving. Cox purchased ad space on these monitors and mimicked the design of the train announcements, except that Cox's ads announced the arrival of "CAPITALISM," which. "stops at nothing." Last May Day, Cox rented a blinking highway display board and programmed it with slogans such as "Danger, Digital Divide Ahead," or "Income Gap Ahead" and parked it in areas that he believed represented places of capitalist transaction and greed: in the Financial District; in front of Niketown in Union Square; near San Francisco's South Park, a neighborhood heavily populated by the industry.

Documentation of Cox's May Day Project was displayed in C2C, a recent exhibition at New Langton that addressed issues of gentrification in San Francisco. I'm not trying to make the argument that work, which circumvents corporate capital somehow has more integrity than, say, the works that have made their way into Banana Republic's art collection. We all know that corporate funding is an important source of income for non-profits. And it should be noted that there are many enthusiastic supporters and collectors of art who work in the corporate and worlds. As a matter of fact, several Bay Area organizations such as GenArt SF attempt to bring together the high tech and arts communities by promoting the work of local artists to new collectors from the industry. Rather, I'm concerned with whether edgy, non-conformist artwork can exist within our increasingly corporate surroundings.

Sean Fletcher has single-handedly proven that it can. Fletcher has infiltrated the corporate world from within, by displaying subversive artwork by his friends and acquaintances within the offices of the insurance agency where he is employed. Dubbing it the office/gallery, Fletcher sends out press releases, holds opening receptions after business hours and organizes lectures and group discussions in the conference rooms of this otherwise drab office building downtown. The office/gallery can be visited by appointment only. After I called Fletcher and made an appointment to see the work, he greeted me at the receptionist's desk as if I was an insurance client, and took me on a tour of the place in a hushed voice, so as not to disturb his coworkers.

He was a little freer with his words after seeking the privacy of a conference room. Here, he explained to me that the office/gallery was a "non-permissional" project, and that the parent company, which rented out this office space wasn't fully aware of its existence. He acknowledged the fact that the office/gallery persists due to the nature of the massive bureaucracy in which he works. "If someone is offended by the art on the walls, by the time the complaint makes its way to the right sources, the work would have already come down," he said. It is uncertain how long Fletcher will be able to keep his gallery running under the radar of the corporate forces that be. He's already received one warning for hosting an opening in the building after business hours. But he plans to continue to host exhibitions once every few months over the course of this year.

Fletcher isn't the only artist who has been displaying work in nontraditional locales. Last summer, a group of five artists collaborated on the first of a series of exhibitions called Art on Site. Openhouse: Art on Site 1 took place in an empty Victorian located in the lower Haight District. This beautiful, two-story house was undergoing renovation. It was owned by the founder of an advertising and design firm in San Francisco who gave these artists free reign over his property for the two-week run of the show. Paul Kos, David Ireland, Gay Outlaw and Charles Gute, among thirteen other artists, created site-specific works within the Victorian, pieces that addressed issues of domesticity, the concept of a house vs. a home, and public vs. private display practices in art. The irony of what this exhibition represented-an effort to seek temporary shelter for art and to nurture creativity in an environment where housing is increasingly unaffordable for artists-didn't pass unnoticed. On a more speculative note, one couldn't help but wonder if the affluent new tenants of the building would choose to enhance its interior by filling it with works of art.

Other recent instances of individuals staging art exhibitions in temporary, makeshift settings include Kent Henricksen of the mutable OHOS gallery. Henricksen took over the space of a frame shop in the Mission that had closed, and during the last month of the business's lease, turned it into a gallery where he exhibited the work of many of his friends. Henricksen is planning another OHOS exhibition in the near future.
In another instance, two CCAC students, Anthony Marcellini and John Hoppin, have launched a project called It Can Change, a method of display that is pliable, moveable and easily altered, as its name suggests. It Can Change consists of a series of wooden platforms (modules on wheels) on which artwork is displayed. The first It Can Change installation-displaying work by Castaneda/Reiman, Anna Von Mertens and Jonathan Runcio-was assembled in Marcellini's empty apartment a couple of weeks before he moved out. The next installation was scheduled to take place in Union Square at the height of the Christmas shopping season.

These types of improvisational display practices are invigorating on two levels: first, in the sense that they surprise you, because you encounter them in places where you don't normally expect to view art. And second, because they subvert the notion that art needs to hang on the pristine walls of a gallery for it to be worth anyone's attention. So in essence, the crunch in San Francisco's real estate market seems to challenge any sense of false complacency in the arts and has hastened our need to reintroduce the Conceptualist notions that art, in its more ephemeral states, can question materialist imperatives and engage in social commentary. I agree, it's a tragedy that many of the smaller, alternative, experimental galleries who can no longer afford to pay for their spaces are struggling to survive, and some not making it.

But does this signal the end of the alternative display practices in San Francisco? I don't believe so. Rather than pining about the dire state of the arts for our increasingly affluent city, perhaps we should pay closer attention to how the financial challenges facing artists and arts professionals can push the boundaries of our creativity, encouraging us to create a little something extraordinary out of nothing much at all.