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The Art World’s Problem in Silicon Valley

By Cristina Schreil

Can museums and galleries turn techies on to the arts? (Adam McCauley)

With much of the Bay Area working in tech, museums and galleries explore efforts to engage a younger generation.

At PACE Palo Alto in January, I pointed a tablet toward Picasso’s Couple With Cup. It’s a work, pulsing with grays, of two lovers on the verge of a tangled embrace. After scanning the painting with my camera, which seemed somewhat taboo in a gallery, new interactive layers mushroomed forth on-screen: Photographs and paintings populated around the couple. It felt like Pokémon Go, for art.

This experience of marrying art and technology — created especially for the exhibition by Local Projects and Stanford professor Alexander Nemerov — befits PACE Palo Alto. The gallery branch opened in 2016 in a town famously rife with innovation. At the time, some wondered if high art would flourish right in the heart of Silicon Valley.

“It is no surprise to me that everyone is embracing it,” says Elizabeth Sullivan, PACE Palo Alto president. She described a diverse demographic and high community interest. PACE’s promotion of its large Picasso exhibition seemed to target the tech crowd, with language highlighting connections between Picasso’s rule-breaking ingenuity and tech’s drive to innovate.

We’ve been doing this — speaking the language of tech — since our first days in Palo Alto,” says Marc Glimcher, president and CEO of PACE. Like Sullivan, he says there’s local interest. “I never believed that the tech community wasn’t interested in art. I just thought they would come at it from a different perspective. … One thing I have noticed is that the tech community doesn’t want to be told what to like or buy, but to experience for themselves and make up their own minds.”

With tech jobs reaching record highs in 2019, with more than 800,000 people working in the industry, other Bay Area arts institutions are mindful of luring this demographic.

“San Francisco has an amazing history of collecting, but with most people in the Bay Area now working in tech or tech-adjacent industries, museums and galleries have been expanding efforts to engage the local community in the arts,” explains Kelly Huang, a director of Gagosian San Francisco, which opened doors in 2016 in SoMa. She notes that the tech community represents most of San Francisco’s younger generation— a coveted customer base. “Engaging that group has been one of the goals since we opened the gallery.”

Museums also consider this. “I think every arts institution and/or cultural institution in the San Francisco Bay Area is perennially looking to more deeply engage with the tech industry at large,” says Sarah Bailey Hogarty, director of marketing and communications at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. It’s been a predominant question for a decade, “in terms of collaboration, funding donations or trustee membership, et cetera.”

Many exhibitions have probed the intersection of art and technology — two things that, for Bay Area artists, often co-exist. The region has also long been home to top art collectors. Tech leaders are now among their best-known advocates, including Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Jeff Bezos and Sean Parker.

Sarah Wendell Sherrill, co-founder of Lobus, a data-driven operating system for the art world, says easy access to information is key. “Traditionally, collecting has started in the later part of people’s lives. With that said, millennials are the fastest- growing segment of collectors, especially in Asia,” she explains. “They are culturally very aware, exceptionally well-traveled and sophisticated, who value experiences. But millennials are a generation of wanting to know as much as possible before committing — a generation powered by Google, Zillow, Amazon.”

For Mark Sabb, senior director of innovation and engagement at the Museum of the African Diaspora, art and tech have potential symbiosis despite any gulfs. “At the end of the day, everyone needs art.”

Sabb mentions tech companies’ grand lobby art and initiatives such as Facebook’s artist in residence program. Cultural institution boards feature tech leaders.

Sabb, a digital artist whose wife works in tech, noted a curious, often tense relationship. Many tech friends don’t know creatives other than him. As leadership champions art, tech employees seem less likely to visit a museum, Sabb muses. He describes artists as having “no interest in the tech industry or [having] a pretty contentious relationship with the tech industry.” Despite recent reports of an exodus amid high housing costs, more techies are still flocking here, according to the California Department of Finance. “A lot of people, they’re here because of a job, not necessarily to embrace any cultural feeling,” Sabb theorizes. “I think that’s a really big shock for the Bay Area.”

Another factor could be a lack of interest among younger people, signaling a gulf potentially driven more by age than profession. That’s John Berggruen’s perspective. He established his Berggruen Gallery in 1970, and since then, it’s witnessed the growth of San Francisco from what Berggruen’s father described as “the end of the world” to a large art collecting town. He recalled the ’80s and ’90s, when tech entrepreneurs were an “important ingredient of [his] clientele.” These days see less of that. “Maybe it’s because it’s become generational,” he muses. He sees young professionals strolling past his gallery, but fewer entering. “It’s not necessarily driven by the tech world as much as it used to be, I’d say.”

In order to dissolve barriers, an institution must delve into the complexities of how tech has terraformed San Francisco. Things that once lured artists have evaporated. Many galleries have left downtown, with artists and studios pushed further. “They feel like they’ve been displaced by the tech industry,” Sabb says of artists.

Sabb describes MoAD adopting a heavier focus on tech engagement for the past few years, with strategies hinging on how people work: Events with extended hours can accommodate grueling tech schedules. And they’ve considered how companies, with sprawling campuses, function more like self-sustaining cities, creating fewer incentives for employees to branch out beyond. MoAD considers bringing programs to companies; art can become anchors for deeper ethical and cultural conversations, tapping into existing diversity and inclusion initiatives, for example.

Huang at Gagosian also painted similar philosophies. Exhibitions that focus on works demonstrating innovation and diversity appeal to contemporary San Franciscans. Sometimes engaging means unleashing from gallery spaces. One example: two sculptures by Giuseppe Penone recently installed at Fort Mason.

“People in tech do spend a lot of time within their company’s worlds, so we try to engage with them through what is familiar to them,” Huang explains. As Sullivan at PACE Palo Alto echoes, there are also opportunities to make the gallery multidimensional — with company events or private walk-throughs. Glimcher, PACE’s CEO, mentioned events catering to multiple generations: reading sessions for families and a library of exhibition catalogs and artists’ books that are open to all.

Still, in the Bay Area, many leisure activities compete with cultural institutions for attention. Plus, when techies do get involved in their communities, they might be more passionate about investing in and prioritizing causes other than art. A deeper strategy, says Bailey Hogarty, is to tap into Silicon Valley’s sweet spot: “the curiosity economy.” Collaboration may be key. “Going to tech companies and saying, ‘Hey, you should support arts and culture because arts and culture are important to the health of a civilized society,’ that didn’t always get through the door,” Bailey Hogarty says. “But if you go to those companies and say, ‘Hey, we have this really interesting and thorny problem that we would like to work with you to solve’ … that’s when you really will get that time and energy to come forward.”

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