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Secrets of Catharine Clark

By Michelle Konstantinovsky

No one can attest to this city’s ever-changing landscape like a San Francisco native. As one of the rare unicorns born and raised within city limits, the gallery owner has been along for much of the wild ride from the Summer of Love through today’s tech boom. Returning to SF in the late ’80s after studying at the University of Pennsylvania, Clark discovered her birthplace in major transition, coping with the AIDS epidemic, economic recession and infrastructure damage from the earthquake, which hit Hayes Valley particularly hard.

“The fact that the area was depressed, however, enabled me to start my gallery, with no financial backing at the time, just optimism and a day job,” Clark says.

The space went through a series of moves before landing in its current home, the DoReMi District, the burgeoning art scene where Dogpatch, Potrero Hill and the Mission meet. “These areas have each gentrified and can no longer offer affordable, large space to contemporary galleries or artists,” she points out.

This struggle to claim artistic territory is central to Clark’s mission as a gallerist. Today, Catharine Clark Gallery is a critically acclaimed venue for modern artists working in a variety of media. And although the mom of two often works overtime, she wouldn’t change a thing. “I’m fortunate my profession is also my passion,” she says. “So the fact that there’s little division between my gallery life and personal life is exciting rather than oppressive.”

According to Clark, art education needn’t be stuffy or boring. Try her “multi-pronged approach” to art appreciation.

Get a map of DoReMi. Clark was an integral part of founding the arts district, which includes more than 70 arts spaces, including galleries and museums. “The area is a great way to get an education about contemporary art and have access to purchasing artwork across a wide spectrum of prices,” she says.

Find a gallery-going buddy. “It’s like taking a friend shopping at an upscale boutique; suddenly, trying on clothes is less frightening,” Clark advises. And don’t be afraid to ask busy gallerists questions about the work. “I can guarantee most of us would rather be talking with the public about an exhibit than paying bills or editing catalogues.”

Join an organization like SFMOMA’s Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art. “You’ll be treated to visits at artists’ studios and you’ll have greater access to the voice and insights of museum curators,” she says. “You’ll also build a network of fellow art enthusiasts.”

Get involved with nonprofits and residency programs like the Headlands Center for the Arts, which offers open houses. “You can look at artwork about the environment and then go hike in it,” Clark explains. Bonus: The resident chef whips up great food. Clark also recommends visiting art school galleries like The Wattis Institute, which are free, open late some evenings and present cutting-edge pieces “that will expand your understanding of what contemporary art can be.”

Seek out artsy environments. “On Tuesdays, when I drive my son to and from soccer at the Beach Chalet fields, I use the two hours while he is at practice to see what’s on view at the de Young,” Clark says. “When I go out to eat, I often take people to Aatxe, or Flour and Water, or the Upstairs, since the gallery curates the artwork on the walls at those eating establishments.”

How Not to Art Shop. “Don’t buy wallpaper!” Clark cautions. “Think about artwork that makes you think, that won’t become decoration or backdrop, that you can continue to return to and find new meaning in over time.”

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