CAREERS + ED ISSUE: Gallery evictions signal a major shift in the art world, with the technology boom serving as the problem and its potential solution
Heather Marx and Steve Zavattero have been gallery owners for 12 years, until last year. Marx & Zavattero Gallery was part of the 77 Geary galleries until they decided to close six months before the formal eviction. It became clear to the couple that the old model of art galleries was changing. The art world was shifting from under their feet and they felt that they could not move forward with the old model of selling art.
"We were straddling the old school and the new school," says Zavattero, who was part of the first tech boom in the 1990s before joining his wife's gallery. He remembers Marx & Zavattero Gallery as a gathering place for wonderful visuals, great ideas, and stimulating conversation. "Maybe that's just an archaic notion at this point with the world speeding up this much," he says. "I think in San Francisco it's happening at such a rapid acute pace that it's ominous in a sense."
Gallerists traditionally find artists for an exhibition and then support them throughout their career. Putting on an artist exhibition takes weeks of preparation. It's a creative process where the gallerists work in tandem with the artist to create a story about the artwork. Most exhibitions are open to the public free of cost. The purpose of an art exhibition isn't just to sell paintings, photographs, or sculptures. Galleries function in a similar way to museums. They encourage the public's exposure to art.
"There was a real energy put around a show and certainly we had to sell because you had to stay in business and it wasn't so market-driven," remembers Marx, who has an advanced degree in art history but at times felt like she needed an MBA. "It was scary. Now, you can't keep up unless you're going to a fair at least every month. The art fairs have proliferated like wildfire and it's really hard for a small business in its awkward teenage years to keep up."
Art fairs commonly take place over the course of several days, where artists and art dealers show and sell their work. They can range from local street gatherings to gargantuan conventions that take over cities, like ArtBasel in Miami. Many galleries see a rise in exposure and sales from art fairs, but these shows can prove costly. From shipping costs to plane tickets, the cost often doesn't outweigh the sales for mid-tier galleries.
The mid-tier galleries have been hit harder than new galleries and old institutions. Veteran galleries that have been in business for over 30 years, like Fraenkel Gallery and Robert Koch Gallery, have the cachet of brand and artist recognition. On the other end, new galleries are successful based on their novelty and trendiness.
Ever Gold Gallery is located in the Tenderloin and offers experimental exhibitions based on bridging old and the new art concepts. Ever Gold, dubbed the "art pushers of the Tenderloin," put together an exhibition called "Ever Wash" that turned the gallery into a minimalist Laundromat where visitors could do their laundry for free. The edgy location offers room to experiment with cutting-edge notions like public participation and DIY exhibitions.
"You're not quite the young hip gallery, you're not the blue chip gallery, where are you?" asks Jenny Baie, director of Rena Bransten. Unlike Marx & Zavattero who decided not relocate to a smaller space because they felt it to be unfair to their artists, Rena Bransten is going back to its roots.
The women joke about becoming a new hip gallery because of the storefront location in an up-and-coming neighborhood. They're excited about the prospect of building a new community. The gallery's building is connected to artist studios, a welcome surprise.
"I didn't even know there were artist studios left," Trish Bransten says, only half-jokingly. "I thought they were all in Oakland."