Art fair city

Pub date May 31, 2011
WriterMatt Sussman
SectionVisual Art

HAIRY EYEBALL The booths have been dismantled, countless plastic cups and empty liquor bottles are heading to recycling centers, and the exhibitors have returned to the quiet of their respective white cubes. San Francisco’s big, busy art fair weekend has come and gone. By many accounts it was a success for a city that two years ago hadn’t had an art fair in almost two decades, even if, in retrospect, it doesn’t feel like the lay of the land has been significantly altered.

The buzz generated by the raucous preview parties for SF’s two newest fairs, artMRKT and ArtPadSF, carried on throughout the weekend, no doubt helped by the good weather and ever-present availability of booze. When I arrived at the Phoenix early Saturday afternoon, the young, stylish crowd (which included a few families) milled around the hotel’s patio, awaiting a much-hyped synchronized swimming performance organized by Bean Gilsdorf, a California College of the Arts student. Other visitors popped in and out of the midcentury modern hotel’s rooms, each occupied by a gallery, like excited college students on their first day at the dorms. “It’s been positive so far,” said Patricia Sweetow, one of the first gallerists to sign on with ArtPadSF.”The fairs give the community a focus, a place, a reason to celebrate.”

Wendi Norris, co-owner of Frey Norris gallery, echoed Sweetow’s comments when we chatted at her booth beneath the fluorescent glare of the Concourse’s lights. “Participating in this makes me feel like part of a community, instead of an island,” Norris said, adding, “of course, there’s the business side of things, but that’s not the only reason we’re here.” It was past 5 p.m., and the steady stream of foot traffic throughout the art-covered cubicles slowed as people drifted toward the corner bars. I hoped that they would stop en route at the tables for local arts organizations and nonprofits, which, truer to Norris’ words than she perhaps intended, had been placed at the outer edges of artMRKT’s grid-like layout like outliers in an archipelago.

Still, none of the partnering orgs involved could be said to have suffered from underexposure. Attendance at the fairs was high. ArtMRKT boasted 13,000 visitors over its three days (impressive, considering that incumbent SF Fine Art Fair’s total was 16,600). Meanwhile, ArtPadSF brought in 9,000 visitors (with 2,000 tickets sold), a high number given the Phoenix’s smaller size and the fair’s edgier aesthetic. Certainly, artMRKT and ArtPad’s turnouts were helped by the shuttle service that ran between them on the weekend (something that further underscored Fort Mason’s relative geographic remoteness).

The fairs were also strong fundraisers. UCSF’s Art Program netted $10,000 at artMKRT’s preview benefit, and ArtPad’s party raised $15,000 for its beneficiary nonprofit, the Black Rock Arts Foundation. Additionally, the SF Fine Art Fair raised $2,000 in donations for the SF Art Commission’s ArtCares conservation program, and each of the local arts organizations that participated in artMRKT’s MRKTworks online and mobile auction now has $1,500 more to their name.

Given those numbers, the question isn’t whether San Francisco can support art fairs — clearly it can, although I don’t think a city our size needs three to its name — but rather, What kind of fairs can best support art in San Francisco? ArtMRKT and ArtPadSF’s differing approaches and ambiances complimented each other immensely, and it was heartening to see such a concerted outreach effort to noncommercial spaces as well, even if, as at artMRKT, their presence didn’t really register onsite or in terms of programming.

One criticism I heard from a portion of gallerists, collectors, and attendees was that none of the fairs offered a strong enough curatorial sensibility, and that there weren’t enough prominent names among the non-SF participating galleries (several prominent SF galleries were also notably absent). Art fairs are, to some degree, always going to have to deal with the problem of offering something for everyone and nothing for some. But implicit in this critique is that none of the fairs presented themselves — and by extension San Francisco — as a unique market to be taken seriously by collectors.

To repeat a sentiment expressed in local critic and former Guardian contributor Glen Helfand’s take on the fairs for SFMOMA’s Open Space blog, the presence of art fairs isn’t going to turn San Francisco into a market boom town overnight. And that’s fine. In Helfand’s words, “[the Bay Area’s] market is determined by scale and temperament — we’ve got intimacy and experimentation on our side, but a curiously uncomfortable relationship to conspicuous consumption.” Smaller fairs such as ArtPadSF, at which the art was by and large more affordably priced and modest in scale, are one way perhaps to ease that discomfort, while still allowing local galleries, arts orgs and artists tobuild out their contact networks.

Certainly by late Sunday afternoon, as packing materials emerged, the optimistic skepticism expressed by many in the art community in the weeks leading up to the fairs seemed to have given way to pleasant surprise.

While talking to Kimberly Johannson of Oakland’s Johannson Projects, I witnessed a very happy 20-something purchase her first piece of art: a palm-sized, chirping kinetic sculpture of a bird-like creature by Misako Inaoka. Transactions like this could be taken as a hopeful sign that the future of art collecting in the Bay Area doesn’t rest solely with the established few or with moving units (although sales figures of SF Fine Art Fair, which boasted $6.3 million spent on modern and contemporary artwork, offer a different form of reassurance).

It will be interesting to see if and how these fairs, in particular ArtMRKT and ArtPadSF, grow and expand. “We need to keep in mind that these fairs are in their infancy,” cautions SF Art Commission Gallery director Meg Shiffler, who also attended and participated in the fairs, in an e-mail. “But people showed up. This goes a long way in validating the substantial support for the visual arts that exist in San Francisco.”

For a city that too often portrays itself as the woeful underdog routinely losing its visionaries to New York City and Los Angeles, that validation is critical.