Staying power

Pub date January 2, 2008
WriterGlen Helfand
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art

› a&

Looking back at the Bay Area art scene in 2007 affirms our perennial difficulty in holding on to ambitious players. It’s an oft-repeated story. Given San Francisco’s commitment to nonprofit and alternative models over commercial ones and the high cost of living, artists find it easier to start off than to build their careers here. Since the art world in general has been buoyed by brisk sales, art fairs, and biennials, the Bay Area’s condition applies as much to high-profile curators, dealers, and administrators as to artists.

Curatorial flux is particularly apparent. Madeleine Grynsztejn, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture since 2000, recently announced her new position as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. René de Guzman left his post as director of visual arts at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to become senior curator at the Oakland Museum of California. Daniell Cornell, currently the director of contemporary art projects and curator of American art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, will become the deputy director for art and senior curator at the Palm Springs Art Museum, while the Berkeley Art Museum — which is embarking on a capital campaign for a new building — saw senior curator Constance Lewallen and director Kevin Consey leave for various reasons. This means there are a number of key positions that, when filled, will change the directions of these important venues. Or will they? Such turnovers have happened before, and frankly, institutions rarely undergo radical makeovers.

In 2007 new curators began or continued their programs. In May, Liz Thomas, the Matrix curator at BAM, began her first slate of shows with Allison Smith’s participatory, craftsperson-based Notion Nanny project, Rosalind Nashashibi’s film installation, and Tomás Saraceno’s current "suspended environment" (through Feb. 17), revealing a solid and diverse range of emerging international practices. This curator’s strategy is to build slowly rather than open with a bang.

The program moves at a faster and flashier clip at California College of the Arts’ Wattis Institute, where in fall 2007 curator Jens Hoffman began his first season of programming with a sporty graphic identity and high-concept group shows. These include "Pioneers," a nod to Bay Area mavericks from gold rush groundbreakers to conceptualists; "Passengers," a long-term, rotating round-robin show; and "Apocalypse Now" (through Jan. 26), a political "attack" he curated with international biennial-favorite artist duo Allora and Calzadilla. The pair’s works were also highlighted as the main fall exhibition at the San Francisco Art Institute’s Walter and McBean Galleries, which are programmed by curator Hou Hanru. Hou’s exhibits started in fall 2006, and in 2007 they included "World Factory," a two-part group show that boisterously explored conditions of global capitalism in various media while serving as a test ground for the 2007 Istanbul Biennial, which he also organized. Hoffman and Hou are key figures in an international circuit of curators that also includes SFAI dean Okwui Enwezor, and the three simultaneously work on projects here and abroad. (Full disclosure: I teach at both of the aforementioned schools.)

It’s been difficult, though, to gauge these projects’ impact on the doggedly localized Bay Area art scene — or how their curators will take to the regional climate. Such curatorial presence has provided an opportunity for a larger number of artists and other curators to pass through the region, and it’s offered platforms for provocative group shows that are rarely staged in museums around here. The bottom line, though, is that in the present model of international art, change is driven by the marketplace, and these institutional spaces exist outside the commercial gallery arena that makes certain cities more visible art hubs than others.

There was, however, movement in the local commercial realm. Catherine Clark broke from 49 Geary to open a Chelsea-style space in the shadow of SFMOMA. Ratio 3 unveiled a surprisingly large and cannily designed new space near 14th and Valencia streets, not far from Jack Hanley Gallery’s two spots on Valencia (another recently debuted in New York) and Southern Exposure’s just-opened second temporary site. Combined with other galleries nearby — Intersection for the Arts, Needles and Pens, Adobe Books, etc. — the neighborhood could be turning into a destination alternative to the exhibition spaces on the first block of Geary. The Dogpatch neighborhood shows promise of becoming another art zone with the ambitious Silverman, Ping Pong, and Ampersand galleries, which have all been staging interesting shows, though the area is still a bit under the radar.

All said, we’re at a transitional moment, and forward thinking seems in order. The year ahead offers huge potential for new faces, directions, and already scheduled programs at many of the aforementioned venues. I’m anticipating the Gilbert and George show at the de Young Museum, Lee Friedlander at SFMOMA, and a Paul McCarthy project at the Wattis, as well as the 2008 openings of the California Academy of Sciences and the Contemporary Jewish Museum. All provide plenty reason to stick around. *


The following exhibitions, events, and films enthralled me with their winning combinations of joy, originality, and serious subtext.

Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal’s Ten Chi, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley

The Book of Shadows," Fraenkel Gallery

Liz Larner’s lecture, San Francisco Art Institute

"© Murakami," Geffen Contemporary, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Mitzi Pederson’s "Unlet Me Go," Ratio 3

Ratatouille, directed by Brad Bird

"A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s," Berkeley Art Museum

“Rudolf Stingel” Whitney Museum of American Art, New York


Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Unknown Forces installation, REDCAT, Los Angeles, and his film Syndromes and a Century