Letting people see the artist's inspiration and process is the key to bringing online art to life, Cu maintains. Otherwise, she can create her own watercolor painting on her phone or order Van Gogh prints online. "Personally, what would motivate me to buy original art and pay the associated premium is having rich narratives behind the art," she says.
The Rena Bransten Gallery staff agree that the personal connection is necessary to selling art. "So much of the gallery business is personality," says Rena Bransten. Through exhibitions, the gallery gives a voice to emerging artists. They've seen the online model work for known artists — like photographer Dawoud Bey, a deaf artist who relies hugely on the web — but lesser well-known artists get lost in the Internet abyss.
"There's a trend toward branding, the Web actually encourages it," explains Trish Bransten. "Branding is really hard. Everybody wants a Warhol, even a mediocre one."
Marx & Zavattero found it particularly difficult to keep supporting artists that they felt deserved attention when the public was looking for the next new star.
"It's always hard to lose an artist. It's like losing a great employee. You want to keep them happy," Zavattero says. " But sometimes things change, the world changes."
The cultural shift in the demand for art has upended the art industry. With uncertainty about the future, comes different opinions about its transition. The conflict between the old model of art consumption and the emerging new model has created a seismic rift in the art community. Artists have been displaced, galleries forced to shut their doors. Nobody feels supported. The ecosystem is crumbling.
In the Financial District, where Geary Boulevard begins, the iron Lotta's Fountain served as a meeting point during the 1906 earthquake. Today, it's a symbol of the city's resilience.
"We were part of the landscape, but the terrain shifted so radically," remembers Zavattero. Several art galleries remain amid the commercial storefronts. Gallery Paule Anglin sits above Factory Outlet boasting 3XL apparel and Ho Ho Snack Shop. Art and fashion mingle with an Alexander McQueen boutique, as well as luxury retailers like Nespresso. Above the high-end espresso brand, MuleSoft has now moved into the second floor, taking over the space where the heart of a thriving art ecosystem once beat.
There are always waves in San Francisco. Change is the only constant, but the challenge is to preserve our unique urban culture, from the artists to the activists. Our civic duty is to find a way to preserve the ephemeral zeitgeist of San Francisco through innovation — or sometimes in spite of the innovations that are remaking the city.
Heather Marx and Steve Zavattero lament over threats to the wealth of diversity in the city. Trish Bransten feels a loss of counterculture that once made the city engaging and interesting. There's a lot of heat coming down on the tech industry, but the anger against it can be a distraction. It's really up to us to curate this city.
"My big concern for San Francisco — I don't think it's a tech versus art thing," says Catharine Clark, who once lost a rent bid to a kitchen appliance store. "It's how can we define what type of community we want to live, work, write in and help that be realized. I actually think it's a civic problem."