Priced Out: San Francisco’s Changing Values and Artist Exodus
Last fall, San Francisco artist and curator Rene Yañez and his family were evicted under the Ellis Act after living in their home for 35 years. A brief overview of Yañez’s cultural contributions includes the founding of nonprofit arts organization Galería de la Raza, the establishment of Dia de los Muertos, one of the city’s premiere traditions, and the first Bay Area presentation of Frida Kahlo’s work in 1978, after it was initially rejected by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
In response to Yañez’s unceremonious eviction, performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña published an open letter to Yañez expressing his outrage over the city’s changing values. “This is the new San Francisco,” wrote Gómez-Peña, “a city that’s been sold to the seven most powerful internet corporations, and now you’ve become collateral damage, just some nuisance to be pushed out of the way by yet another greedy landlord marching along to the triumphant fanfares of the not-so-virtual takeover of our city.” In the time since, many others, including numerous artists, have been evicted or have simply priced out of their homes and studios.
As these stories emerge, some point out that the Bay Area has always been widely known as a transitory space for artists. Many have lived here for a time, then moved on to cities like Los Angeles or New York, where the art markets are more aggressive. Though opportunities for commercial success have always been somewhat limited in the Bay Area, artists and other creative types have chosen to move here for a variety of reasons: unparalleled natural beauty, divine weather, progressive politics, and, at various times until recently, relatively affordable live/work space, among other reasons. The appeal of the Bay Area, it was once explained to me by an artist, was that it allowed for and even encouraged risk-taking and experimentation, in ways that other art centers like New York didn’t, for lack of space and high cost of living.
San Francisco, and indeed the greater Bay Area, has seen several iterations of booms and busts in its relatively short history. Invariably these periods are compared to the Gold Rush, the historic touchstone of wild prosperity for a select few and grave adversity for everyone else. As far as the financial implications go, the writing is on the wall — social media spawns new stories about outrageous San Francisco rents every day, with one-bedroom apartments in the Mission going for as much as $5,000 a month, depending on who you ask.
San Francisco photographer Scott Hampton recently parodied the situation in a photo essay on The Bold Italic. Hampton’s images feature For Rent signs displayed on planter boxes and manhole covers, among other marginalized spaces around the city. An accompanying live Craigslist ad describes a dumpster as a “33 sq. ft. waterfront condo.”
Popularized on Facebook, an earlier project titled Everything Must Go: San Francisco also posted fictitious notices on Craigslist under items for sale, lost items and missed connections. One ad, filed under “wanted by owner” sought the “ORIGINAL Mission District ($1).” Documentation of each ad is archived on Tumblr.
With signs of a runaway real estate boom in full effect, the conversation shouldn’t be about vilifying technology sector workers — a common refrain — but instead questioning the corporate sector’s ability to absorb public resources while deftly avoiding reciprocal civic investment. In a March 12, 2014 article Bloomberg reported, “The largest U.S.-based companies, including Microsoft, Apple, and Google, added $206 billion to their stockpiles of offshore profits last year, parking earnings in low-tax countries until Congress gives them a reason not to.” The same article further estimated that this money amounts to an “annual revenue loss to the U.S. that ranges from $30 billion to $90 billion.” Simultaneously, there is no sense of these companies taking a corresponding philanthropic interest in the communities that house their workers or their headquarters — no massive influx of cash for public resources, such as transportation, or education, or housing.
Though one can argue that San Francisco has always been a city in transition, it has also long been defined by its commitment to cultural diversity and creative communities. The city’s investment in these values has, in fact, nurtured some of the most important cultural movements in the country. As the city evolves to reflect different values, privileging wealth and private enterprise, what will become of the civic responsibility to nurture and support artists and art communities at the grassroots level?
I contacted several current and former Bay Area artists and curators about San Francisco’s recent shifts, changing values and artist exodus — their perspectives are profiled here.
In 2010 longstanding Bay Area curator Renny Pritikin posted an open-ended article on SFMOMA Open Space that listed artists who’d left and those who’d stayed in the area up to that point. The article and resulting commentary invoked a healthy dialog about the Bay Area’s art scene — to the extent that readers continued to read and post comments two years after the initial publication. Now four years later, the extensive comments read like a pre-apocalyptic time capsule, with little anticipation of the cultural shifts evident today. There is scant mention of Facebook or Twitter. It represents, as a social document, the precipice of major changes in the cultural landscape — before the pervasive influence of social media on our everyday lives and the booming presence of the tech industrial complex.
“I see the current situation as exceptional, an earthquake as opposed to daily miniscule tremors in the usual economy of artists making the decision to stay or go,” Pritkin said recently. “I don’t feel, as some of my friends do, that this bubble too shall pass like the last one. This feels permanent.”
Former San Francisco gallerist Lisa Dent, who operated an eponymous gallery in the city from 2004 to 2008, has observed the shift in wealth and its impact on artists across the country from a different perspective. As Director of Resources and Award Programs at Creative Capital, a funding organization that supports artists, she says, “I just don’t see room for experimentation. Creativity takes time and space and does not always bear financial fruit within a fiscal year. I find many artists to be very impatient, causing them to present work too quickly or get into agreements that are financially based and do nothing to push their work forward in formal, intellectual or conceptual ways. Past ideas just get regurgitated and we all learn nothing in the process.”
Longtime Bay Area art critic, curator and educator Glen Helfand moved to San Francisco in the 1980s and began participating in local culture in the 1990s. In the time since, he has written for SF Weekly, Bay Guardian, and Artforum; in 2002 he coined the term “Mission School” when writing for the Guardian about Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen and Chris Johanson, artists whose work today is synonymous with San Francisco, and indeed the Mission, all over the world. Helfand has also organized shows in many venues, most recently a series of exhibitions at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, and has taught at several major art schools, including California College of the Arts, Mills College, and San Francisco Art Institute, where he organized public programs and lectures for the last eight years. After his rent more than doubled last year, Helfand moved to Oakland after failing to find anything he could afford in the city. “It was sobering to realize that my cultural contributions didn’t mean anything when it came to a place to live,” he said. “The thing I keep thinking about now is that question of what keeps me here if there is such a loss of what might be termed an artistic/alternative culture soul to San Francisco. Living outside the city, I have to wonder about what it is that will keep me coming back.”
Some artists are reluctant to talk about displacement because it runs counter to a sense of ruthless optimism inherent to the Bay Area. Many are committed to seeing positive possibilities in recent changes, even if these possibilities come at the expense of others. Artist Andrew Schoultz, a former fixture in the San Francisco art scene, spoke about this pervasive disinterest in negativity in a telephone conversation for this article. “A lot of people would say, you know, ‘Get over it. This is happening.’ Only when someone is personally affected or someone they know is displaced does the conversation change.”
Schoultz was evicted from his first San Francisco apartment in the 1990s boom and persisted in the city for 17 years before opting to move to Los Angeles earlier this year. “San Francisco isn’t conducive to having a family,” he said. “The city’s turned into a culture of extreme entitlement. There isn’t a philanthropic interest, it’s cutthroat with an air of privilege that wasn’t part of the first dot boom. Even the murals that some companies commission for their offices are a low investment in the community: if they change their minds later, they figure they can just paint over them.”
Josh Hagler and Maja Ruznic
This sense of the longstanding art community’s disposability is widely shared by some and dismissed by others. Artist Josh Hagler, who earlier this year moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles with artist Maja Ruznic, sees it as changing values, and notes that if he belabored the point on Facebook, some friends would respond with distanced explanations of economics. “A common sentiment, ‘I guess ‘they’ will just have to learn to adapt’ seemed to afford them distance from feeling and experiencing what is going on right now on the ground.”
For Ruznic, whose family arrived in the city in the 1990s as refugees from Bosnia, San Francisco is home. Her mother and sister still live in the same rent-controlled apartment from when they arrived. The stability of their living arrangement is a source of constant concern for the artist, who admits to struggling so hard to survive in the Bay Area that she supplemented her rent with credit cards. It is “a sad unfortunate situation facing not only artists, but all those not in the tech world,” she said.
Longtime San Francisco artist Walter Robinson, who has called the Bay Area home his entire life, is planning to move to New Mexico later this year. “Although we could stay, we are not liking what San Francisco and the Bay Area have become,” he said. “Money is an issue insofar as we are at an age where the numbers have to make better sense to get us further down the road. This is a young and wealthy person’s town now… I’ve seen it go through all these changes over the years, but things have really changed here in the last year. People ask me, ‘Aren’t you going to miss the Bay Area?’ And I say that I already do. It’s not the same Bay Area it once was before.”
Rene Yañez believes city arts leadership needs to take a position about the changes confronting artists and nonprofit cultural organizations. “I want to see the San Francisco Art Commission take a public stance on what is happening to the art community,” he said. “There is a long history of San Francisco and the city supporting artists — the arts commission should be tackling this issue as part of their agenda, organizing panels with artists and giving the community a chance to have their say. We need public events with artists and the new tech community to figure out how to create an audience and to discuss the future of San Francisco’s culture.” Asked if he imagines leaving the city, he said, “I am trying very hard not to leave, but spaces in the Mission have now become a status symbol.”
Perhaps because the Bay Area has seen artists come and go habitually over the years, it’s tempting to assume a kind of stoicism in the face of the present exodus. Certainly there are many great artists here still. The cultural community remains tight knit, if somewhat polarized by the debate about how to consider recent shifts. Many are focused on the immediacy of so much displacement, including an organizing entity online called Defend the Bay Area, which offers to coordinate assemblies and other events for a kick-off week of actions through April 5, 2014. Others are interested in exploring an equitable relationship between art and technology. An open Facebook group called Re-engineering: Art/Tech/City, composed of hundreds of artists, writers and the like, offers “a public forum for solutions… where art and tech can flourish.”
Similarly, Artup is “a platform for discussion and tangible engagement focused on issues of cultural economics, modes of production, and the confluence of technology and art.” Fiscally sponsored by the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts and organized in partnership with Bay Area online arts journal Art Practical, Artup organizes “meetups” and distributes a periodic grant to support projects that engage art and technology.
Behind the recent attrition of artists, art nonprofits and commercial galleries, pressing questions remain about how to cultivate sustainability in this new paradigm, questions that extend well beyond the concerns of the art community. Is this a crisis? Or is it an opportunity for reinvention? For anyone who cares about living in the Bay Area, with all of its sunny diversity, it should be seen as both.
This is the second in a series by Christian L. Frock that explores the impact of new tech wealth on artists and the art community. The first article titled “Priced Out: New Tech Wealth and San Francisco’s Receding Art Scene” explored the impact on galleries and non-profit organizations and was published on March 7, 2014. Forthcoming installments will consider local changes in relation to the arts across the country, relevant histories and new strategies to preserve the arts and their legacies.