Kept At Bay: Silicon Valley's Arts Trouble
Over the past few months, I’ve had discussions with various people both inside and outside the art world about the Bay Area’s prospects for evolving into an arts powerhouse. The argument in favor looks strong on the surface: a huge supply of money (i.e. potential collectors, patrons, and donors) combined with a hunger for innovation set amid one vibrant, world-class city (San Francisco) and a handful of others ripe for advancement (Oakland and San Jose). Why would artists not flock to that situation?
The truth is that the Bay Area has a major perception problem within the art world. And while that perception predates even the first tech boom, Silicon Valley’s growing domination of the region today is only making matters worse. I encountered two stories on Friday that illustrated why the narrative of antagonism to the arts not only persists there, but seems to be strengthening - and as a result, why the region’s potential as a serious arts hub continues to underperform what objective analysis might suggest.
Before we dive into those stories, though, it’s crucial to establish the Bay’s pre-existing reputation in the art world. Few people in the industry would deny that northern California, specifically San Francisco, has notably influenced contemporary art. However, that influence is also seen as being largely mired in the past tense. Major artists like Sam Francis, Richard Diebenkorn, and Wayne Thiebaud had roots in the Bay Area.
But with the exception of Thiebaud, most of those artists didn’t truly flourish until they migrated elsewhere. For instance, Francis grew up in San Mateo, received a Master’s from UC Berkeley in 1950, and then spent his entire career painting primarily in Paris, LA, and Tokyo; Diebenkorn established himself as a figurative painter in the Bay in the ‘50s and '60s, but his most iconic painting series, Ocean Park, was produced in (and allegedly inspired by) his studio in the titular stretch of Venice after he began a ten-year teaching stint at UCLA in 1967.
The issue truly starts to coagulate when we move past the artists and into the rest of the arts ecosystem. The Bay is home to only one gallery, John Berggruen, generally considered elite by its peers. The renowned print/publishing house (and now minor plot point in Spike Jonze's Her) Crown Point Press opened in San Francisco in 1962, but its mission is to temporarily import artists from other cities around the globe to create prints in their shop. Of all the prestigious Bay Area universities, only UC Berkeley might be seen as a sought-after MFA factory, whereas regions like southern California and the New York/tri-state area boast multiple blue chip options. SFMOMA and The De Young Museum are both celebrated institutions… yet museums on their own do not sustain a scene. For instance, no world-class arts community has arisen in Houston despite the praise heaped on The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and The Menil Collection.
Taking all of the above into consideration, the Bay Area’s image in the art world over the past 50 years can be neatly summed up by gallerist Javier Peres in Richard Hertz’s 2011 oral history The Beat and the Buzz: Inside the LA Art World:
“I started Peres Projects in San Francisco. I didn’t know what else I was going to do. I liked San Francisco, but I was naive and thought I could have an impact on the city, that it could become an interesting contemporary art city, that there was something there. It just needed somebody with a different outlook… In San Francisco the gallery was a fiasco financially. Literally every show I put on would lose money… Each month we would lose another hundred thousand dollars. We put together the first Assume Vivid Astro Focus show, spent a fortune. It was a beautiful, amazing show, and we had seventy-five people who saw it. I was like, "This is ridiculous.” None of the museum people there got it but some did come by. My impression was that they talked about it but they really didn’t get it.“
It’s irrelevant whether or not this portrayal is totally accurate. The point is that this narrative has now been ingrained in the art world for decades. The Bay Area’s reputation is, at best, that of a minor destination… and at worst, that of a hopeless dumpster fire for serious art. And the problem is that new events keep giving the art world reason to continue believing the same storyline.
All of which brings us back to those two stories I mentioned earlier. First, Google. The tech giant recently announced its sponsorship of a competition for artists worldwide. Dubbed DevArt, the prompt is for entrants to create a mind-blowing, suitable-for-all-ages digital work via coding of one kind or another. The prize? 25,000 GBP in funding and installation of the finished piece in the Digital Revolution exhibition, opening at London’s Barbican Centre in July and traveling to a handful of other global cities thereafter.
In theory, this opportunity sounds wonderful, inclusive, synergistic, collaborative - select your positive-vibe adjective of choice. But as Georgina Voss pointed out in The Guardian, there’s an odd dissonance to it. Read through the competition’s home site, and you’ll find that Google’s rhetoric suggests that art generated through the language of programming is not only a brand new idea, but a new idea that originated with Google.
The implication isn’t just tone deaf; it’s blatantly false. Voss correctly notes that artists have been using coding and computers to create work since before The Beatles played The Ed Sullivan Show. (Desmond Paul Henry built his first computer-assisted drawing machine in 1960, and practitioners of net art like Jakob Bakkila and Thomas Bender continue to carry the torch forward without the backing of any towering Silicon Valley conglomerates.) Attempting to rebrand the genre is potentially offensive enough to blue chip artists, gallerists, and collectors; implying ownership, or even primary patronage of it, pushes Google’s claim into the absurd.
Why is this a big deal? Because Google is an emblem of Bay Area culture today. If one of the biggest employers and most influential thought leaders in the region is either arrogant or ignorant enough to imply that they just invented computer-based art last month, it’s a crime scene DNA match for the Bay Area’s perceived degeneracy in the arts. Yes, it’s "only” a PR misstep. But PR’s sole function is to shape the narratives around their clients or parent companies. Missteps like this are exactly what allows the dominant perception about the Bay Area to sustain itself in the contemporary art world.
If the DevArt competition is a story whose offending portion had to be excavated like a dinosaur fossil, the second story has all the subtlety of jumping on a land mine with both feet. News broke on Friday that three longtime residents of San Francisco’s 77 Geary Street gallery complex had received eviction notices from their landlord in order to clear space for an internet services company called MuleSoft. Artnet reported that the move stemmed from MuleSoft’s willingness to pay double the rent of the three occupants it sought to force out, thereby destroying any notion that the evictees might have been at fault in same way for their own collective fate.
Again, San Francisco is not a gallery mecca, but 77 Geary Street is about as much of a commercial arts institution as the city has. Of the three galleries being swept away like acts who bombed onstage at The Apollo, George Krevsky Gallery had been a resident since 1992, and Patricia Sweetow Gallery since 1997. I couldn’t find a start date on Rena Bransten Gallery’s lease, but I would assume that it was sometime in the mid-90s. That means that about 60 years worth of Bay Area art history were blown out by a stack of cash from a ten year-old tech company flying a banner embroidered with the phrase “Connecting the new enterprise,” a tag line so stereotypically opaque that it feels like a reject from Dave Eggers’s (excellent) The Circle.
Viewed in isolation, neither of these two stories is reason enough for Bay Area artists to run in fear. But slot them into the greater context, and the incidents only reinforce northern California’s pre-existing image in the art world. It’s not just a place where the clientele "doesn’t get it”; it’s a place where the clientele’s inability to get it leads them to openly prey on the arts in increasingly coarse and audacious ways. If you’re a gallery, there’s a real chance you’ll be pushed out of your space - assuming it doesn’t fail on its own because of the region’s (alleged) provincial mindset toward the arts. And if you’re an artist, you probably can’t afford to live there anymore anyway.
The Bay’s perception problem is only worsened by the close proximity of LA, which has unquestionably ascended over the past 50+ years to compete with New York and Berlin for the title of World Arts Capital. With a lower cost of living, a more robust and highly publicized art scene, and a more welcoming climate just a 5-6 hour drive away, Bay Area artists have a tempting set of incentives to simply migrate south rather than try to spearhead dramatic change in their home base. The same can be said of artists living elsewhere but looking to make a move for greater opportunity: It’s always more appealing to ride a wave than to fight against one.
By no means am I implying that the Bay Area lacks for opportunities. As in every other walk of life, the richest rewards are often reaped by those willing to assume the greatest risk and thrust the biggest middle finger at conventional wisdom.
However, from inside the art world, the potential opportunities in northern California look much more elusive and unlikely to pay off than they do from other points of view. Artists hoping to seize those opportunities must ignore decades of static, commit to building an entire community from the ground up, and perhaps even fundamentally reconsider what form their work should take.
Those are big asks. It’s going to require a critical mass on both sides of the divide - the art world and the tech sector - to shift the culture and change the deeply entrenched narrative. Otherwise, the Bay Area will simply persist as perhaps the single greatest missed opportunity in contemporary art.