VISUAL ART So far, 2014 has been a pretty depressing and demoralizing year for Bay Area artists and the organizations and institutions that support them. Increasingly, the only options seem to be "fight or flight," with "flight" too often becoming the default.
Against the economic and cultural ascendancy of the tech industry, commercial and residential rents have skyrocketed as funding sources have become more restrictive and competitive. Longstanding commercial galleries and noncommercial spaces alike have been forced to relocate, downsize, or face eviction. The past few months, my Facebook feed has reliably been filled with mournful think pieces on tech's perceived indifference to local arts and culture, news of another gallery closure, or someone else posting about his or her imminent departure to Los Angeles or Chicago. For many, community stalwart Intersection for the Arts' announcement last month that it was drastically reducing its operations and staff felt like the last straw.
This climate of mounting precariousness and frustration invariably forms the backdrop against which one takes in Bay Area Now 7, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' triennial survey of local art. It also spills over into some of the art on view. For this reason alone the stakes feel higher — perhaps unfairly so — especially when compared to past iterations of the exhibition, which have sometimes struggled with articulating a coherent or relevant point of view.
Curators Betti-Sue Hertz and Ceci Moss's decision to "decentralize" the curatorial process this year and, instead, issue an open call to small- to mid-size regional visual arts organizations to select and commission work, turned out to be a smart one. For starters, putting YBCA's institutional resources and clout behind much smaller organizations as opposed to individuals proposes an alternate function for large-scale, regional surveys such as Bay Area Now, beyond the early-to-mid-career professional stopover-launching pad they serve as for many artists (the Whitney Biennial continues to be a best- and worst-case example of this).
More importantly, the 15 jury-selected partner organizations in BAN7 present an alternative map of the Bay Area's arts ecosystem, one that intersects with but also sometimes falls outside of the more familiar circuits between higher educational institutions such as California College of Arts and the San Francisco Art Institute, and larger local galleries and museums. Partner organizations include residence-based exhibition spaces (2nd Floor Projects, Important Projects, n/a) and established arts education programs (Creativity Explored, San Quentin Prison Arts Project), as well as further-afield institutions (the Napa-based di Rosa and the Saratoga-based Montalvo Arts Center) and nimbler project- or action-based collectives (Publication Studio, Stairwell's, the Bay Area Arts Workers Alliance).
The art is as varied as the organizations presenting it although many of the mediums and subjects feel indigenous. This sense of familiarity can cut both ways. Daniel Case's gorgeous landscape photographs of empty California cruising grounds, in 2nd Floor Project's space, seem to be having a sympathetic kiki with Tammy Rae Carland's earlier photo series of similarly depopulated off-the-grid, lesbian feminist encampments. Kristin Faar and Jeff Meadows' New Age-y paint and slat construction in Adobe Books Backroom Gallery's space, on the other hand, presents a cheerful if derivative homage to the Mission School and the beloved bookstore's place within its history.