by David M. Roth

What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, San Francisco dealers found themselves in the middle of a turf battle waged by rival out-of-town art fair promoters: Hamptons Expo Group (HEG), operator of the San Francisco Fine Art Fair (SFFAF), and artMRKT, a company formed in 2010 by two former HEG executives, Jeffery Wainhause and Max Fishko. Suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, the competition became intense. Dealers were puzzled. No promoter had ever made a fuss over San Francisco. Complicating matters was the entrance of a third, smaller fair, ArtPadSF, which raised the stakes by pressing the question of whether San Francisco, a creative nexus, but an iffy market, could sustain three fairs, all on the same weekend.  

What happened next drew a collective sigh of relief. Crowds – estimated at between 12,000 to 15,000 people — thronged all three fairs and bought art, though not nearly as much as dealers and promoters would have liked. Oddly, that didn’t seem to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm. Having flushed gallery-shy collectors out of the ‘burbs, dealers, even before the weekend was out, pledged to do it all over again. Most will. And while some dropped out or switched fairs, others from outside the region, sensing momentum, decided to give SF a try. 

Summing up the experience of many, Andrea Schwartz whose SF gallery bears her name, says: “We sold work to people we’d never met, and we also drew people from the Peninsula who we never see in the gallery. Many of the sales we made happened after the show. That’s where our profitability kicked in.”

“It’s really about the new collector,” says artMRKT’s Max Fishko. “ Our challenge is to find those people who can support this creative community and to provide the catalyst that will turn them on.” Over the past year, he’s seen evidence of such a buzz. “At the other shows we produce,” in Houston, Miami and Bridgehampton, N.Y., “I’ve met collectors who tell me they attended the San Francisco fair. So I think we have a real good shot at pulling in people from all over the West coast and, in the next five years, from all over the world.”

Rare is the business battle in which there are no losers. In this year’s events there is one clear winner: the Bay Area art community. From May 17 to 20, we’ll have three art fairs at our feet: The SFFAF, now in its third year at Fort Mason; artMRKT, back for a second turn after a highly praised first-year run at the Concourse Exhibition Center (7th & Brannan St.); and ArtPadSF, at the legendary Phoenix Hotel in the Tenderloin.  

Fairgoers will have a lot to take in. Nearly 200 galleries – local, national and international – will converge on the city and cater to a wide range of tastes, in venues ranging from faux-posh (artMRTK), to stripped-down maritime-chic (SFFAF) to urban tropical (ArtPadSF). artMRKT bills itself as the toniest of the three and leans toward the blue chip, but not exclusively so.  Alongside top-tier SF galleries like Rena Bransten, Modernism, Gallery Paule Anglim and Brian Gross Fine Art, and highly-regarded New York galleries like Nancy Hoffman and DCKT, you’ll find storefront upstarts like Evergold and Park Life, plus seasoned mid-market players like Eli Ridgway whose roster reads like a who’s who of hot-now Bay Area artists. 

SFFAF, with pockets of strength in photography, Asian Art and quality secondary market dealers, prides itself on having brought a major art fair to SF in 2010, thereby ending a 5-year stretch in which the city saw no such events. The fair, pioneered by HEG’s president Rick Friedman, commands what it is arguably the best location in town: Festival Pavilion, literally a dock on the bay crowned by a 50,000 square-foot warehouse. “The trick,” says Friedman, “is to provide a wide enough range of work so that everyone, no matter what their bag is, can get excited. We’ll have 68 galleries exhibiting. Whatever someone wants we’ll have it, and in a big range in price, from $1,000 to over a million.” 

ArtPadSF, organized in 2011 by Maria Jenson, an LA gallerist/consultant, and funded by Chip Conley, the Joie ‘d Vivre hotel chain founder, probably generated more buzz per square foot than the other two fairs combined. Low-pressure interaction in well-appointed rooms, swaying palms, a poolside bar, great parties, and the willingness of dealers to refrain from overstuffing their spaces as they do in Miami made it a memorable event. This year it’s gone upscale – but only slightly.

You’ll still find a sizable contingent of DIY galleries featuring young artists (The Popular Workshop, Project One, Unspeakable Projects, Spoke Art, Satellite66, ArtSpan). They’ll be joined by established locals like Gregory Lind, Electric Works, Toomey Tourell and Johansson Projects – and, by destination galleries from out of town, most notably Luis de Jesus and Walter Maciel (both from LA), Mark Moore (Culver City) and, Beta Pictoris, from, of all places, Birmingham, Ala.

Where last year’s fair had a community-oriented street vibe, “the events this year are aimed more at a collecting audience” in keeping with the fair’s partnership with SFMOMA, says Director Maria Jenson. (The opening-night preview party benefits the museum’s art-interest group, SECA, the Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art.) None of which, she hastens to add, forecloses surprise. Look for a potent pool party graced by live music, synchronized swimmers, dancers, video screenings and performances. 

Different as these fairs are from each other, they engage in many of the same activities: VIP soirees, community partnerships, fund raising for local arts organizations, panel discussions, lectures and happenings of various sorts. artMRKT, for example, will feature a presentation by photographer Richard Misrach, about his most recent series, Petrochemical America. Hung Liu, the Chinese-born history painter, will be interviewed by Achenback Foundation curator Karin Breuer, and sculptor Stephen de Staebler will be the subject of a lecture by de Young curator Timothy Anglin Burgard.   

SFFAF will feature what may prove to be the most notable exhibit of the weekend: a display of 12 recent works by William T. Wiley. One of the Bay Area’s most celebrated artists, Wiley, at age 74, remains a potent creator of visual and verbal puns. Using his extraordinary talents as a draftsman and wordsmith, he continues to skewer late Modernism’s cliches, while highlighting the absurdities behind the headlines. If the titles of his current works (Abstraction-less Foreclosed HomePrimary Abstraction with Predator DroneI’ve Got to Sing to Write the Blues) are any indication, we’ll see Wiley in vintage form. This exhibit will feature drawings, paintings, a tapestry and sculpture and an interview of the artist by Art Ltd. Critic and Independent Curator DeWitt Cheng and YBCA Curator Betty Sue Hertz.  Sacramento-based b. sakata garo will have eight additional works of Wiley’s on hand, plus pieces by three other Bay Area icons: Richard Shaw, Robert Brady and Carlos Villa.

Beyond the obvious headliners, here are some educated guesses about other likely highlights:


Stephen de Staebler @ Dolby Chadwick, artMRKT
Stephen DeStaebler | Winged Figure Ascending, 2010 | Bronze | 108 x 32 x 33 inches

If you miss the Stephen de Staebler retrospective at the de Young ending May 13, you can catch a glimpse the late sculptor’s genius at Dolby Chadwick’s booth. His transcendent winged figures, built of fragments, seem to flirt with postmodernist ideas (deconstruction, fluidity and interchangeability), yet they remain firmly anchored in classical forms, reflecting the artist’s career-length fixation on the figure and human suffering. They are majestic and timeless. Robert Arneson’s bronze works at Brian Gross, show the sculptor engaged in a similar reckoning. Busts of his own likeness, made during the last two years of his life, flip between angst, braggadocio and self-deprecating humor.  (Read our recent review of these works.) 

Weinstein Gallery, from Minneapolis, will bring in new work from Alec Soth, a photographer known for lush, unsparing portraits of people and places. Sirens, a series about women, places him in close communion with Todd Hido, Katy Grannan and others who make discomfiting portraits designed to make viewers question assumptions.

New York-based DCKT will show a 12 x12-foot wall of Helen Altman’s “torch” drawings, of animals; new works from the Bay Area team, Castaneda/Reiman; a luminous series of biomorphic ink-on-drafting film works from Lia Halloran; and a wall of enamel-on-aluminum paintings from Timothy Tompkins that further blur the already fuzzy line between photography and painting.

Works from Hung Liu will be on view at New York-based Nancy Hoffman (and at Walter Maciel at ArtPadSF). Consider them a sneak preview of the artist’s show at Rena Bransten in November and her upcoming retrospective at the Oakland Museum.  And, should you long for an out-of-town art jaunt, you’ll also find current work from the artist’s at the di Rosa Preserve in Napa.  

Lest the swirl of art and commerce overwhelm you, the performance/multi-media artist Jeremiah Jenkins offers an antidote. It’s titled 0.00000032%. “I’ll be seizing, with permission, an 8 x 8-foot plot on the floor and occupying it in a dome tent made from building materials and modeled after forms of shelter people have been evicted from,” the artist explains. “I will be the only occupier and will constitute 0.00000032% of the population of the United States. I will be standing in solidarity for all citizens who are tired of working too hard for too little, who’ve lost faith in the system, and who are named Jeremiah Jenkins.”  If you saw Jenkins’ performance last year as Blue Collar Bushido, about a samurai construction worker, you’ll not want to miss this. (His concurrent show, at Evergold, is appropriately titled: Shit Doesn’t have to be so Fucked Up.)

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