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On the Brink

[whitespace] Hang Gallery
Space Odyssey: The search for a medium-sized and new-artist-friendly gallery comes to fruition at Hang Gallery.

Is there any hope for building a career in SF?

By Danya Ruttenberg

The life cycle of the artist is a difficult one. There's the first struggle with art making. Rearranging your life to allow a precarious hobby to become "work." Self-motivating, sending stuff out, getting rejected. Rinse, repeat. A lot of it, quite frankly, sucks.

So what's the point? What lies at the end of waiting endless tables and schmoozing insufferable dealers? Sure, there's Picasso-like fame, Schnabel-esque fortune and restoration-worthy immortality, but for most it's a tough enough road just to get others to see the fruit of your untold toils. Once people have heard of you, of course, it gets easier; folks may show up at your openings, you may get to show more often, or at more places. You may even begin the slow climb up the ultimate ascent: being able to make a living making only the art you love.

Oddly, in one of the most obscenely creative cities in the world, there aren't a lot of steppingstones. New York, L.A., and Chicago are all saturated with medium-sized galleries that routinely show both established and new artists. Here, geography becomes a dividing line: walk down Post Street and you'll see a lot of Warhols and Chagalls, maybe a Rothenberg or two. Not so much in the way of the provocative or jarring, little that's been made in the last 10 years, virtually none of it by San Francisco residents. "A lot of the galleries here have been around a long time," observes artist and gallery employee Lisa Solomon. "The problem is that they're not often looking for new and young people."

Granted, some bridges do exist; the "Introductions" program each July arranges for galleries to exhibit the work of local emerging artists. When the month ends, however, it's back to business as usual. As photographer/Chicago transplant Wendy McMillian observes wryly, "It's easier to get your stuff in the Art Institute of Chicago than in most San Francisco galleries." There are a myriad of possible reasons for this; it's difficult to know if our collectors are unusually afraid to take aesthetic risks or if the city has internalized the myth that New York creates successful artists. Whatever the cause, high price tags and museum acquisitions in San Francisco rarely come to pass without some sort of Eastern approval.

"This city is unique in that its alternative scene is its [art-world] core, rather than its fringe," explains Lynne Cooney, programs associate at Southern Exposure. Verily, there are innumerable tiny, vision-driven alternative spaces in the Mission or South of Market that show brilliant young unknowns; it's impossible to deny that there's a lot of talent in this city. The problem, however, is that these places usually operate by word of mouth and are rarely recognized by those outside the artist's own small circle. "I have plenty of friends who find neat places to show art," says Revi Airborne, co-director of the art space Build. "The question is, who's going to see it?"

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An entirely biased, definitely not-comprehensive list of hidden talent and rising stars (and where you can find them).

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For a long time, the painted ceiling seemed impenetrable. Last May, however, a thirsty market received Hang, a friendly new gallery on Sutter Street. Its mission? To offer "emerging artists for emerging collectors." Its proprietors found their 33 artists in all of the usual venues: student shows, open studios, coffee shops, the grapevine. By showcasing young talent at emerging prices, Hang targets "everyday folks who don't want to be 'collectors' per se, but who love art and want to have it in their lives," according to Shanna McBurney, the store's owner. While her motivations stem more from a pragmatic business sense than a philanthropic altruism, its effects are obvious: an artist who sells 90 or 100 pieces a year may quit his or her day job and focus on really, truly making the art career happen. Not surprisingly, Hang's wares are aesthetically pleasing and non-threatening--the kind of stuff a young Nob Hill lawyer would want in her living room. In other words, it's an important step for San Francisco's downtown galleries, but doesn't give us Soho just yet.

However, there are other indicators that the tide may be turning. The SF mainstay John Bergruenn Gallery has recently begun to show emerging talent on its fourth floor, and ArtChicago producer Thomas Blackmann will debut the San Francisco International Art Exposition this autumn. Furthermore, the new SFMOMA head, David Ross--who stirred up quite a few controversies at the Whitney Museum--will undoubtedly soon spark some changes of his own. Will this help to alter the perception of San Francisco as a transitional place where kids go to school, play around for a couple of years and then move on--propelled either by boredom or by market necessity--just as their work begins to mature? Hopefully. Maybe.

Julie Deemer, founder of Four Walls, believes the scene will change but that the reasons for it are different from the artist's perspective. "Rent," she says. "People are less ready to pick up and leave, because they'll never find a place here again. They're beginning to make a commitment to this place." And many are optimistic about a wider audience that should be blossoming, any minute now. Though the bounty of the tech industry--which in many ways skewed the real estate market in the first place--hasn't really had a marked impact upon the artists' cash box, this may change as the geeky kids begin to grow older. Only so much fun money can go to Doom upgrades, and the techheads may, like the elite of other industries, eventually begin to take an interest in cultural niceties.

Whatever the cause, San Francisco art could soon become a greater force with which to reckon: a modern-day Florence or Amsterdam, if you will. If this is to happen, however--if we want to keep our talent from shuttling off to the East Village at the slightest hint of promise, if we want our galleries to show us work that says something new, if we want the rest of the country not to ignore us when we speak--baby, there's work to be done. SF is still, in many ways, a career-building wilderness for the visual arts. Perhaps it's time to set up camp.

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From the March 29, 1999 issue of Metro.

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