SAN FRANCISCO — The San Francisco art world has long been a vibrant center of experimentation and tradition, thriving in a city that has been a platform for literature, music, social activism and intellectual ferment.
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo lived here twice during their tumultuous relationship. Ansel Adams was born here, and used the city as a leaping-off point for his first photographic explorations in Yosemite National Park. Kehinde Wiley, who painted the official presidential portrait of Barack Obama, studied at the San Francisco Art Institute.
But the region is losing two top-drawer galleries whose openings had been celebrated as evidence of this region’s stature as an international arts destination: the Gagosian Gallery closed last year, and Pace will close its Palo Alto gallery next month. Working artists have had to leave their Bay Area studios for less expensive regions. And last month the San Francisco Art Institute, which has counted a long line of distinguished artists among its alumni and faculty over the decades, shut its doors after 150 years.
Karen Jenkins-Johnson, a gallerist who highlights up-and-coming curators and artists of color, said in an interview that she was moving her flagship gallery to Los Angeles, expressing frustration at the lack of visitors and potential buyers here in a city where she has worked for almost 30 years.
“When I opened my gallery in the ’90s, San Francisco was an arts destination,” she said. “But then when the dot-com started coming in — pushing up the rent, pushing out the artists — people started closing up and moving out. San Francisco started to lose its artists, its arts community, lose its positioning that it had for a very, very long time.”
The Bay Area continues to be an important arts destination: it is home to some of the most prominent museums in the country, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the de Young Museum, the Legion of Honor and the Asian Art Museum. Smaller gallery owners said they were still drawing buyers. It still attracts young artists. And the Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco is moving ahead with plans to open a 11,000-square-foot museum in the Dogpatch neighborhood here this October.
But at a time when homelessness, rising housing costs and the coronavirus pandemic have challenged San Francisco’s economy and hammered its image, this city’s arts community is suffering. Some of the biggest names in the art market, who thought that the tech boom would create a new class of collectors, are leaving. And the region is increasingly being overshadowed by the vibrant scene in Los Angeles, which is teeming with artists, galleries, new museums and enthusiastic collectors.
“Certain people who are not as aware of the art world say, ‘Oh gosh, you’re the only guy left in San Francisco,’” John Berggruen, who opened his first gallery here in 1970, said in a recent interview from his exhibition space next door to what had been Gagosian. “I say, ‘I wish I weren’t.’ I’d rather have, like Los Angeles, all those galleries that stimulate business, stimulate interest, stimulate press.”
San Francisco was hit particularly hard by the pandemic. In early March 2020, six counties in the Bay Area issued shelter-in-place orders, and there are still signs of empty offices, restaurants and sidewalks around San Francisco. “We were the first city to go into lockdown,” said Claudia Altman-Siegel, who has owned a gallery here since 2009, “and the last city to come out of it.”
This city’s struggles have drawn national attention, putting a spotlight on scenes of homeless encampments and drug use in some of its best-known neighborhoods.
“It has become the repetitive talking points of much of the press — and especially of some of the right-wing press — who like to see San Francisco as a failed liberal city,” said Thomas P. Campbell, who in 2018 became director of the Fine Arts Museums, the institution that oversees the de Young Museum and the Legion of Honor. “San Francisco is one of the most attractive places to live in the country. It’s really time that the city was more proactive in getting that story out.”
But there has been a run of discouraging arts news. At the beginning of 2021, the Gagosian Gallery — 4,500-square feet of exhibition space in the South of Market neighborhood — closed four years after opening. Last month, the Pace gallery announced it would shut down its Palo Alto outpost in September. Then the august San Francisco Art Institute closed.
Marc Glimcher, the president of Pace, said the success of his Los Angeles gallery made his Palo Alto outpost no longer necessary. “Most of our people we can see there as easily as we can see them here, and so then you have to make a decision: do you want to keep everything open or not?” Glimcher said. “There is only so much you can do.”
Larry Gagosian said his San Francisco gallery “just never caught on” and, given his location in Beverly Hills, was “a little redundant.”
“You don’t need to be in San Francisco — there really was no reason to be there,” he said. “It never felt like it had energy.”
“I don’t like closing things,” Gagosian added. “But if I’m losing money and I’m not having fun, that’s not a good combination.”
There are still bright spots. Jessica Silverman recently moved her 14-year-old gallery from the Tenderloin neighborhood to a larger space in Chinatown. The Minnesota Street Project complex on 25th Street has attracted several gallerists, including Anglim/Trimble and Jack Fischer Gallery, which have expanded their spaces there. The Fog Design+Art Fair draws solid crowds every year.
During the pandemic closure, the Oakland Museum of California completed a $17.8 million renovation to its campus and sculpture garden. And the new Institute of Contemporary Art, which will focus on the work of local artists, is putting down roots and has raised $5 million out of a $10 million budget, according to Alison Gass, its founding director.
“San Francisco is a city that is comfortable with risk, and the I.C.A. could only work in a place like San Francisco,” Gass said. “There is a hunger for new ideas and new directions. We want to provide more incentives for artists to stay in the Bay Area. That has been really hard. The real estate is really expensive. It’s hard to sell stuff.”
Young artists have been fleeing to Los Angeles in search of more affordable space and a dynamic gallery scene. And museum executives and gallery owners in the Bay Area have struggled to build ties to Silicon Valley executives and tech millionaires, leading to concerns that this new generation of wealth has not followed San Francisco’s aging moneyed establishment when it comes to arts philanthropy or collecting.
“They require a special kind of education and cultivation to become collectors,” said Wendi Norris, a dealer.
Kelly Huang, the former co-director of the Gagosian Gallery here, who now has her own advisory business, said these new collectors are “not interested in building trophy collections.”
It is more difficult for collectors to educate themselves about the art market in the Bay Area, dealers say, in part because the world of galleries is more diffuse. And the wealthiest collectors in San Francisco can easily jet off to the art hubs of New York, Los Angeles or London to add to their collections.
“It’s not that collectors don’t buy from Gagosian and Pace and Zwirner and Hauser and Wirth,” said Silverman, naming the mega galleries. “But they don’t need to buy from them here. They hop on the plane.”
Silverman said there were direct connections between what tech executives have valued in their careers and how they approach acquiring art. “It’s not like a hedge-fund mentality where they’re buying and flipping things,” Silverman said. “The new collectors I’ve been working with seem really to invest in artists the way they put their faith in entrepreneurs.”
Some dealers say they wish that local collectors and local museums were better about supporting the local gallerists. When SF MoMA recently bought a piece by the artist Dorothea Tanning, for example, Norris said the museum purchased it through a London gallery that had just taken on the artist’s estate, rather than through Norris, who had represented Tanning for 20 years.
“I’m right around the block from them,” Norris said. “That’s a big dagger for me.”
Arts leaders are debating how to balance the city’s aspirations to international distinction with the need to foster the lively but local arts scene that has long distinguished the Bay Area. Christopher Bedford, who recently started as the director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, said that the museum could do both. “To achieve a degree of local relevance,” he said, “you can be local and global at the same time.”
And the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco announced last month that it is acquiring 42 works of art by contemporary Bay Area artists, funded by a $1 million contribution from the Svane Family Foundation, a welcome financial shot of support for artists here confronting skyrocketing rents.
“The artistic community in San Francisco is extremely strong and in fact deserves a much higher profile and attention nationally than it’s really been given in recent years,” said Campbell.
Jenkins-Johnson said she would keep a smaller showroom here, but had no choice but move the main Jenkins Johnson Gallery to Los Angeles.
“I don’t want to leave the San Francisco market, but I have to go where the collectors are, the people who will support our program,” she said. “That is why we are going to Los Angeles. San Francisco has lost its glow in the arts world. It’s lost its place. And it’s sad.”