One criticism I heard from a portion of gallerists, collectors, and attendees was that none of the fairs offered a strong enough curatorial sensibility, and that there weren't enough prominent names among the non-SF participating galleries (several prominent SF galleries were also notably absent). Art fairs are, to some degree, always going to have to deal with the problem of offering something for everyone and nothing for some. But implicit in this critique is that none of the fairs presented themselves — and by extension San Francisco — as a unique market to be taken seriously by collectors.
To repeat a sentiment expressed in local critic and former Guardian contributor Glen Helfand's take on the fairs for SFMOMA's Open Space blog, the presence of art fairs isn't going to turn San Francisco into a market boom town overnight. And that's fine. In Helfand's words, "[the Bay Area's] market is determined by scale and temperament — we've got intimacy and experimentation on our side, but a curiously uncomfortable relationship to conspicuous consumption." Smaller fairs such as ArtPadSF, at which the art was by and large more affordably priced and modest in scale, are one way perhaps to ease that discomfort, while still allowing local galleries, arts orgs and artists tobuild out their contact networks.
Certainly by late Sunday afternoon, as packing materials emerged, the optimistic skepticism expressed by many in the art community in the weeks leading up to the fairs seemed to have given way to pleasant surprise.
While talking to Kimberly Johannson of Oakland's Johannson Projects, I witnessed a very happy 20-something purchase her first piece of art: a palm-sized, chirping kinetic sculpture of a bird-like creature by Misako Inaoka. Transactions like this could be taken as a hopeful sign that the future of art collecting in the Bay Area doesn't rest solely with the established few or with moving units (although sales figures of SF Fine Art Fair, which boasted $6.3 million spent on modern and contemporary artwork, offer a different form of reassurance).
It will be interesting to see if and how these fairs, in particular ArtMRKT and ArtPadSF, grow and expand. "We need to keep in mind that these fairs are in their infancy," cautions SF Art Commission Gallery director Meg Shiffler, who also attended and participated in the fairs, in an e-mail. "But people showed up. This goes a long way in validating the substantial support for the visual arts that exist in San Francisco."
For a city that too often portrays itself as the woeful underdog routinely losing its visionaries to New York City and Los Angeles, that validation is critical.