Photo Essays

“It’s a Gold Rush Town”: How Artists Survive in San Francisco

Hyperallergic talks to various artists in the Bay Area about how they’ve hung on through years of economic turmoil.

Artist Locust Songs (photo by Clare Calingasan for Hyperallergic)

Over four months, writer Samantha Nobles-Block, street photographer Brice Sanchez, and portrait photographer Clare Calingasan worked to document the challenges facing San Francisco’s artistic community. They interviewed over 35 people across the Bay Area, including artists, gallery owners, curators, funders, and arts supporters, and visited studios to photograph artists with their work. The project was documented on film using vintage cameras. There is much more to this story than could ever be captured in a single narrative, but the following is a snapshot of what artists in the region are experiencing today.

Locust Songs’s paintings juxtapose digital forms with anatomical themes often linked to technology, death, and decay. He’s lived in the Bay Area since 1986. San Francisco has drawn creatives like him from across the country almost since it was founded.

I’ve seen more change in San Francisco in the last two years than ever before. It’s lonely here now — so many of the people in my community have had to leave. My friends who had brands or businesses here are leaving. The gallery around the corner had their last show and is closing. Some artists might be thriving, but it’s not like it was here in the 1990s. That creative energy is mostly gone. And there’s just no housing. I have rent control here, and I still can’t afford it. But San Francisco was not paradise before all this started happening. Living here, I’ve dealt with drive-by shootings, drugs, gangs, and for me, it’s important that my loved ones get home safe. So if the changes mean there’s a shift, I’m not entirely against it.

But if an artist wants to stay here, they’re going to have to have a full-time job doing something else, which makes it hard to make art. You’re gonna come home tired, you gotta make rent. When do you have time and mental space for art? We’re all hiding in corners of either this city or Oakland, or leaving for Portland or Los Angeles. I thought about moving to L.A. too because I might do better as an artist there. But San Francisco is just L.A. in a corset. And this is my choice, to be an artist here full-time. I’m a painter. Even if it’s not popular or nobody cares, I just need to paint. It’s what I’m put here to do.

Locust Songs’s home studio (photo by Brice Sanchez for Hyperallergic)

Songs was a part of the explosion of artistic energy the city experienced during the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. Aaron Noble, who moved to San Francisco in 1979, says “it was a very rich and exciting time — all these underground arts spaces were starting, and the art generated an incredible community around it.” Noble co-founded the Clarion Alley Mural Project, which became one of the spiritual homes of the Mission School and New Mission School arts movements.

Artist Andrew Schoultz says, “When I got to San Francisco in 1997, a whole new world opened up for me. To see Clarion Alley was astonishing and empowering — it wasn’t just for muralists then. It was activists, musicians, poets, crazy performance artists. The art that was going on at that time in the city was very different than what was happening everywhere else. People from all over were moving to San Francisco to become part of it. It really was a time of magic and wonder.”

Clarion Alley, 2019 (photo by Brice Sanchez for Hyperallergic)

That magic and wonder ended abruptly as the dot-com boom of the early ’00s triggered a citywide exodus of artists and creatives. The economic changes prompted Noble’s move to Los Angeles in 2000, as housing suddenly became difficult to find. Schoultz says, “I painted my first mural in Clarion that year, based on the idea that everyone was being forced out of the city. I titled it ‘effen.com.’ As I was finishing it, I learned I was getting evicted. On the day the mural opened, my house was being shown by the owners to sell it.”

Schoultz hung on. “I was doing as well as I could possibly do career-wise in San Francisco — I had just opened a show at SFMOMA and was selling tons of work — but I was having to downsize, and losing my studio space. It became painfully obvious that the city was not going to get better for artists.” Schoultz ended up moving to Los Angeles with his wife in 2014. “The year that we had to leave, I got a letter from Mark Leno thanking me for being such a great contributor to San Francisco.”

Artist Evie Leder in her studio (photo by Clare Calingasan for Hyperallergic)

The photographs that currently line the walls of Evie Leder’s studio depict disconnected body parts, the result of an artistic experiment focused on objectifying men’s bodies without sexualizing them. Leder has lived in San Francisco for decades.

I’ve made good work over the years in various forms, but it’s always been focused on representing my community … Now I’m exploring what it means to be me making work instead of trying to perform an identity. So I guess I’m maturing as an artist.

I moved to San Francisco for the queer community, but I’ve had a hard time keeping that community because this city is so transient. It’s a Gold Rush town, so every ten years, everything changes. You see the leases expire, and the storefronts change. To me, it feels like failure when you look around the city and think, ‘Oh my god, these businesses can’t stay, and these people have to leave their homes.’ The art schools bring really talented and diverse people to the Bay Area, they stay three to five years, then they’re gone and the next emerging artists appear. That’s the Gold Rush cycle.

These cyclic migrations are still in progress. Sculptor Santiago Insignares says, “I moved to San Francisco six years ago to do my master’s in sculpture at the San Francisco Arts Institute. When we graduated, 80% of the students I went to school with left. And I’m deciding right now to stay or not. I have a lot of friends making the same decision. I’m in the middle of a big exodus.”

A broad spectrum of forces are behind that migration, but the housing crisis is the primary one. From 2010 to 2018, approximately 882,000 new jobs were created in the Bay Area, but only around 100,000 new housing units were built throughout the region. The resulting white-hot competition for living space has forced anyone at a structural disadvantage — communities of color, artists, creatives — further toward the margins.

Artist Truong Tran in his studio (photo by Brice Sanchez for Hyperallergic)

As Truong Tran moves around his studio, pulling cords and flipping switches, his art lights up — almost every piece is illuminated. His work is often built around hidden images or words. After he noticed that visitors kept taking selfies of themselves with his work, he made a “selfie mirror.” Stare into the mirror long enough, and a poem hidden behind it reveals itself:

Sometimes I want to hide in language

In image this life sometimes

I want to live out loud

So as to breathe see yourself

Reflected in the mirror so as to fight.

Tran was one of the artists affected by the closure of Studio 17, one of many artistic spaces swallowed by a changing San Francisco. He found a new studio in the Pacific Felt Factory, a hidden arts complex surrounded by newly built condos.

Studio 17 was a hub for the arts community. It’s all gone now. Gutted. Most of my fellow artists have quietly moved away. I don’t think you can separate the work of being in a community with the work of making art, but so many of my community of artists have left. And as much as I say I just want to make art and separate myself from the world, all of it makes its way into my work. I feel invisible but also targeted. There’s this constant sense that a force in this city is trying to erase me as an artist.

Mirroring Tran’s experience, in a 2015 survey by the San Francisco Arts Commission, 228 of 334 artists who responded to one query (68%) were on the verge of losing their workspace. This phenomenon is forcing many artists to lead a semi-nomadic existence, moving from studio to studio or forgoing a workspace entirely.

Artist Leigh Wells in her studio (photo by Clare Calingasan for Hyperallergic)

Collage and mixed media artist Leigh Wells is one of those affected by the lack of studio spaces. “I moved from studio to studio in the East Bay. Now I’m subleasing from other artists in San Francisco while they’re away doing residencies. I’m moving my studio every few months.” The wooden art workbox a neighbor gave her when she was a child travels with her, taking a new place of pride in each studio as she relocates.

Wells is subleasing from artists who were fortunate enough to land a spot in the Minnesota Street Project, a massive complex opened three and a half years ago by a philanthropist couple. While the below-market studios, galleries, and storage services the project offers are wildly successful, it’s not a solution. “It’s a drop in the bucket,” says director Brion Nuda Rosch. “When the word got out about what we were doing, people gravitated toward us. But we’re only providing a small percentage of the space that’s needed — 300 artists applied for 30 studios when we opened.”

Rhiannon Evans MacFadyen in her gallery (photo by Clare Calingasan for Hyperallergic)

There’s an aged wooden ladder leaning against the wall of the gallery owned by artist and curator Rhiannon Evans MacFadyen. It’s encased in tiny threads of red, white, and green. Artist Brian Singer painstakingly unraveled a Mexican flag and then laboriously wrapped the threads around the ladder, creating a striped pattern with the colors as he worked. Evans MacFadyen’s luminous smile seems to fill the space as she explains the obsessive technique behind his pieces. She’s curated shows for around eight artists each year since she opened her gallery, Black & White Projects, over six years ago.

I wanted to create an opportunity for artists to feel empowered not to need a gallery. To be able to do the work that they need to do, that they’re compelled to do. I watched artist after artist struggle with choosing what work to make, because [one thing] would be commercially viable and sell regularly, but they wanted to do this other project that was wild and wacky and was maybe unsellable.

We’ve lost so many galleries. And San Francisco is a desert for mid-career artists. If you’re not supporting funky little gallery spaces like this one, how are artists going to make it to the next phase? There’s nowhere to go. In places like Los Angeles or New York, there’s a path for an artistic career. Artists start with doing their own shows in some basement gallery. Then a Brooklyn gallery or a SoHo gallery or a Chelsea gallery. And then if you’re lucky, you get into one of the top galleries that all the museums buy from. That’s the career path in other cities, but not here. And San Francisco art buyers are different. There’s a lot of money here, but it’s not being spent on art that is made here.

Other critical components of San Francisco’s arts ecosystem are endangered too. The curatorial community, which plays a vital (and often unsung) role as a bridge between artists and galleries and institutions, has shifted. As budgets have diminished, permanent curators are being laid off in favor of freelancers who may not have the stability to form long-term relationships or take risks on artists doing unconventional work.

Artist Max Marttila and his paintings (photo by Brice Sanchez for Hyperallergic)

Max Marttila’s favorite of his paintings depicts a man in a tan jacket entranced by an iPhone, his body dissolving into a cluster of houses flowing row by row down a hill. The painting captures the San Francisco scenes that Marttila has seen over and over again, framed by train windows in the city where he’s spent his entire life. Much of Marttila’s art is built on maps or geographic references to San Francisco — the routes of the city’s transit system a shadowy underlay beneath a portrait and the edges of the city’s coastline form the outlines of an in-progress painting. Marttila shares a multi-room studio space in a former bike shop, filled with low beams that force visitors to guard their heads, with four other artists. They’ve all known each other for over a decade.

I’ve done a whole series of landscapes inside of people, a metaphor for the city living inside of us. It’s not overtly about gentrification, but it’s about celebrating the people who are holding the spirit of this city and bringing them into an artist’s discourse. Contemporary portraiture is interesting to me because it’s a way to immortalize disenfranchised demographics.

I grew up here and graduated from the San Francisco Arts Institute. Having a diversity of tactics and being a chameleon is how I’ve survived here as an artist. But I’m also lucky. I have a good studio, although the arrangement for the building we’re in is only temporary, so who knows how long we’ll be here. But that sounds like I’m giving up, and I’m not. A lot of artists are putting up a fight, and I don’t plan to give up that fight.

There are a number of efforts and institutions supporting Bay Area artists in that fight to stay in the city. Southern Exposure provides space for exhibitions and projects, funds youth arts education, and runs the Alternative Exposure program, giving seed funding to artistic projects and organizations. Curator and artist Dena Beard has devoted the last several years to reviving The Lab, an experimental venture that provides space and support to artists for projects that would normally be beyond their reach financially. But she says it’s not enough; by her calculations, San Francisco has lost 100,000 square feet of arts space over the past five years.

But alongside those losses are some gains. Iconic gallery The Luggage Store (which gave artist Barry McGee one of his first shows) will be able to remain in their Market Street space permanently because the building was purchased by the Community Arts Stabilization Trust. Seeded with $5 million from the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, CAST’s innovative program purchases spaces for the arts, deeded in perpetuity. They’ve acquired three San Francisco buildings so far. The San Francisco Arts Commission, which provides grants to support the arts, has recently had a major cash influx. A recent ballot measure restored a historic funding allocation for arts and culture, levying a tax on hotels and tourism and funneling that revenue to the arts. Other success stories include Shadetree, a community of artists in the East Bay that purchased their own space, and the artistic residencies and venue at La Maison in Oakland, founded by ballerina Mathilde Froustey.

Artist Jeremy Fish in his studio (photo by Clare Calingasan for Hyperallergic)

Jeremy Fish personifies the resilience of San Francisco’s artistic communities. Over his 25 years as a working artist in the city, he’s found ways to get by, ranging from living in a closet at the back of a gallery to bartering a mural in exchange for free pizza for life from a local restaurant. His current studio, a light-filled former bakery in the North Beach neighborhood, is on loan from the owners.

With all the changes here, and everyone walking away, shaking their fist at San Francisco, it’s motivated me to stand here and yell back, and remind people that the city’s going through a transition. It’s part of having this huge economic surge from having all these brilliant ideas that change the world.

The changes here are a bellwether for the bigger cultural issue surrounding the devaluation of artists and creative work, as well as the glorification of efficiency and industry. The tech sector that now powers the Bay Area’s economy and shapes its culture is built on the latter ethos. Some believe that the inevitable swing of the economic pendulum will eventually bring San Francisco back its artistic roots. As Fish says, “Sure, continue to continue to talk shit about how the city’s not exactly how you want it to be, but give it another 20 years, and San Francisco will be back to being the center of the Universe.”

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