The Web site appeared in September. Its anonymous creators claimed to be artists who had been part of shows put on by Gen Art, a bicoastal nonprofit that creates annual San Francisco events such as Emerge and the NewFangle New Media Exhibition. Titled "A Call for Artists to Abandon GEN ART," the Internet screed accused Gen Art of promoting itself "as a nonprofit organization providing opportunities for artists." In fact, the nameless artists said, Gen Art events weren't art shows — they were "much closer to a self-promotional party designed to fill the coffers of Gen Art using artists and their work as decoration."
Gen Art, the site charged, exploits artists as a way to draw patrons, who pay for yearly membership, but doesn't give back to the artistic community; provides inadequate security (at the 2006 Emerge San Francisco show, work valued at $7,000 was stolen from two artists, and recovered later from the show's own security guard); and knows nothing about installing or lighting art, often leaving artists to their own devices (one who participated in Emerge 2006 told me that he was surprised to have to bring his own hammer and nails).
Local artists who responded to the Web site (www.genartstories.wordpress.com) mostly agreed. A few even posted comments using their real names. Mel Davis wrote, "As someone who was a selected 'Gen Art' artist, I was shocked by the lack of integrity on the part of Gen Art. The gratification of being accepted [was] very soon withered by an organizational mess [and] damaged/stolen work, which led to low morale on the part of the participants."
It wasn't the kind of publicity Gen Art wanted. The site, and the rumors surrounding it, generated so much public ill-will that Gen Art decided to indefinitely postpone its November Emerge art show.
Ironically enough, Gen Art was founded to challenge unresponsive institutions. In New York in 1993, twentysomething brothers Ian and Stefan Gerard felt that their artist friends were being unfairly kept out of fancy galleries. They decided to throw parties where they would also show art. Fourteen years later, Gen Art has offices in Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, New York, and San Francisco, and puts on more than 100 events a year. While it initially concentrated on visual art, it has expanded into fashion shows, film festivals, and rock concerts, all of which tend to be celebrity-studded. Members pay from $75 to $2,500 a year for exclusive invites. Glamorous photos on the Web site, www.genart.org, show the likes of musician Perry Farrell and actor Kevin Bacon hobnobbing with attractive young people at parties sponsored by 7 for All Mankind and Bioré skincare. As the anti–Gen Art faction points out, there are few photographs of actual art.
Despite the organization's nationwide expansion, Gen Art's mission hasn't changed, according to Stefan Gerard. "We've always felt that if great work could be shown in a great environment, people would respond to that," he says. "It's a scrappy business. We've been making our way for 14 years with a very slim staff and a lot of volunteers. We've got a very strong track record, I think, of artists we've exhibited that have gone on to great things. We're very proud of that."
Gerard says that Gen Art gave out about $150,000 in artist grants in 2007, $80,000 of which was for visual art. However, according to its 2005 tax forms, the most recent available, it gave only $50,000 in grants that year — a mere 6 percent of its nearly $800,000 operating budget. A typical way to evaluate nonprofits is by the ratio of administrative costs to services or money given out. Since the parties are the service Gen Art offers, and the money the parties produce goes toward throwing more parties, Gen Art's finances can seem to outsiders like a snake eating its own tail. Further complicating the financial picture is the fact that Gen Art has for-profit and nonprofit arms. But there's nothing unusual in a nonprofit having a for-profit section that supplies services for it, says Daniel Borochoff of the American Institute of Philanthropy. "In fact, in many cases they're required to, if they have services they want to sell to other companies," he says. "Just like Feed the Children has a for-profit trucking company, because there's not always a charity mission going on, so they can still use the trucks, still make some money off of them."
Gen Art's San Francisco regional event director, Dana Castro, says that artists rarely have an idea of what it takes to put on one of these events. Emerge alone, she says, costs more than $40,000 to produce, including hiring a lighting company and staff; renting equipment; reconfiguring and painting interiors; getting event insurance; and arranging catering, entertainment, and security. Corporate sponsorship helps defray some of the costs.
"I think [artists] see all this money at our events, that we charge admission to nonmembers," she says. "What they don't see is that we don't charge admission to gallery owners, to press, to industry, even artists' friends and such. You also need to consider that Gen Art members attend these events complimentarily. For our 'Fresh Faces' show we had 800 comped attendees, so there was really only room to sell 200 tickets. We're not selling a thousand tickets."
At press time, Gen Art had yet to reschedule its Emerge event.