San Francisco Offers Three Charms in Bid to Make Fair Circuit


Before last year’s San Francisco Fine Art Fair (SFFAF), the city’s most recent fair was the 2005 International Art Exhibition (SFIAE), put on by Blackman & Associates. But this month [May 19–22], San Francisco gets three simultaneous fairs: artMRKT, the first event put on by upstart artMRKT productions; the second annual SFFAF, organized by Hamptons Expo Group (HEG); and another newcomer, ArtPadSF. Each offers robust auxiliary programming.

While there will be galleries from all points U.S. and beyond, this will be a particularly good opportunity to experience local galleries; of the 164 galleries exhibiting at the three fairs, 86 are from the Bay Area, and primarily San Francisco. The outstanding questions are: Will the city draw enough attendance to support three fairs? And why San Francisco, why now?

“People love to be in San Francisco; it’s a beautiful place,” artMRKT co-organizer Max Fishko told A.i.A. It’s also a place that’s gained national and international art-world recognition, he added, thanks to recent exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Fine Art Museum of San Francisco, the city’s major institutions. The exhibition of the Fisher Collection and a Luc Tuymans retrospective at SFMOMA, as well as the current “Balenciaga and Spain” show at the de Young are examples.

Another draw is a small but strong collector community and what many believe is a largely untapped market of young, wealthy tech professionals. Zynga and Twitter have increased their presence within the city; Facebook, Apple, Google, and many others are not far away.

Founded by Fishko and Jeff Wainhause, artMRKT productions will host fairs in Houston and the Hamptons later this year. Both Fishko and Wainhause worked for SFFAF last year.

artMRKT will take place in the Concourse Exhibition Hall in the SOMA district, and present a mix of roughly 65 well-vetted modern and contemporary galleries.

“Where in New York, the fairs are more niche oriented—you would see Rena Bransten at The Armory Show and Gallery Paule Anglim at the ADAA Art Fair, for instance,” says Fishko, “here, they’re all under one roof.” You’ll also find such established galleries as New York-based Babcock and Nancy Hoffman, plus Cynthia Corbett from London, sharing the floor with emerging galleries like SF’s Baer Ridgway Exhibitions and Eleanor Harwood, and Culver City-based Blythe Projects.

As of early May, artMRKT reported selling about 1,000 tickets per day.

For its part, ArtPadSF seeks to provide a unique, community-inspired experience. Its venue, the Phoenix Hotel, was built in 1956 and was originally “a pay-by-the-hour establishment,” says Chip Conley, who bought the property 24 years ago and turned it into a boutique hotel.

This is not the Phoenix’s first time hosting an art fair. 16 years ago, dealer Jack Hanley co-produced an art fair at the hotel in conjunction with the opening of SFMOMA’s current building.

The surrounding neighborhood, the Tenderloin, is not that much less gritty today than it was when Conley bought the Phoenix, even though it’s a short walk from downtown and the grand City Hall, and roughly one mile from the artMRKT’s digs at the Concourse. Says Conley, “The street can be a little harsh, but you come in here, and it’s a little oasis.”

It’s an oasis that’s long been a go-to spot for artists and musicians. Notable hotel guests have included Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Pearl Jam, and artists Karen Finley, David Hockney, Jeff Koons and Andres Serrano.

All of the rooms, each of which will contain one exhibitor, have large plate-glass windows that face a central courtyard. Visitors can peruse the fair from inside, or window-shop outside by the pool.

ArtPadSF focuses on emerging galleries, such as San Francisco’s Marx & Zavattero, New York’s Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller and White Walls Gallery, located in the same neighborhood as the hotel. All but two of the 27 galleries are from San Francisco. “I’d say there’s a freshness, a certain rawness,” says Conley, “which fits the neighborhood.”

Across town from artMRKT and ArtPadSF is SFFAF, located in Fort Mason, the same venue as last year.

HEG, the fair’s owner, also produces ArtHamptons, ArtAspen, and the Houston Fine Art Fair. HEG president Rick Friedman says SFFAF has “something for everyone.” This year the fair hosts just over 70 galleries—slightly less than last year’s total, which Friedman attributes to a more strict application process. Prices will start in the affordable $1,000 range, and rise from there; he’s hoping to attract newer, and younger collectors.

SFFAF will feature approachable work. Fair participants range from contemporary galleries like Cain Schulte to niche dealers, such as Petaluma-based vintage photography gallery Barry Singer. Local exhibitors include Erickson Fine Art from nearby Heraldsberg and Ketchum-based Gilman Contemporary.

Ticket sales have been encouraging. According to Friedman, as of early May, sales are higher this year than at this time last year. Last year’s edition drew over 15,000 visitors to SFFAF who spent over $5 million.

While attendance and profit are well below those of fairs in New York and even Los Angeles (the Armory: 65,000 viewers; LA Art Show: 45,000), the 2010 SFFAF did attract more visitors than the final year of SFIAE (11,000).

Above Left: The Phoenix Hotel