I have observed the art scene over the many years I have lived in the Bay Area, most of the time as curator at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Following is a very brief overview of its modern history.
I have worked in the public art sphere since the early 1990s and have observed many changes in the public discourse and perception of art’s role in the community. Public art is complex––it can reflect the culture and/or history of the community where it is located, make a political statement, or simply be decorative. As political and social climates change over time, works may take on new meanings as exemplified by the debates concerning Civil War monuments and their place in public spaces.
Like many artists, I came to San Francisco from graduate school, without any real training in doing anything, and I took a series of temp jobs.
As Connie Lewallen rightly suggests, there are widely varying sensibilities and modes of production in contemporary Bay Area art. One distinctive aspect of the visual art scene here—as I have experienced it over the last couple of decades—has less to do with a predominant aesthetic than with an ethos, specifically a generosity of spirit that runs through the way many artists approach their lives and practices today.
I moved to the Bay Area from New York City in 2000, and went straight to the places producing underground music as entry points into arts communities where I’d feel most at home. In New York in the ‘90s, I’d found these communities at techno parties downtown, escaping the New Jersey suburb where I’d lived as a teen and the Morningside Heights dorms where I’d spent my years at Columbia.
I have lived in San Francisco for almost thirty years and have witnessed its transformation from a relatively sleepy art community to a city with so many art-related performances and activities every day of the week that it would be impossible to attend them all. The transformation in the quality of the work shown here and made here has been exhilarating. There are far more artists now who live and work in the Bay Area who have viable national and international careers.
The Bay Area has had somewhat of a magnetic pull on me. Primarily because of my interest in ceramics and figurative works, the historic draw weighs heavy. Artists such as Rob Arneson, Viola Frey, and Peter Voulkos helped to formulate my early understanding of the potential of what clay could become, and opened my eyes to the various approaches and applications of the medium.
The San Francisco Bay Area is a major American metropolitan area and thus its arts ecosystem is vastly complex and multifaceted. Summing it up in a way that denies that reality is a fool’s errand, but I’ll rush in. Decades ago I happened to be talking to Peter Schjeldahl and referred to a former Bay Area painter who was highly influential as a teacher here. I couldn’t recall the name momentarily, then said, “Clyfford Still.” Peter looked at me as though I had lost my mind.
Lately I’ve been working on an exhibition titled Way Bay—which I am co-curating with BAMPFA’s Film Curator, Kathy Geritz, and our Engagement Programmer, David Wilson (who is also an artist)—that will present Bay Area art, film, and archival materials from BAMPFA’s collection from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. It’s given me an opportunity to see lots of things that haven't been looked at for decades and to rethink the contours of our region’s culture.
I think Ron (R.B.) Kitaj got it right when he likened the Bay Area to a watering hole for migratory birds. Many artists turn up here, get the nourishment they need, and move on. I was one who moved here from the Midwest as the 1960s were about to unfold, and though I left a few times I couldn’t stay away.
Talking to Bill Berkson was one of the great pleasures of my life. The following is an excerpt of a longer interview I recorded at his home in San Francisco in March 2015. There was always stirring sense in the conversation with Berkson that the arts are relevant to how a life can be lived.
While computers have taken over all aspects of our lives, the materiality and surface quality of digital images and sounds remains obscure and uninteresting to most people. Everybody is quick to romanticize pigments used in painting, even highly toxic ones, but pixels and vector graphs are commonly thought of as the stuff of designers, not artists—as utilitarian forms without poetic potential.
Do you know the San Francisco Oracle? It’s been around lately, on display all over town as part of several “Summer of Love” anniversary exhibitions. It was a trippy countercultural newspaper published out of Haight-Ashbury from September 1966 to February 1968, bookending the infamous season when thousands of young people arrived on San Francisco’s doorstep. In a dozen issues weaving poetry, spirituality, and politics with revolutionary rainbow inking effects, the Oracle reached well beyond the Bay Area, charging up hippies from coast to coast.
I have lived and worked as an artist in San Francisco for more than twenty years. For all of that time, my studio has been at The Point, in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood on the southern edge of the City. When I first moved there, I traveled to my studio by bus. The long ride to and from my studio allowed for reflections of daily life in San Francisco and ultimately shaped my artistic vision.
Every time I go to an art event in another city, the crowd invariably contains doppelgängers of the folks who would be at a similar event at home. There’s the scruffy young artists, the curator types, the collectors wearing simple, expensive black clothing, and the bald, spectacled critics who look like me. The situation is warmly uncanny.
I moved to the Bay Area in 1980, after spending a year of re-orientation in New York. I had experienced most of my youth in Europe and felt out of touch. It was a pre-internet world, but also a pre-CNN era when cultural perspectives were separated.
When the San Francisco Labor Temple opened on February 27, 1915, it housed fifty-four unions. For the cost of monthly dues, workers could access the Labor Temple's large auditorium, billiard hall, vaudeville theater, childcare center, medical and dental offices, cafeteria, ladies' parlors, reading rooms, lodge halls, and union offices.
I arrived in the Bay Area to take a full time teaching job at UC Berkeley in 2003, having spent the previous fifteen years in LA. For a long time, I was homesick for the unapologetic ambition of that sprawling, gaudy version of a real city, and for the artists who had taught me to love it.
I’ve been thinking and thinking how to answer your impossible prompt. How to talk about a place, or even know what a place is, in 2017, and then to further isolate what it might produce? Especially considering I only moved to this place in 2016.