What I’ve Learned in the Year since I Uprooted My Gallery
Wendi Norris | October 25, 2018
One year ago today, I announced a new way of working with my artists in a mini-manifesto. After long and careful consideration, I had uprooted my large gallery space near the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and started producing exhibitions for my artists in the sites and markets where they felt most relevant.
It’s been quite the year. We saw exponential growth in sales. Thousands of new people attended our exhibitions. And while my team has grown and we remain invigorated, we have also stretched ourselves, our artists, and our audience, vendors, and families. Not programming the same space year-round means we have asked them to venture to places unknown at unusual times.
Amidst the personal growth and the adventures into uncharted territory, we have found one beacon of certainty. Sales for our artists are up 466% as of October, compared to the average annual sales of the four prior years. That is not a typo. Four hundred and sixty-six percent.
The growth stems almost entirely from a shift in how we prioritize our time as a gallery. My team and I spend more time meeting with, speaking to, presenting to, and traveling alongside collectors than ever before. We increasingly rely on high-touch, customized communications. We also have more time to grow our audiences beyond collectors. My team and I personally reach out and canvas each community, down to the local artist workshops and coffee houses, before we open an exhibition. Because we have more time to focus on actual engagement versus constant exhibition turnover, we have had exponentially more phone conversations, in-person meetings, facetime viewings, and email dialogue.
We are also more engaged with museums, connecting curators and their supporters to our artists and their studios, working with our artists through the production of the exhibition, and co-hosting curator- or artist-led walkthroughs for gallery clients and supporters. Our registrar has coordinated at least 150 loans to museums, from the Louisiana Museum in Copenhagen and the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid to the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati and the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico. Instead of mounting our own exhibitions every month, we have worked on and supported 29 museum exhibitions over the last 12 months, compared to a slightly higher number the year prior.
My team and I regularly debunk assorted myths. Yes, we still operate a physical gallery space, which we call our headquarters. It’s a centrally located and intelligently appointed 1,200-square-foot viewing room and office (the spacious, windowless bathroom is excellent for mounting video works) in San Francisco’s culturally rich Hayes Valley neighborhood.
And yes, we still present exhibitions, four in 2018. We call them “offsites,” and we activate underutilized real estate. No, we didn’t downsize our gallery space due to San Francisco’s soaring rent prices, we are simply diverting some rent expenses elsewhere in order to utilize more distinctive spaces in markets we feel are most relevant for the artist.
For example, our first offsite exhibition in January marked the West Coast debut for Nashville-based, Afro-Cuban artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons in a 6,000-square-foot former military training facility in San Francisco’s Presidio National Park. We received three times the amount of foot traffic than we would have had in my former gallery space, thanks in large part to our extensive outreach to the arts and neighborhood communities. The experience of visiting the exhibition, which one SFMOMA curator stated was akin to a museum show, prompted many attendees to encourage others to attend. And, yes, we have a counter, and we discreetly clicked in each visitor to our exhibitions this year.
In February, we opened a four-week exhibition in Guadalajara, Mexico, for Julio César Morales. Guadalajara’s economy and arts scene are booming, and Julio wanted his fourth exhibition with the gallery to be in his country of origin. We collaborated with local artists and their studios, and led a small group of U.S.-based collectors to events hosted by local collectors and Frieze, with a day of tequila tasting in between.
This new model is not without its challenges. Communications are ever complicated. Our nomadic programming asks a great deal of our audience, at a time when people want everything rapidly delivered to their door or their iPhone. We are asking our audience to stay connected with us so they know where we are going, with which artist, and why they should care. In the past year, our Instagram, Facebook, and mailing list subscribers have increased by 22%, 11%, and 6%, respectively. These are clearly not at a rate commensurate with what we are estimating to be a 200% growth in exhibition attendance, nor a reflection of our sales growth. These numbers tell me we need to do better engaging and educating our virtual community.
In September, we activated the expansive atrium of a retrofitted 150-year-old industrial shipbuilding facility at Pier 70 in San Francisco. My team, along with gallery artist Eric Siemens, designed and built a structure within the massive space, which accentuated the essence of Eric’s paintings, delivering a rarefied art experience. The hundreds of people who visited—many from nearby tech, architecture, and design companies such as Uber, Juul, and Gusto—had very little (if any) interaction with the art world at all prior to our offsite exhibition.
Our openness to change has also led to thought-provoking and fun-filled collaborative efforts outside the art industry.
In April, the online human resources firm Hired asked us to curate an exhibition in response to its annual State of Inequality report, which analyzes gender and race pay discrepancies in the tech sector. I carefully considered the project before agreeing to take it on, and concluded that it fits perfectly with my gallery mission: to provide indelible art experiences. Gallery artist Val Britton, who had analyzed topographies and flight pattern data for her award-winning public art commission at San Francisco International Airport, approached the wage gap data with a visual interpretation, in hopes that it would lead to a move for equal pay.
My team and I selected San Francisco art hub Minnesota Street Project as the site for the installation. The exhibition and its correlating events brought thousands of people to the space. During one such event, I introduced Val to an audience of tech executives, and we spoke about how an artist’s approach may lead them to a clever way of problem-solving. Only two of the 250 people in the audience had ever visited Minnesota Street Project, a longtime San Francisco epicenter for galleries, prior to the event. Only two.
And in the midst of all this, there have been innumerable coffees, meals, and inquisitive conversations. As important art fairs review their policies on requiring a physical gallery space, I’ve had meaningful discussions with the directors of Art Basel, The Armory Show, Frieze, and Expo Chicago. Countless colleagues from around the globe have reached out to me, visited the new space, and still check in as to how it works. At Prospect.4 earlier this year, I was approached by a curator at the Tate Modern who just wanted to learn more about how we are working with our artists.
On November 2nd, we open the fourth offsite exhibition, this time in Miami, for Ana Teresa Fernández. This six-week exhibition marks Ana Teresa’s East Coast debut, and her third solo show with the gallery. Ana recently conveyed that she is approaching the show with excitement and trepidation. She noted that artists are accustomed to working with the unknown, with problem-solving, but the gallery space serves to ground them; they know the texture, sight lines, and complexities of the gallery space itself. She is now venturing into another dimension of the unknown, and wonders how her work will be received so far from her San Francisco home base, where her exhibitions are met with throngs of admirers. One thing that makes her hopeful is her recent experience at Eric Siemens’s offsite exhibition, where she observed the ingenuity of experiencing a part of her city with fresh eyes.
In January 2019, we will present the West Coast solo debut exhibition for New York–based artist Yamini Nayar in a site to be announced in San Francisco. I am also currently working on an exhibition for Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo in New York for the spring of 2019. Our aim, as always, is to create memorable experiences for the viewers, and to bolster the notoriety, markets, and legacies of our artists in doing so.
All in all, it has been a tremendous year. We have encountered challenges, big and small, but in a business that has been hide-bound by a particular model for at least a century, the growth numbers for this new model speak for themselves.