Narrowing The Gaps
The Bay Area Arts Scene In Tech Boom 2.0
By Dorothy Santos
Published Mar 2014
Interviews by Dorothy Santos The Bay Area’s rich history of counterculture and social activism seems to be a fading memory. Growing up in San Francisco’s Mission District in the early 1980s, there were no fancy restaurants, artisanal bakeries, or pricey coffee shops. The days of fold-out city maps and postcards promoting local art exhibitions have been replaced by 3D smartphones and social network invitations. Even in an age of informational glut, the realm of art news and journalism is niche, and much of what we learn comes from assorted blogs and websites. But artists, curators, and art educators possess an intersectional perspective of the latest technological boom debate. It’s increasingly easy to digitally spew vitriolic comments about tech workers shuttling to their offices or startups taking up space in pockets that were, for years, undesirable. But it’s far more challenging to actually have a conversation about the policy changes needed to address the ever-growing disparity—particularly issues related to race, class, and gender—affecting the Bay Area. In an effort to understand how the recent tech boom has affected the arts in the Bay Area, I gathered some voices from the arts community to chime in on the connections fostered across two major sister cities, Oakland and San Francisco, as well as what widens and narrows the gap in our current art communities. As an artist, curator, or gallery owner based in the Bay Area, how often do you connect with the San Francisco or East Bay/Oakland art scene (e.g., artists, curators, gallerists, etc.)? Rhiannon Evans MacFadyen: I have to admit: I have gone to see shows in the East Bay more in the last six months than I have in the last six years. Being from SF, I kind of grew up thinking Oakland was a million miles away, but I recently made a conscious decision to go there more often, because I realized I was missing out by being a bit lazy and agoraphobic and not crossing the bay. I think there’s a constant awareness of what’s going on there, but the in-person connection was missing. I have a tendency to attend events readily accessible to transportation. But I go about once a month now, and I try to connect with artists and curators in the East Bay regularly. Nick Lally: My art studio, Real Time & Space, contains 15 studios that house a mix of artists and curators from both sides of the bay as well as hosting out-of-town residents and special events. Teaching at two San Francisco art colleges, I connect regularly with both the San Francisco and East Bay art communities. Anthony Discenza: It’s hard to say, because there’s so much overlap. A lot of the artists, curators, and gallerists I know live in the East Bay, but a lot of our interaction takes place in SF. As someone not originally from the Bay Area, I see less of a divide between SF and the East Bay—to me, they’re both just parts of a larger whole. How do you think the tech boom 2.0 has affected the SF art scene and how it ripples out to the rest of the Bay Area? RM: The worst of the tech boom 2.0 has given the local art world one more thing to distract us and place blame. While that may sound a bit snarky, it’s not meant to be. The massive influx of affluent, homogeneous young people not interested in engaging the community they live in is terrifying and maddening. There are two cities in the same region. We can see them, but they can’t see the art community; apparently, neither can the local government. We’re like ghosts. This is my hometown, and I feel like it’s being lost rapidly. That said, I don’t think we offer much of an obstacle for them to invade. The Bay Area art scene, and San Francisco in particular, has long had a haphazard and somewhat impotent relationship with itself. Patrons are interested is a very limited type of art, and participants stay in cliques and barely attend events outside their usual haunts. If we presented ourselves as a strong and vibrant community with a single voice and active support, I think it would be harder for the tech lifestyle to infiltrate in such a sweeping way. The local art world, myself included, should take more direct action both politically and within the community. Posting a complaint on Facebook is not community action. I also think that it’s important to point out that, starving or not, the struggles of being an artist are generally middle-class ones. This influx has hit the bottom classes harder than the artist classes. We lose our studios, our galleries, and have to move somewhere else. They are losing the roofs over their heads, the few things they own, and the food in their bellies. We have more power to wield than we choose to admit, and I think we need to keep that in mind when we talk about how this is affecting our lives. NL: Having a studio space is such an important part of being an artist. The rising rent make this harder to live and practice in the Bay Area. The influx of new money hasn’t seemed to translate into increased support for or investment in the arts. But it seems too early to make sweeping generalizations about the ultimate effects of these changes. But rising rent coupled with little investment in the arts seems like a recipe for wiping out noncommercial and experimental practices as well as making living untenable for young artists. AD: It’s driven up the cost of living in the Bay Area so rapidly and to such an abnormal degree that it’s driving diversity of all types out of the entire area. Housing has become so expensive that only people making in excess of $100K can comfortably afford to live here. Given that more and more of those people are associated with a single industry, this is going to produce an inevitable homogenization of culture in the Bay Area, which I think is really unfortunate. Do you think there is a noticeable art and culture divide between San Francisco and Oakland as two major cities in the Bay Area? RM: I do. There are ethnic and racial differences, income differences, and lifestyle differences that are influenced just by the terrain of the two cities. But there is also a relevant artistic and aesthetic divide between the two cities that is influenced more by the intent of the creative communities. San Francisco has a slicker aesthetic and an eye toward profession while Oakland has more openness and support for experimentation, which also means more work that might seem unfinished. The value judgement attached to those differences, though, is not so fair. We get into this “one is better than the other” argument when they’re just different. Both are important to the fabric of our region. Oakland is to San Francisco as San Francisco is to New York. Without San Francisco, we have less drive, and without Oakland, we develop fewer new ideas. And then there’s San Jose, which is doing some really great things as well but doesn’t seem to be included in the overall conversation regarding arts in the Bay Area. NL: This is such a big question. I hesitate to generalize from my limited experience of a particular art/cultural scene. I will say that Oakland seems to hold more possibilities for experimental spaces, whether they be studio spaces, galleries, or venues. While art scenes have a complex relationship to gentrification, the availability of affordable spaces is incredibly important to fostering a healthy and exciting art scene. With space at such a premium in San Francisco, it seems like Oakland has more of a DIY/experimental scene. I’m not saying that there are not spaces doing that in San Francisco, but rising rents on both sides of the bay certainly threaten experimental artistic practices. AD: Not necessarily. As I noted earlier, a lot of people in the various Bay Area arts scene live in the East Bay but work in San Francisco. The only real difference is that there’s probably a greater concentration of higher-profile arts spaces in San Francisco, particularly in terms of those institutions that are able to bring people in from outside the Bay Area. It might be nice to see this balance shift a bit; this might be inevitable given the skyrocketing costs in San Francisco. What issues or problems related to the arts community would you like to see San Francisco or Oakland address? Or the entire Bay Area? RM: I would like to see the Bay Area, but San Francisco in particular, engage in a more active way. I want to see artists having conversations with our supervisors and city planners to find tangible solutions to the growing class divide and the city’s culture loss. I’d like to see more bodies at events, and not just the same bodies at the same events. When you go to New York, you see a critical mass of people wandering around Chelsea or Lower East Side. You know the city values art. We need to do that here, too. I’d also like to see San Francisco rally around its own community in the same way Oakland does—through creative use of space and resources, a saturation of art everywhere, active attendance and participation, and non–art community involvement. It would be great to see individual art world participants take themselves a little less seriously. But take our art world as a whole a little more seriously and champion Bay Area art and its place in the world. Be vocally proud and excited that you live and work here. With all its quirks and struggles, this place is phenomenal. We have a genuine opportunity to galvanize the community and raise the success of arts in the Bay Area. NL: While Oakland has a great art scene, we need to figure out how to better financially support artists. But what art scene doesn’t need that? AD: The single greatest problem facing the entire Bay Area is the rising cost of housing. This is hardly just a problem for the arts community, but for everyone. If urban areas are not able to accommodate a incredibly diverse range of communities, of all sorts of different ages, cultural backgrounds, and economic status, they run the risk of eventually becoming culturally irrelevant. Anthony Discenza is an interdisciplinary artist based in Oakland, CA. His work has been presented both nationally and internationally, including most recently at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gallery 400 in Chicago, The Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, Ballroom Marfa, and Objectif Exhibitions in Antwerp, as well as the Getty Center, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the UC Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive. He has received critical attention in Artforum, Artweek, and ArtReview, among other publications, and is included in the permanent distribution catalog of the Video Databank. Discenza received a BA from Wesleyan University and his MFA from the California College of Art, where he currently teaches. A San Francisco native, Rhiannon Evans MacFadyen is an artist, writer, and curator as well as an independent consultant for artists, small institutions, and budding collectors. Having over 15 years of in-depth experience in the arts with a wide skill set that ranges from art-making to installation to marketing and management, Rhiannon has recently focused her knowledge toward projects that promote accessibility in the arts. In 2012, she founded A Simple Collective, a group dedicated to fostering creative independence for professionals, and professional independence for creatives. For more information, visit Nick Lally is an artist and programmer interested in digital media, collaboration, participation, radical political theory, mathematics, education, space, and bicycles. He has an MFA in digital arts and new media from the University of California, Santa Cruz and teaches at the California College of the Arts and the San Francisco Art Institute. He lives and works in Oakland, CA.