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Goodnight, Galleries: Evictions, Rising Rents, and Tech Are Changing the Way San Franciscans See Art 

Wednesday, Apr 16 2014
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"We have gotten an eviction notice."

The words come from Anthony Williams, the co-founder of the Meridian Gallery, with a matter-of-factness that says everything about the art gallery scene in downtown San Francisco. Evictions and closures are happening at an accelerated pace, and galleries that have anchored the downtown corridor for years are being forced to take refuge somewhere else. The Meridian Gallery, on Powell Street near Bush, faced imminent eviction this month after its landlord required advance payment of a year's rent, $72,000, and a $28,000 security deposit, Williams says.

In February, a trio of heralded art spaces at 77 Geary St. — George Krevsky Gallery, Rena Bransten Gallery, and Patricia Sweetow Gallery — had their leases terminated. The building's landlord squeezed out Krevsky and Bransten so that MuleSoft, a tech company also in the Geary building, could expand its operations to the second floor (Sweetow is also preparing to leave her space by the end of the year). Last August, another 77 Geary gallery, Marx & Zavattero, ended its business entirely after announcing that "the brick-and-mortar gallery model is no longer a sustainable endeavor for us."

With tech companies like Twitter newly situated in San Francisco, office space is at a premium, and downtown art galleries that can't afford to pay increased prices — or that don't have long-term leases — are scrambling to stay in the area. Around 50 galleries still remain in downtown San Francisco, including a core group at 49 Geary St. and another in the 200 block of Post Street. Many of them continue to run critically acclaimed exhibits and bring in crowds, and their owners remain resolute about their long-term prospects.

"I'm not going anywhere," says Paule Anglim about her gallery at 14 Geary St., a celebrated institution that has hosted the work of such art-world luminaries as Louise Bourgeiois, Joan Brown, and Bruce Conner.

Downtown San Francisco galleries have endured previous upticks in leasing costs, says Alex Meyerovich, former president of the San Francisco Art Dealers Association, who runs Meyerovich Gallery, a longtime gallery at 251 Post St. And, Meyerovich says, more downtown office buildings are featuring art in their lobbies than ever before. But for those galleries that have lost (or are close to losing) their space in downtown San Francisco, it feels like the end of an era, the end of a time when the downtown galleries were at the epicenter of the city's visual arts scene.

Galleries' finances are suffering in part because the popularity of art fairs has cut into gallery attendance, owners say. And the escalation of building rents comes in the aftermath of the huge recession of 2008-2009, which had a major impact on visitor rates at San Francisco galleries, including those downtown.

"When the recession hit, it was a dramatic drop-off," Sweetow says. "All of a sudden, people were just absent. Very few people came in, except to commiserate. Most of the people I dealt with were mid-level collectors. And they were collecting for the passion of the art. And a lot of them were wiped out."

"The galleries," Sweetow adds, "were a very, very necessary part of the fine arts community. And now? People don't come to galleries very much."

The gallery closures at 77 Geary shouldn't be blamed on tech companies and their impact on real estate prices, says Sweetow. But Krevsky saw firsthand how cavalier tech employees can be about art-going. In the months before his gallery's closure, MuleSoft staff members walked in and essentially told Krevsky that his gallery was going to fail, he claims. This was before the landlord, Yale Properties, ended Krevsky's lease.

"I have no love for MuleSoft," Krevsky says. "They came in like bullies, and talked to our clients. They came to an opening, and said, 'We're just here for the wine, and we're going to put you out of business anyhow.' And one of them came in and was strutting around looking at the art. And I said, 'Oh, are you interested in the art?' And he said, 'Yeah, I get it off the computer.' That kind of an attitude — to not even want to talk about art history, or Bay Area figurative work, or social realism. ... Every gallery in downtown San Francisco has a different point of view and a different philosophy. We were right next door to Rena Bransten, and we couldn't have been more different than Rena."

Galleries that feature work that can be termed "social realism" are especially vulnerable in today's culture, according to Krevsky. "It's a societal trend," he says. "I felt my art gallery dealt with imagery that depicted the profundity of the human condition — people like Ben Shahn, Jack Bodine, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I'm not sure that social networking or Twitter or Facebook is concerned with the human condition, certainly as it impacts on the presentation of art. To see the art, to smell the oil painting, to see the dimensionality of a sculpture, to see what Wayne Thiebaud is able to do with paint and paper, to see the quality of line — I don't think people care about that in the tech age. They think they can immediately Photoshop something, or throw a cellphone in front of it, and that's art."

Krevsky was given 30 days to leave the building after his lease was terminated. He packed up his gallery in February, after 22 years of business. The building's front glass door still features the logo of Krevsky's gallery — a bittersweet reminder of what was once a prime destination in downtown San Francisco. For now, signs in the building's lobby advertise 77 Geary's remaining galleries. MuleSoft is listed on two floors of the building. Walk into the lobby or elevators of 77 Geary and you hear people talking about tech, not art.

Still, some city gallery owners see technology as a way to attract more art-goers, and to stay in business longer. Igor Capibaribe, an artist who co-founded the Glass Door Gallery in North Beach, plans to use Google Glass in a new art venture that gives art-goers a new, more intense way to experience the work. The plan: Artists would wear Google Glass while they painted or did sculpture, with artists becoming filmmakers of their own work. Art-goers would then see what the artists see and get a kind of ringside seat to the artists' process. "The way you interact with art," Capibaribe says, "is going to be so different."

But that's in the future. For now, Glass Door Gallery is shutting down after less than a year in its Columbus Avenue location near City Lights Books. Because parking is a problem in the neighborhood, foot traffic for the gallery was less than hoped for, Capibaribe says. To attract people, Glass Door Gallery tried many things, including offering yoga classes in its space. In the end, nothing worked.

The phenomenon of closing galleries isn't limited to San Francisco. The same scenario is happening in New York and other U.S. cities, where smaller galleries are being replaced by other businesses. But San Francisco has a high-tech factor, and it's not just galleries that are being challenged. Music venues, dance spaces, nonprofit arts institutions — the list goes on and on. The last year has seen a spate of downtown San Francisco galleries move to Potrero Hill. Last September, Brian Gross Fine Art relocated from 49 Geary Street to 248 Utah St., close to 16th Street and next to another expatriate downtown gallery: Catharine Clark Gallery, which relocated from 150 Minna, between Third and New Montgomery streets. Both galleries are thriving in their new homes.

With much more space than he had downtown, Gross can put on bigger exhibits. And he's excited to be part of a new destination for S.F. gallery-goers that was first anchored by Hosfelt Gallery, at 260 Utah St. The troika of galleries is side by side by side, close to the intersection of 16th and Potrero streets.

"We're trying," Gross says, "to create a new cultural arts district."

Krevsky is also doing well, saying, "We're busier than ever." Now working from his home in Oakland, he renamed his business Krevsky Fine Art Services. Besides continuing to represent such artists as Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Helen Berggruen, Krevsky is focusing on presenting his artists' work at international art fairs and the secondary (resale) market. He's also giving advice to gallery owners in other areas. And he promises to continue his annual Art of Baseball exhibition at a venue to be determined.

Sweetow is unsure where she'll go after leaving 77 Geary. Before that location, she was at 49 Geary. "It's a very complex environment out there because space is so much in demand," she says. "It's confusing what the best location would be to move the business. Most of my history in San Francisco, since 1996, has been between 49 Geary and 77 Geary, in downtown San Francisco. It's a very advantageous location for visitors. Now, it opens up the question what would be another really good location if, indeed, downtown is no longer affordable — which seems to be the case."

"On the other hand," Sweetow adds, "other areas of San Francisco are pretty inaccessible in terms of lease rates, and galleries just can't absorb that kind of overhead. It's very, very difficult unless you're really doing well. The long and short of it is: I don't have a clue."

Uncertainty is also driving the Meridian Gallery's founders, who were served with a three-day eviction notice in early April and were bracing for sheriff's deputies to come by the gallery and physically remove them from the premises. Williams and co-founder Anne Brodzky were hoping an angel investor would loan them the money needed to stay on Powell Street. They were also, through a third party, still trying to negotiate with the landlord in the hopes of reversing the eviction notice. "We're going to attempt to raise the money so that we can stay here," Williams says. "We don't know when [the sheriffs] are going to come. We really have to hang in and see what happens."

Wait and see. That's the state of being for downtown San Francisco art galleries. Wait and see which galleries remain and thrive, which might relocate elsewhere, and which will have to close for good. It's a state that no one really wants to be in, but that's the state it is for now.

About The Author

Jonathan Curiel

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