As gallerist Claudia Altman-Siegel celebrates a career milestone, she finally takes a moment to catch her breath.
Since decamping from New York to San Francisco a dozen years ago, Claudia Altman-Siegel has witnessed myriad changes, big and small, in the City by the Bay. Quirky businesses, like the women’s spa on Valencia Street that had a sauna made from a wine barrel, have mostly disappeared. House-hunting was a much easier task, with apartments that included amenities such as parking and a balcony not costing an arm and a leg. But, according to Altman-Siegel, at least one thing has remained a constant: San Francisco’s appreciation for art and culture. “Everyone in the art world here is really in it for the long run,” she says. And she should know: 2019 marks the 10th anniversary of Altman Siegel Gallery (altmansiegel.com).
In 1997, armed with an art history degree from Barnard College, Altman-Siegel landed at the blue-chip Manhattan gallery Luhring Augustine. She started as a security guard, keeping a watchful eye over a small Jackson Pollock. When a position in the registrar’s office opened up, she stepped in. Within two years, she was named senior director. “I was working at a high level, at the top of the market,” she recalls. “That’s where I really learned how the art world worked.”
After 10 years at the gallery, she began noticing a trend in the New York art scene: Everyone appeared to be preoccupied with money and auction prices, rather than creativity. So when her sister was transferred for work to San Francisco, a city known for its originality and a burgeoning art scene, Altman-Siegel decided to follow suit.
“I thought, This place is magical,” she says. “It just felt so creative.” Still, she soon discovered a void in the local art market: “There were few galleries showing a international roster of young artists,” she explains. “This seemed like an exciting opportunity for someone with my set of experiences to champion my contemporaries.”
A decade on, Altman Siegel Gallery is a preeminent contemporary gallery in San Francisco, having established itself as a force on the local, national and international levels. Altman-Siegel makes it a priority to stay in constant conversation with curators and collectors by traveling the globe for art fairs. She even serves as the only American committee member for Artissima, the venerable contemporary art fair held annually in Turin, Italy.
Her artist-first approach and tenacious New York attitude have cultivated the likes of the Bay Area’s own K.r.m. Mooney, a recent recipient of SFMOMA’s prestigious SECA Art Award, and sculptor Zarouhie Abdalian, whose work was featured in the Whitney Biennial in 2017. “Claudia introduced my work to international collectors,” says Abdalian. “While I was exhibiting internationally, selling is a different thing. That definitely would not have happened without her.”
San Francisco-based painter Liam Everett met Claudia more than 10 years ago in New York, where the pair bonded over coffee and art. He’s been represented by Altman Siegel Gallery since 2012, and received a SECA award five years later. “I can count on my hands the number of art dealers who take the risks that Claudia takes,” says Everett. “When she opened her gallery, she really went for it. She took massive risks. She’s incredibly bold.”
Since launching, Altman-Siegel has grown her roster from nine artists to 21, as well as moved her 1,800-square-foot business from Union Square to a 5,000-square-foot warehouse that is part of the Dogpatch hotbed, Minnesota Street Project. During this time, she also became a mother of two.
“When I was a gallery director working somewhere else, I thought I was working really hard, but actually I had no idea,” she says. “I’ve had to grow myself as a boss and as a businessperson, then add in the learning curve of having children and becoming a parent — which is really steep.”
To celebrate her 10-year milestone, Altman-Siegel hosted a party in late April that also served as the kick-off for a one-week show that featured all of the gallery’s artists. Fifty percent of its proceeds were donated to Tipping Point, a nonprofit that works to fight poverty in the Bay Area. Next up, painter Jessica Dickinson’s exhibition runs May 9 through June 22, while photographers Sara VanDerBeek and Richard Mosse have shows slated for later this year. The latter, an Irish photographer focused on documenting the refugee crisis across the world, will simultaneously present his works at SFMOMA in October.
“I’ve been trying to find international artists who are doing important work that would resonate with San Francisco,” says Altman-Siegel. Among the newer additions to her program is Berlin-based Simon Denny, whose art explores cryptocurrency and the future of a decentralized internet
Clearly, Altman-Siegel isn’t slowing down.“Being a gallerist is a lifetime of work and being at 10 years, it’s still like a startup in a certain way,” she says. “I want my artists to become more established — to watch their work not only appreciate in value, but for them to become part of the art historical narrative. I want to get out of startup mode. And I think that will happen naturally with time, but I’m pushing to continue growing.
Ask the Experts
So, you’d like to build an art collection, but don’t know where to begin? These San Francisco gallerists are here to help. — Compiled by Alan Bamberger
“Get an idea of what types of art excite you. Ask plenty of questions; don’t be afraid. The best investment in art is buying something you love and can live with for the rest of your life.” — Catharine Clark of Catharine Clark Gallery.
“When you are fortunate enough to meet someone educated in art and the art-making process, who can teach and inspire you, then listen to what they have to say with an open heart and mind…. Never let dollar amounts interfere with your desire to learn about or appreciate certain works of art.” — Hackett Mill’s Francis Mill
“Ask yourself whether you are interested more in the art itself or more in what it’s worth. If you really love it and it does go up in value, you probably won’t want to sell it anyway.”—Dianne Dec, Hosfelt Gallery
“If a dealer promises you a great return on your investment, that’s a perfect time to walk away.” —Brian Gross, Brian Gross Fine Art