Are Tech Collectors Finally Coming Around? Attendance and Sales Boom at FOG and Untitled San Francisco
January 18th, 2018
The Bay Area may is among the most closely watched art markets in the world right now, and expectations were running high as San Francisco’s fledgling art fair scene kicked into full swing this past weekend. FOG Design + Art, at Fort Mason, and the younger Untitled fair, now in its second year, but at a new venue, the nearby Palace of Fine Art, drew hordes of visitors—but will they mature into a serious collector base?
“This year felt like a full-blown San Francisco Art Week,” the contemporary art collector Mihail Lari told artnet News. Lari and his husband, eBay executive Scott Murray, returned to San Francisco last year after several years away. When Lari says they now “barely recognize the city,” he means it in a good way.
“The number of people investing in the arts is impressive,” he says. Dealers are improving what they show, while “the more established board members [are] starting to question their museums’ future roles.” Lari also pointed to the “spectacular shows” at nonprofits such as the 500 Capp Street Foundation (which has preserved the Mission District home of artist David Ireland), as well as Wattis and Andrew and Deborah Rappaport’s Minnesota Street Project.
Shuttles between FOG and Untitled further bolstered this year’s program, as did a lively VIP program that included several private collection visits. “It’s exciting and invigorating to see the San Francisco art scene transforming into something unique and very special,” adds Lari.
So did all the excitement translate into sales? Dealers on the whole seemed upbeat.
Matthew Marks sold several Ron Nagle sculptures and drawings to San Francisco collectors, according to Jacqueline Tran, the gallery’s senior director. She called it a “testament to the loyalty of the community that many collectors insisted these works remain in the Bay Area, where the artist lives and works.”
The gallery also sold a series of photographs by Peter Fischli and David Weiss, as well as a silkscreen version of the duo’s self-help checklist How To Work Better, which was placed in a prominent San Francisco collection. “Interest dovetailed with the artists’s sculpture of a snowman currently on view at SFMoMA,” said Tran.
David Zwirner, the only gallery that opted to show at both fairs, presented work by artists including Ruth Asawa, Suzan Frecon, Richard Serra, and Wolfgang Tillmans at FOG. Meanwhile, at Untitled, its solo booth of paintings and works on paper by Oscar Murillo generated serious buzz and resulted in nine sales at prices ranging between $75,000 and $340,000 each.
New York’s Denny Gallery reported sales at Untitled, including The Mermaid, Wormwood, a pigment print by Ann Shelton for $6,350 to a “young, San Francisco-based multigenerational photo collector,” and a video by Paula Wilson, Salty + Fresh (2014), to a trustee of the Berkeley Museum of Art for $1,500.
“As the art market shifts, a city like San Francisco is key for growth,” said Denny Gallery partner and director Robert Dimin. “In order for a healthy art market to exist, new life needs to start to engage and be willing to participate.”
Dimin, like many others, was impressed with Untitled’s new venue, calling it “unreal” and at “a manageable scale for art viewing with a smart layout.” The gallery has participated in Untitled Miami five times so far, and was also part of last year’s San Francisco edition.
Newly appointed fair director Manuela Mozo noted a significant increase in overall visitors, to 12,000 this year compared with 8,000, last year. “The art community in San Francisco embraced us with open arms and visitors seemed to love coming to the Palace of Fine Arts,” Mozo said.
Untitled, which featured 51 exhibitors from 11 different countries, is based on an ethos of collaboration, said Mozo, which was reflected in its presentation of nonprofit organizations including the 500 Capp Street Foundation, Artadia, Artists’ Television Access, BAMPFA, CCA Wattis Institute, the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, SOMArts Cultural Center and Southern Exposure and Workshop Residence.
Fort Gansevoort, a gallery based in New York’s Meatpacking District, and run by founder Adam Shopkorn, was a first-time exhibitor at Untitled, presenting a solo booth by Laurel Shear, an artist based in the East Bay. Sales included three large-scale paintings at the fair, as well as one to a Texas collector out of the artist’s studio.
“It seemed as if many fair goers killed two birds with one stone by knocking out both fairs in one go,” said Shopkorn. “The San Francisco-based advisors we wanted to see and become better acquainted with came to our booth, as did the collectors we wanted to see. We also had the opportunity to spend some time with a handful of heavyweight art advisors that are based in New York City, but do a nice amount of business in San Francisco.”
First time Untitled exhibitor Catinca Tabacaru featured Japanese artist Shinji Murakami’s playful, color-block dog sculptures and the booth was a hit with adults and children alike. Tabacaru described the work as “simultaneously tech-oriented and masterfully crafted.”
Tabacaru said there were numerous acquisitions made, including on the final day of the fair, which resulted in half of the works finding buyers, as well as several commissions for new works by the artist. Prices ranged from $150 for the mini puppy editions to $8,000 for sculpture and LED works.
Meanwhile, at FOG, organizers and exhibitors praised the tightly curated selection of design and fine art. Many of the 45 exhibitors were upbeat about sales and attendance, the latter of which totaled 12,000 (about equal with Untitled), and a marked increase on the 10,200 visitors in 2017, and 7,700 the previous year.
San Francisco dealer Jessica Silverman called the curation and content “stronger than ever,” adding that “the urgency to buy at the opening gala was much more potent. We sold out our booth by 8 p.m.”
Elizabeth Sullivan, president of Pace’s gallery in Palo Alto, told artnet news that “Bay Area collectors are absolutely growing and evolving. It’s a refreshing place to be right now. Inherently, the collectors we work with know what they like and at the same time there is an openness to discovering artists that may not have been on their radars before.”
“My sense is that the technology community is coming around to contemporary art and that galleries that have consistently been showing in San Francisco are finally seeing returns on their commitment,” says Dan Desmond, a financial advisor with the Blue Rider Group at Morgan Stanley. “Through the fairs and, more importantly, the museums this audience is becoming more educated and engaged.”
Lari points to “the astounding growth of SFMOMA’s Contemporaries patron group as a great example of the growing enthusiasm among the younger set.” The FOG opening night gala benefited SFMOMA.
Dealers and collectors are hopeful that the momentum will continue. “We’re definitely hearing and meeting younger collectors, but it’s too soon to tell how many will become full-fledged collectors who can’t stop collecting,” said Lari.
And while many in the San Francisco community appreciate that local fairs are bringing galleries to the area, some wonder about their ability to support long-term growth and sustainability. “Are fairs the future or something of the past if most galleries have already met most of their potential clients during one of the Frieze or Art Basel fairs?” asked Lari. “And is participating in fairs a good return on their steep investment, especially when smaller galleries pay the same as larger ones, yet may not break even—even if they sold out their booths?”
Only time will tell.