This Is the Best Way to Start Collecting Local Art in San Francisco

The Svane Family Foundation's Ark Project commissioned works from 100 artists that are now up for auction

September 24, 2021 2:18 pm
"Bouquet" by J. John Priola
"Bouquet" by J. John Priola
Johnna Arnold/Svane Foundation

San Francisco has a welldocumented problem: cities structured around the needs of the young and wealthy are rarely also the same places that respond well to the needs of its creative class — the people waiting or bartending or yoga-teaching part-time to allow them to dedicate their full-time selves to their art. So that creative class decamps: for cheaper rents and easier lives, in Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Berlin, Stockton. For the artists, gallerists and art-loving humans left behind, this is a calamity. Happily, some innovative thinking is being deployed to halt that wave mid-crest here in S.F.: the Svane Family Foundation’s ongoing Ark project

The set-up is intriguing: instead of writing a check to a local arts-boosting organization, Svane commissioned 100 S.F. artists to produce work, with $10,000 behind each project. Those pieces are now up for auction, through September 30 — giving those artists exceptional visibility to the city’s collector class. All the proceeds raised will go to ArtSpan, the organization run by Joen Madonna and doing all it can to keep artists here. As circles go, it’s laudably virtuous. And with bids — at press time — as low as $600, there’s something for most buyers here. 

“The Ark program was designed first and foremost to get money to artists directly, as quickly as possible, at a time when the majority of artists were really suffering from the closures and postponements of the pandemic,” says SFF executive director Amie Spitler. “Once we had those funds to artists, it evolved into a way that the 100 works commissioned could be used to rev the engine of the entire arts ecosystem — this is the ‘giving loop’ model we’re operating from, where our initial investment can be paid forward into the greater art community that sustains artists long term. We’re trying to show how all of this is connected, and where there are different opportunities to get institutions and individuals involved in supporting the artists that we all benefit from having in the community.”

Among those 100 works are a Barry McGee, a glorious Linda Connor and a striking Aaron de la Cruz that will undoubtedly appear soon on an episode of Billions, in one of the smarter venture capitalist’s home offices. There’s also J. John Priola’s gorgeous photograph of a bouquet — titled “Bouquet” — featuring hand-crafted flowers made by 20 different San Francisco cultural organizations and nonprofits, a gorgeous representation of the city itself. 

Priola says he understands the need for innovative action. “It’s tough, and it’s getting tougher,” he says of building a career within the S.F. art scene. “When I first came here, there were so many opportunities for artists to show their work — to get a one-person show, to get a review in the paper, to get eyes on you and your work. It’s increasingly impossible for emerging artists in the city now, because so many of the galleries have left. But even now, I’m seeing little galleries born out of necessity, and I am gratified to know that there are still people in San Francisco who recognize the necessity of art here.” 

For Madonna, the influx of cash raised by the auction will help cover operational costs as well as complete the financing of the organization’s new “future home,” the Onondaga Art Center in the Excelsior, which will include artist studios, a community meeting space, a classroom, a resource center and a collaborative art gallery. “This was a great way to infuse a million dollars into the art ecosystem in San Francisco,” she says. “Those 100 artists were able to be inspired and make work. Helping people make work is so important — I think back to the WPA era, and how important government action was there. And then instead of that work being a static piece of art, it comes back in this auction format, so people get to see the entire collection, and be inspired by the theme of the Ark. And then the proceeds of that come to us, but we get to reinvest and reinfuse that money back into the art community more broadly, including creating an art center that will last for generations. It’s the gift that literally keeps on giving.” 

Like we said: a virtuous circle, benefiting the city, its artists and let’s not forget its collectors, who now have the opportunity to bid on 100 pieces of work by many of the city’s best artists.

Below, you’ll find — in addition to the works listed above — our picks from the auction, hosted by Artsy. 

1. Alicia McCarthy’s Untitled

2. Kristin Farr’s Sunset Sea

3. Yétundé Olagbaju’s Only Sky Above, Water Below

4. Anna Valdez’s Studio Plants and Animal Skulls

5. Esther Elia’s Ancestors

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