Expert Eye

How the Art World Can Win in Silicon Valley: A Q&A With Minnesota Street Project Founder Andy Rappaport

How the Art World Can Win in Silicon Valley: A Q&A With Minnesota Street Project Founder Andy Rappaport
Minnesota Street Project founders Andy and Deborah Rappaport

For a few years now, San Francisco has been the center stage where the worst existential fears of the artistic community have played out. As Silicon Valley’s thriving industries take over the city, its new monied elite have begun driving up the real estate prices to the level where the artists and other creatives with longstanding roots in San Francisco simply can’t afford to keep pace—and, furthermore, these freshly minted moguls have shown little interest in spreading their money into this art community through purchases or patronage, as previous generations of affluent newcomers had. While the situation in the Bay Area has been particularly acute, leading to rising tensions, public conflicts, and national headlines, it’s a harbinger for a crisis that could spread to other cosmopolitan capitals as labor paradigms and consumption habits change.

Into this fray has stepped Andy and Deborah Rappaport, a philanthropic couple with ties to both Silicon Valley and the art world, and a plan to bring them together in a way that proves mutually beneficial—basically, by creating an environment with proper set of circumstances for these two prickly species to mate. 

A veteran venture capitalist who attended Princeton at 16 before dropping out to conquer tech, Andy Rappaport has established extensive bona fides in the industry, working for a series of start-ups over the years and then going on to fund them as a rainmaker at August Capital, a Menlo Park-based firm that has backed companies like Paperless Post, Avant, and Zulily. Over this time, he and Deborah evolved into passionate and sophisticated art collectors with a particular interest in technology-related work, and they have also proven highly visible patrons in the political sphere, becoming two of the Democratic Party’s biggest donors in the Obama era. 

Now, this month, the Rappaports have entered art philanthropy in a big way with the opening of the Minnesota Street Project, a visionary mixed-use plant for San Francisco’s artists, galleries, and nonprofits, providing them with state-of-the-art facilities at eminently affordable rent. Built with data-driven compulsion to optimize efficiencies, the complex now houses over a dozen galleries and nonprofits—including, as of last week, a temporary joint outpost for New York’s Andrew Kreps and Anton Kern galleries—along with studios for more than 30 of the city’s artists, selected in an application process overseen by the artist Brion Nuda Rosch. A former prop studio where the Grateful Dead built its sets in the 1960s, the compound now exudes good karma again, just updated for the technocratic era.

The art spotlight will be shifting to San Francisco this spring with the grand re-opening of SFMOMA’s new Snøhetta-designed museum, and ace blood-smeller Larry Gagosian has indicated that he senses a chance to cater to the city’s tech titans by opening a new gallery (his 16th) out in the city. Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to Andy Rappaport about why his vision for making art work in the city is so radically different—and why everyone else has been going about it all wrong.

gallery at the Minnesota Street ProjectA visitor admiring a gallery at the Minnesota Street Project

Right now, SFMOMA is primed to reopen in a new building funded by a board led by brokerage tycoon Charles Schwab, and with a collection heavily augmented by donations from Gap founders Donald and Doris Fisher. It is in all respects a gleaming exemplar of traditional art patronage. Meanwhile, across town, you have proposed a very divergent model of patronage with the opening of the Minnesota Street Project. To begin with, can you explain the fundamental concept behind your undertaking? Where did this idea come from?

The genesis for the project is very straightforward. Things have been kind of crazy in San Francisco. We’ve been going through an enormous economic boom because the tech community, which used to be localized 30 miles south of the city in Silicon Valley, has gradually been migrating north into the city, allowing San Francisco to participate in the tech economy to a degree that it never really did before. But while boom times bring many positive consequences, they also create problems, and one of those problems is that rising real estate prices in San Francisco have resulted in many traditional San Francisco residents being forced out of the city, which is a shame. About two or three years ago, it became very apparent that a number of cultural communities in San Francisco, which has always had deep ties to the visual arts, simply couldn’t afford to remain in the city.

This was right around the time that I was retiring from my career in venture capital, and, having been around the tech community here for 30-odd years, I felt a little responsible in my own small way for what was happening. So, my wife and I started to think, “What can we do for the city?” We realized that the visual arts community is really an ecosystem—this is true everywhere there’s a visual arts community—and the fact that it’s an ecosystem means that each of its constituent parts requires the others in order to survive and thrive. 

Clearly strong, vibrant museums are an important part of that, and we have vibrant art museums here, from the Asian Art Museum to the Contemporary Jewish Museum to the Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archives, which was a smashing success when it opened last month, to the new SFMOMA, which is very eagerly anticipated. But that’s only one part of the ecosystem, which extends to the artists themselves, the nonprofit organizations that support the artists, the galleries that make art available for sale and support the careers of the artists, and the trades that go along with art, like art-supply shops, framers, and art transportation businesses. All of these were being jeopardized as a result of the real estate crisis here.  

What my wife and I realized is that we need to think holistically about that entire ecosystem, and ask how can we help to sustain critical mass around all of these constituent parts so that each of them can draw from the others in the way they need to in order to survive, allowing them to then serve the collector community and audience here. So, if our objective is to prevent the flight of artists from the city, we also need to help prevent the flight of galleries and nonprofit organizations from the city. That was one part of the idea.  

The other part was that even though we live in an increasingly virtualized environment, people really do need to gather, and they want to have a sense of place—this is something I learned through my experience in the tech world. And one of the things that happened as a result of the real estate craziness in San Francisco is that, one by one, each of the places where there used to be a critical mass—the gallery district in Union Square, for instance, or the artist studios south of Market and on Mission Street—has been converted to other uses and priced out of the reach of the arts community.

As a result, that community has become atomized, because people just had to find space wherever they could find it. That makes it a lot harder for the community to engage with itself and, even more importantly, to engage with the broader audience. Because the question becomes: Where do people go to see art? How do you plan a day of art in San Francisco? It’s a lot harder here than it is in New York, for example, or even in Los Angeles, which is a sprawling place. It’s certainly harder than in Berlin. 

So we realized what we needed to do for the ecosystem is to help create this critical mass in a way that created a sense of place—meaning that we needed to bring the artists and galleries into one place and then build inviting public gathering spaces in a way that would allow the community to not only stay there, but engage. That was our humble vision.

What this vision has resulted in is a network of artist studios, galleries, arts education centers, public spaces, and state-of-the-art facilities for displaying and making art of all kinds—all of which you’re making available for below-market rent. The cheap rent is the innovation that makes this whole complex viable, is that correct?

Yes, that’s exactly right, and our inspiration here was fairly simple. When I retired from the venture-capital business, I started thinking about diversifying our personal portfolio beyond tech companies and into real estate. We live in San Francisco, and I’m a believer in the long-term value of San Francisco real estate, so if I’m going to invest for our foundation and our children and our grandchildren, San Francisco real estate is a pretty good thing to invest in.

Then a lightbulb went off over our head: the reason real estate is getting so expensive here, and why there is such a gold rush here, is that people know they can use real estate to generate really significant returns. San Francisco real estate is a great asset to hold, and it can produce returns that rival the kind of returns that my venture firm produces, and do so for years and years. 

We thought, “Well, wait a minute. We respect people whose business it is to buy real estate and generate the greatest possible returns from it, and we respect people who are buying San Francisco real estate because that’s their strategy for retirement, but we’ve already done pretty well and have a strategy for retirement, so we don’t need to get the highest possible financial return from everything we do.” And I did the math. If we bought some industrial buildings and only looked to cover our costs, how much lower could our rents be than the market rate? The answer came out to be about a third.  

Then the other thing we did was that we recognized there’s a lot of inefficiency in the way art galleries and art studios and other arts-related businesses operate. This is partly because nobody ever constructs a purpose-built facility to house these activities—they just sort of happen organically where they can. However, when real estate is expensive, the cost of that inefficiency is really high.

For instance, Deborah and I have spent a lot of time in galleries all over the world, so we know that every gallery has a big space allocated for packing and shipping artworks—which you need to have if you sell large artworks—and for maneuvering those artworks through the space. So you end up with a lot of floor area that has to be intentionally empty—but when you think about the utilization of that space, it’s very low. The typical gallery might use that space 5 or 10 percent of the time.  

So, when real estate is cheap, that’s great—you get as much of it as possible and then who cares whether you’re using it efficiently or not? But when real estate is expensive, that’s a very significant cost—for some galleries, especially for smaller galleries, that can be 25 percent of the cost of their gallery. Same thing with kitchens, bathrooms, hallways that lead to exiting doors that are required by code, and storage space.

It’s similar with many artist studios. For instance, they have to provision big work tables that they don’t use very often because sometimes they do need them; they have to provision their own woodshop, maybe, or their own kiln, or their own digital printing setup. All of this is really expensive, especially relative to the degree to which it’s utilized. 

We thought, if we’re going to purpose-build these spaces for galleries and studios, let’s incorporate shared resources that allow us to build a way better packing and shipping facility, a way better staff kitchen, a way better woodshop, and a fully equipped digital media lab, so we can actually say that not only are we going to charge you less for the space that you’re renting, you’ll also need to rent less space, because we’ve provisioned all these shared resources. 

There’s one more example of that, too. We realized that most galleries try to find spaces that allow them to display the largest show that they could ever imagine displaying, but that most of the shows galleries mount are far smaller than that. So, we thought, let’s have a large exhibition space that’s a rotating space that galleries can use it when they need to, but that they share.

So, there was a lot of work in figuring out how do we do this, but the goal was to actually reduce people’s cost of doing business so we can make San Francisco that much more affordable for people to remain.

crowd at opening at the Minnesota Street ProjectThe crowd at the Minnesota Street Project's grand opening

It seems you would be an ideal peacemaker for the San Francisco art crisis, since you come equally from the tech community and the art-collecting community, and you speak both languages. But while you cite San Francisco’s rich history of art patronage, the puzzle these days has been that the tech-rich patrons of tomorrow have thus far been resistant to investing in art causes, potentially because there are other areas of charitable investment that have clearer ROI, like Bill Gates’s campaign to eliminate malaria in Africa and Mark Zuckerberg’s bankrolling of optimized school systems. On a more fundamental level, they don’t seem too interested in buying and collecting artworks, period. The art community is obviously concerned about this predicament, because this next generation of American wealth and patronage will only become more important as governments become less willing to provide funding for the arts. So, I put the question to you: how do you convince these tech people that art is urgently relevant to their lives?

Well, that’s something we think about quite a bit, and I wish I felt as capable to bridge that divide as you just made it sound. It’s a big divide. We’re hoping to contribute to lessening the divide, but I think we’re looking at a generations-long process in San Francisco and elsewhere. There’s been a lot of tension between the tech community and the arts community, because the arts community—reasonably, I think—views the tech community as making life hard for them in San Francisco, and I think the tech community views the arts community as getting in the way of success in some cases, but also under-appreciating the good things that have come to the city as a result of the economic boom. 

So, we realized that the first thing we need to do is to neutralize that tension. What got Deborah and I going is that we thought if we could help take some of the pressure off the visual arts community, a lot of that immediate resentment may dissipate. It doesn't mean that the problems have been solved, but at least we can shift from a mode of pessimism and anger and panic to a mode of longer-term thoughtful reflection and engagement. 

But then the issue becomes, how do we engage the audience? And it’s absolutely true that the per capita consumption of and interest in the visual arts in the tech community right now is lower than other major communities of influence in the Bay Area and elsewhere. There are a couple of interesting reasons for that. For one, there’s been an increasing chasm that’s developed between arts education and technology education. For my generation—I’m in my late fifties—arts education was something that was integrated into the primary- and secondary-school curriculum, and there was plenty of money for it, so future entrepreneurs like me who went through the better schools, and even the not-so-great schools, got a fair amount of arts education. 

Unfortunately, over the last 30 years, as schools everywhere have been challenged financially, arts education—which is viewed as somewhat less productive in terms of preparing people for careers—has been diminished, sometimes to the point of disappearing. As a result, there are several generations who have grown up without as much exposure to art in school, and art is a bit like a language, in that if you don’t learn it early on it can be hard to relate to later. 

At the same time, the technical curricula has become increasingly robust and packed. The pace of technology’s expansion over the last 30 years has been extraordinary, and a lot of the stuff that you used to only encounter in grad school is now being taught in junior high. But people who study technology and want to be great technologists have a curriculum ahead of them that is so packed that it really crowds out a lot of other stuff. It’s a lot more all-consuming for kids to be competitive with a technology curriculum these days, whereas there was plenty of space for me to explore language and literature and art.  

What this all means is that today’s leaders in technology are coming to cultural things later in life than people of my generation and before. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s not necessarily good or bad—it’s just the way things are. So the question is, well, what do you do about that? Our notion is really simple. My wife Deborah loves to say, “Nobody’s born knowing how to appreciate an art exhibit.” It’s something you have to learn, and if it’s something you had never paid attention to before and don’t understand, and if it looks threatening, then maybe you feel you shouldn’t bother. And I think, unfortunately, that there’s a current running through the art world that doesn’t necessarily invite or encourage people who are just starting to appreciate what they’re seeing.  

So we believe it’s really important to make stuff accessible—we don’t want people to feel like there’s a rarified experience that only those who have been admitted to the club can really understand. Instead we want them to realize, “Hey, art is a wonderful thing, and people take away what they bring to it, and they learn as they go.” That’s how Deborah and I have learned about art. Neither of us grew up with art in our families, really, and neither of us studied art. It’s just something that we learned to appreciate over time. 

To this end, we set out to build an inviting set of experiences that provide a reason for this new community to come look at art and begin to engage. So, if you go into 1275 Minnesota Street, which is our public building, you walk into a really nice, inviting public space—we invite dogs and kids in, there are places to sit, there’s free WiFi, there’s great people-watching, and it’s just a fun and comfortable place to be. We’re opening a restaurant and bar in September, and we announced that Daniel Patterson, an extraordinary and very well-known local chef, is going to be our partner in that. The idea is that San Franciscans love food, and they love social gatherings, so let’s build a place with great food and that’s a great place for social gathering that’s comfortable in the way that San Franciscans want their public spaces. We think of the inside of the building as a neighborhood. 

The second part to this is we want to build programming that puts art in the broader context of creative processes. The ways that artists make art are not entirely dissimilar from the creative processes that entrepreneurs undertake, or engineers, or musicians, or writers. In the programming that we do here, we want to stress that creativity, ingenuity, and imagination are the common threads that run through various kinds of creative pursuits.

So, one of the things that we’re going to be doing in our public space is holding talks and salons that deal with a wide range of creative pursuits, having deep and important conversations about art but also interesting and fun conversations about music, technology, dance, literature, and creativity generally. We don’t want to lecture to the tech community and entrepreneurs, “Gee, art is important, and you should do this and that.” We really want to meet people where they live, where they’re comfortable, and expose the role that the visual arts play in that broader fabric. It’s something we recognize will take some time to happen and have the impact that we hope it does, but that’s the way that we’re trying to foster engagement. 

I might be mistaken, but it sounds as if there’s a little dash of Burning Man sensibility here, in that Burning Man has proven an incredibly successful draw for the tech elite because it’s an immersive, aesthetically overwhelming experience that cuts across all modes of creativity and expression. It’s not in a privileged, academic setting or white-cube environment, but instead it's out in the open and intermingled with music and conversation. Am I wrong? 

[Laughs] Well, in the sense you describe, yes. But in another very important sense, no. I think Burning Man is existence proof for the notion that the tech community is open to a broad interpretation of what creativity encompasses—in that sense, it’s a good existence proof for our theorem at the Minnesota Street Project. But, in another sense, it’s exactly the opposite of what we’re trying to do.  

Burning Man is something that occurs as a special event, and it has created its own separate community. It literally happens in the desert, it causes people to self-identify as “Burners,” and, in fact, if you look at what’s happened to Burning Man, it’s become an exclusive club that has an increasingly expensive membership attached to it. We want to do the opposite. We want to bring the experiences where people live, and we want them to be as inclusive and open as possible. We will have failed if anyone ever identifies themselves as “Minnesotans” in the context of people who visit us or consume what we provide. Our objective is to do things that resonate with the entire community and pull the entire community together, as opposed to creating yet another opportunity for an elite segment of the community to pull itself apart and have its own party. 

As a result, a component of our thinking has revolved around kids since we got started—we said, “Whatever we do, we want to involve kids.” We were thrilled when the San Francisco Education Arts Project, a nonprofit that is the largest provider of arts education to the San Francisco public schools, expressed an interest in being in the building. Now we’ve given them their first permanent space in their 50 years of existence, and they’re bringing kids into the building from underserved neighborhoods. So, it’s the canonical inverse of attracting tech execs and their private planes to a place in the desert. We want to attract the tech execs in their Ferraris—and one of them did come in his Ferrari during the opening—to the same place where we’re attracting kids from every neighborhood in San Francisco in their shorts and sneakers.  

So, yes, there is a part to art that is about collecting serious works, and it has to be about money because those works are expensive, and nobody wants artists to survive and thrive and be monetarily successful more than Deborah and I do. So, absolutely, we’re thrilled with the galleries that are resident in 1275 Minnesota and coming in for temporary shows—we’re thrilled with the quality they’re bringing, and the quality of the collector community that’s coming through. But we’re doing this for the city as a whole, because we think that great cities need to have great art, and that’s where I say we hope the Burning Man analogy doesn’t apply.

admiring paintings at the Minnesota Street ProjectVisitors exploring the space

One thing that’s unusual about the Minnesota Street Project is that your approach is different from the way that galleries have thus far been trying to engage tech communities. If you look at art fairs like Silicon Valley Contemporary, where everyone brings a painting made by a drone or some sculpture referencing cryptocurrency, or the way that Pace has been producing immersive experiences, with teamLab in Menlo Park and soon James Turrell in their new Palo Alto space, it seems that the art market has been trying to reach out to these tech people through non-traditional art—as if to say, "We’re innovative, we’re tech savvy, and we’re not just about paintings you can hang on the wall." Yet, when I was looking through the first roster of artists doing your studio residencies, I only found one video artist and one other artist who does 3D-rendered video sculptures. Far and away, the majority are artists who are working with painting, sculpture, collage, photography—in other words, these very craft-evident traditional mediums. Why did you choose to inaugurate your program with these kinds of artists?

First of all, as an art collector who has been in the tech community for such a long time, it’s been really interesting to see how the international art world has been approaching Silicon Valley wealth [laughs]. I’ve seen this now from many different angles, and my observation is that the international art world is approaching Silicon Valley in the same way that politicians have approached Silicon Valley—like, “Oh, wow, there’s a whole lot of money there. We just need to figure out how to tap into that money.” It’s like the Willy Sutton quote. Why do these people come to Silicon Valley? Because that’s where the money is.

So, let’s just say that’s not the best way to go if you want to build trust and mutual understanding. Then, the second thing is that these people think, “Okay, Silicon Valley has money. Let’s see, what are they interested in? Oh, they’re interested in technology—we’re going to go try to talk their language.” There’s a name for that, and it’s called “pandering.” And so, when politicians have come to Silicon Valley, the mistakes they’ve made are, one, they’ve made it very clear that they’re here for our money, and, two, they’ve said, “Oh, we’re going to try to fool you into thinking that we really speak your language.” And it’s a little bit like projecting false hipness—the first thing you think is, “Oh man, I’m being manipulated here.”

So, the art world has made no secret that they want to tap into the money, thinking, “Technology people seem to like technological things, so let's present them with technological things.” Now, Deborah and I are very, very serious collectors of technology-based art, and we have enormous interest in and regard for artists who work with technology. It’s an important thread that cuts through our collection—we even have historical works that explored the use of older technologies. It’s interesting to think about how artists use technology, and there’s nothing inherently wrong, and a lot that’s right, with that kind of art. But if you’re looking to engage with people, it’s a mistake to think that they only engage with the things they do for work, right?  

Art is about a lot of things—it’s about society, it’s about aesthetics, and it’s about a lot more than the technologies that people out here have a role in creating in their day jobs. So, what the international art world should really think about as it seeks out a place here in Silicon Valley is how it can establish relationships that are more substantive than the relationships—or non-relationships—that politicians are establishing here when they come for our money. 

So, I have a lot of regard for what Pace is doing, and I think they’ve made a really interesting commitment to being down in the peninsula. They’ve been very smart about the spaces that they’ve taken, and the way that they program those spaces. They’re being extremely thoughtful about the way they’re learning about the community here, and about both the opportunities and constraints that operating in Silicon Valley offers. I hope more of that is what will develop.  

As far as the fact that only a few of the artists in our studios incorporate technology into their work, well, our process for filling out that roster was put in place by our studio’s director, Brion Nuda Rosch, who is himself an artist of significant international exposure who has been in San Francisco for a long time. Basically, the reason we’re doing these studios is that we want to support artists in San Francisco who are engaged with serious artistic practice, and whose ability to continue that practice is being threatened.

So, what does “serious artistic practice” mean? It means that you’re serious and thoughtful about the work that you create, and it’s either the primary thing you do or you’re trying to move to the point where it can be. The exact nature of the art was not something that we paid any attention to whatsoever.

The result is that we couldn’t be more thrilled with the roster, other than the fact that we could have filled the building probably four times over with the same quality of folks, given the number of people who were struggling here for studio space.

Now, one of the cultural divides that has really separated the world of tech from the world of art is that the innovations of Silicon Valley are built on metrics and data, whereas art generally speaks a very different language, and comes from a different kind of place. But I wonder, given your dual perspectives in tech and art, do you believe that artists can use some modes of Silicon Valley-style  thinking to emancipate themselves in any way, or make themselves more successful?

I hope not. If you think about the success of artists, it exists in two realms, and while these realms intersect, they don't perfectly overlap. One is how commercially successful an artist is, and the other is the success of their art, and how well they will stand the test of time. If you think about that—and forgive me, I’m an engineer, so I think this way—it leaves you with two questions: Is an artist successful commercially, yes or no? Does an artist’s work withstand the test of time, yes or no?

This gives you four quadrants, and we can name artists in every one of those quadrants, right? There are artists who are enormously successful financially but whose art doesn’t stand the test of time, like LeRoy Neiman or Thomas Kinkade. Then there are the artists who struggled their entire lives, died penniless, and are some of the greatest artists of all time—Vincent van Gogh, for example.  

So, when you talk about the success of artists, you have to think about the metric by which you’re measuring that success. This makes me very nervous to consider how artists can learn things from the technology world that will influence the success of their art, i.e., how their art will withstand the test of time. I think that’s really dangerous, because one of the things that defines really great artists is their level of creativity and the degree to which they experiment with lots of different things and don’t accept the world as it is and sometimes rebel against the status quo. And, yes, great artists will appropriate elements from technology or the current thinking of the times, but they’ll do it in ways that are subversive. And, yes, technology provides interesting tools that artists can experiment with. I’m just nervous about saying, “Hey, I’m from Silicon Valley, and I’m here to teach you how you can make better art.” 

The other side of the equation, clearly, is that artists are entrepreneurs—and this is something we stress to technology entrepreneurs all the time—and if you look at the qualities that artists who are commercially successful need to have, they are almost identical to the qualities that successful technology entrepreneurs need to have: a sense of drive and self motivation, a willingness to stick to a set of convictions even when everybody you meet thinks you're completely crazy, and a balance between a capacity to sit in a room, alone or with a small team, and knock something out, together with enough of an ability and desire to be social and evangelize to people about what you’ve invented. If I think about the leadership and motivational qualities of great entrepreneurs, all of the great artists I have known have embodied those qualities.

So, one of the things that Deborah and I are trying to figure out is how we can get tech entrepreneurs to recognize that, actually, when they meet artists, they’re meeting people who are in many ways like themselves. They’ve chosen a different career path, they live their lives a little differently, they’ve made different choices about how they balance aspects of their lives, but really they have an awful lot of things in common. If we can just mix people up and get them to get to know one another, I think we can reach that mutual understanding. 

guests at the Minnesota Street ProjectGuests at the gala opening

Let's pivot to the gallery sector, since that’s one area of the ecosystem that really does stand to be informed by some of the best practices of Silicon Valley—because the art market is rife with inefficiencies, and lack of transparency. Sometimes, when I see tech people at an art fair, I wonder if they are less interested in shopping the artwork than in shopping the model, trying to figure out how to disrupt the market. Because, if you think about it, today we live in the age of Uber, where consumers expect unmediated, streamlined experiences that put them directly in touch with the provider, i.e. the driver—or, here, the artist. Where do the dealers sit in this area of innovation, and how do you hope technology is going to help the market evolve?

That is a really excellent question that we’ll gain a better understanding of over time. You’re right—the marketplace is changing, and the marketplace has to change. There’s every reason to believe that if technology and shifting social norms are changing every other commercial marketplace, it has to change the art marketplace, and it will.

There are a bunch of different components at play in thinking this. For one thing, there are very few forms of commerce that don’t have an important online component, and there’s no reason to believe that the commerce of art won’t have an important online component, kind of like what you guys are exploring at Artspace. People talk about how art is different from other forms of commerce, and you can’t really see it online well enough to buy it. Well, in some ways that’s true, but in a lot of ways it’s not. So, I think you have to assume it’s inevitable that change will happen. 

For one thing, if you think about it, the art-fair experience reflects a lot of changes in social norms and how people expect to see things. There’s an equalizing function that occurs when you go through an art fair, where there’s a lot of art all together, that’s different from what happens when you walk through the galleries in Chelsea. I think the art-fair model reflects changes in society that are here for at least a number of generations, and the marketplace has to evolve to reflect that. 

So, what happens when a marketplace changes, as has in retail and a lot of other businesses? The first thing is that the people who have been in the business for a long time resist the change, because it’s threatening. Then they go through the stages of grief, the first one being denial, the second one being fear, and the third one being acceptance. We’re just about getting to the acceptance stage right now, where it’s like, “Okay, something’s going to happen, I don’t know what it is, but I probably want to be a part of it.”

So what we’re seeing is a lot of experimentation, and what we’re doing here, with our purpose-built building for multiple galleries with public gathering spaces and a restaurant, is our form of experimentation. We think creating this inviting, equalizing, but yet still very high-quality opportunity here is the best way to meet people where they live now.

Do you believe that the gallery model is going to survive long-term?

This is a big question. We’ve created a building for art galleries, and it’s going to take us decades to amortize the cost of that building. Will there still be galleries 20 years from now? Well, our bet is “yes,” for a couple of reasons. Intellectually, art does need to be experienced in the ways that it was intended to be experienced, and while there’s art that you can experience on a screen or in a big exhibition hall and have it work, there’s a lot of art where that doesn’t work—you need to see it in the kind of gallery space where the artist intended it to be experienced. So, unless we lose our appreciation for art that needs to be experienced that way, then there will always be places to experience it that way. 

But the other thing that I point to all the time is that the music industry has undergone enormous upheaval. It has been struggling for decades, and now online streaming has made it really hard for artists and record companies alike, and the whole business model has changed. It’s been a wrenching process—but, despite the growth of streaming and online consumption, the live music business is as vibrant as it’s ever been. And the reason is that there's an experiential component to the consumption of music that cannot be replicated other than in a social setting. 

So, I think the same kind of experiential component attaches to the appreciation and consumption of art. People are innately social beings, and we can’t fully satisfy our social needs through online interaction, so we continue to seek out ways to do things in person. And many forms of art require the kind of experience that a gallery exhibition provides, because people want the in-person experience and exposure—especially when people are learning about how to collect art and building their confidence in doing it. It’s hard to imagine how that happens other than through a set of in-person experiences. 

So, the gallery model will certainly change, and most of the galleries in our 1275 building are now in smaller spaces than they used to have, partly because we’ve provided some shared facilities and partly because what they used to pay in rent for a bigger space now goes to doing art fairs throughout the year. I think the way that people are working with their artists and programming their galleries will have to change to reflect the times. But we’re making a bet—and we bet a lot of money—that the notion of galleries is not an antiquated notion per se, and that galleries will continue to play an important role in the overall fabric of how art gets out there.

It’s so interesting that, in this view, the primary value of galleries, and the thing that won’t be disrupted, is simply the fact of having a physical exhibition space. To conclude, what would you say is at stake with the Minnesota Street Project, and what does your vision for success look like?

What’s been at stake is the ability of a thriving visual arts community to remain in San Francisco. What motivated us was the exodus, or a pending exodus, of the visual arts community, so success for us is first and foremost that the artists and the people who support them are able to figure out how to stay in San Francisco, and that instead of having a shrinking visual arts community here, we go back to having a growing visual arts community. If our project can play a role in doing that, we’ll consider it to have been very successful. 

The second thing we want to try to do is elevate San Francisco as an international arts destination. This is a place that has a lot of cultural history, and it’s the center of a lot of commerce. California is a Pacific Rim nexus, and we’re a gateway to large swaths of the rest of the world. When we think about the development of San Francisco over the coming decades, we hope San Francisco will only increase in importance culturally and economically in the U.S. and internationally, and that San Francisco will stand with the really great art cities like New York, London, and Berlin. If we can do these things, then that is what success would look like for us.


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