Art and Tech in the Bay Area: Bigger Pie Thinking for Mutual Benefit
In 2002, I co-founded Frey Norris Gallery, an international art gallery in San Francisco that I helped run for ten years. In one sense, my partner and I accomplished something great: we created an appetite for serious art collecting in a city with lots of money but a weak taste for it. And we built a solid international business, developing a network of artists, art professionals and collectors on six continents.
But personally, I felt like a total failure. Our vision was to be part of catalyzing a new generation of art patrons who had for the most part made their wealth in technology. Sure we sold some art to some technologists, but we didn’t really find art champions amongst technologists. There really aren’t many. Not only has this not happened – Marissa Mayer’s presence on the board of SFMOMA not withstanding – but having time to reflect, a new perspective dawned on me. This was not a difference in preferences or consumer behaviors. The reason for this disconnect between the “Technorati” and Bay Area visual artists was shaped by a large and growing gulf in values.
Now there are as many kinds of artists as there are tech-born millionaires. Truthfully, San Francisco is not a global art capital, in the way that it is a leader in design. There are a lot of reasons for this.
One chief difference is whether a community views dissenters, contrarians and critical thinkers with disdain or gratitude. Many great writers I’ve admired over the years grew tired of the art world’s culture and withdrew or were marginalized. I think here of Sarah Thornton, Dave Hickey and Robert Hughes for instance. By contrast, many tech founders I’ve met appreciate iterative improvement. They see how value manifests from exactly these dissenters, contrarians and critical thinkers. Groups of such people can lead to the production of powerful inventions, ways to change the world, fast.
I’ve found San Francisco’s art community is fractured and often unwilling to unpack their passions for a general audience. Although this intellectual insularity is to some degree true of the art world everywhere, it is less so in more fringe places like Dubai and Mumbai, where there is a greater eagerness to develop loyal audiences. This elitism leads to a failure of storytelling. Many of the art world big wigs I’ve met scoff at smart people who are eager to learn but who haven’t mastered the specialized vocabulary or sets of concepts in contemporary art. Intelligent and wealthy friends felt put off by pretense and condescension; they avoid galleries and feel they need PhDs in art theory to enter them. The attitude they encountered is unnecessary. Growing arts audiences requires patience, empathy and a willingness to state things clearly and simply.
For all its impressive vitality and variety, another way in which our Bay Area art community cripples itself, is through a deep suspicion of wealth, fame and influence, along with anyone who can claim any of these achievements. I see precious little celebration of local artists doing well. The notion that if one or two younger artists broke through to fame and fortune locally, they might lift all tides and make a “middle class” artist’s career more likely; this idea is just plain alien. I don’t speak here of a “trickle down” effect, but rather a branding problem. The brand “San Francisco Art World” is far weaker nationally and internationally than the reality (good news actually); a few big “winners” would change this. In my experience, the opposite is true of L.A. where they have master marketing storytellers galore. I tried to be part of “bigger pie” conversations in San Francisco and again, feel a failure that they didn’t really manifest. And while this suspicion of success can be in some ways healthy – skepticism can lead to new thinking – it can also be stifling, with the net effect that major artists’ careers almost never launch in San Francisco, nor are they sustained here.
The cliché of artists leaving for New York or London or even L.A. to gain greater career traction was true in 2000 when I arrived from New York City and is still true today in 2013. My former business partner and I did all we could to stem this tide and offer decent income and recognition for our artists. She still does that good work. When I arrived, I naively hoped that San Francisco would become the next evolutionary step forward, the next great art capital, born from the most creative and intelligent population in the United States. In my opinion, the tendency of artists to leave San Francisco has less to do with cycles of boom and bust (high rents are often blamed) than with a fragmented and self-defeating culture that refuses to galvanize to pursue common betterment and larger audiences. And frankly artists often exhibit a palpable dearth of trust in people who have the wealth and power to provide things like cheap or free studio space, or patronage. I still today watch artists blame and demonize the wealthy and technology elite; their mistrust towards them remains the greatest impediment to the floating of ideas that could blossom with the resources these successful entrepreneurs might bring to bear. The conversations, in my experience, rarely even start. There are a lot of idealists in tech who would I’m guessing love to spark something transformative. To use the cliché, many of them live for “disruption.”
One great exception to the Bay Area punching below its weight has been the Zero1 Biennial, operating precisely on the intersection of art and tech. As of last year this multi-venue celebration can truthfully claim to be a major international event. Another is the efforts of Dorka Keehn and several other artists/business people who see such projects as the Bay Lights by Leo Villareal and the new installation going up above 9th Street to fruition (a collaboration with Brian Goggin, maker of “Defenestration,” which is coming down). Cheryl Haines and her For Site non-profit have helped to manifest amazing Andy Goldsworthy monuments in our Presidio and offered an exhibition to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge. Some artists, rather than looking to others with hunger and mistrust to help them build careers, simply become bootstrapping doers themselves and allow no hurdles to end their ambitions (and San Francisco throws up many hurdles, civic and otherwise). I think this is incredibly healthy and promising. The world needs more innovation around connecting art and audience. You know the saying, “1% ideation and 99% perspiration.”
At the risk of over-generalizing, the technology community comes across to me as far less pretentious, but they are bursting with hubris, in a good way. ”We will change the way the world works” is not an uncommon attitude. Tech startup creatives are pretty darn good at projecting “reality distortion fields.” And the willingness to try new things, the ethos of good ideas can come from anywhere, the putting aside of egos in the pursuit of fast experiments and the creation of a well evolved new solution; I just see a lot more of this in technology than art. Tech companies break stuff and make mistakes publicly and aren’t stigmatized for it. Ask any artist who has had a failed show and poor (buying) audience if this is true in the art world.
Some of the criticisms leveled at the technologists who increasingly populate San Francisco aren’t unfounded. Case in point: there is a real lack of appreciation for the humanities among our technologists. Linear thinking, quantifiable results and sometimes weak empathy can also be common. Objects that do not present with self-evident utility are dismissed (again, another values disconnect, as artists often aim for or embrace ambiguity). And as with any nouveau riche, there can develop a smug sense of entitlement along with the money and access to power. But I cannot help but admire the sheer force of will of the entrepreneurial spirit; the knowledge that anything you touch can be made better, with the right application of creative, collaborative thinking and follow through. Some of the world’s greatest thinkers and writers on the very nature of creativity call the Bay Area home, including Steven Johnson, who’s book “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation,” was a revelation to me. The D-School at Stanford can claim to have revolutionized how we think about the creative process, as have firms like Ideo.
Serial entrepreneur and CEO of famo.us, Steve Newcomb paints an epic picture of this when you land on his blog. The more driven and thoughtful entrepreneurs I meet, the more these words from Steve ring true:
I love to think of entrepreneurs as heroes of a sort. To imagine a single person that starts with a simple idea and then turns that idea into a permanent monument of human accomplishment – that is beautiful. To imagine a single human being having the guts to hold themselves responsible for affecting so many lives through employment, through their product and through the shear, raw, and direct power of money – that is my kind of benevolence. To see a person stand up and attempt greatness in the face of such overwhelming mediocrity in today’s world – that is courage.
There are no simple solutions or silver bullets for the current situation. Together, artists and tech entrepreneurs have the intelligence and raw creative talent to invent whole new paradigms of art making and paths to viable art careers. The Bay Area has this talent in spades. At the intersection of these two complementary communities, who have so much to teach and learn from one another, is a chance to invent new ways for artists to thrive and technologists to support them. How this might happen is a thrilling creative challenge we might all tackle as a community.
Raman Frey is VP of Customer Engagement for www.artkick.com, co-founder of Good People supper club and was co-founder of Frey Norris Gallery, a “micro-multinational” contemporary art business based out of San Francisco. Raman spent fifteen years operating in the global art world scouting artists and working with private, institutional and corporate clients. He serves on the board of www.ybca.org, enjoys roaming in the mountains and is currently co-authoring a business book, “Bigger Pie” with Retargeter CEO Arjun dev Arora.