When you can buy a Picasso alongside a year's supply of toilet paper, art becomes just another commodity. Of course, works of art have always been bought and sold, but many artists, dealers, and collectors have been careful to distance themselves from everyday commerce. The market has traditionally been defined by the notion that fine art is somehow separate from (and implicitly better than) popular, mass-produced goods. Selling art at Costco is the ultimate affront to this prejudice.
But while the warehouse mega-retailer takes a blunt ax to snobbery, more and more San Francisco businesses have been quietly redefining what it means to appreciate and buy art. At places like Giant Robot, Fifty24SF, and Adobe Books, art rubs elbows with books, clothing, furniture, and toys. Compared to the hushed, pristine spaces of museums and galleries, these shops reflect a much more lively and casual relationship to art. You might pop in to try on some sneakers or flip through a magazine and end up discovering (or even purchasing) a masterpiece.
There may be no bigger insult to an artist than to suggest that a painting "goes with" the couch. But at high-end furniture store Limn, matching art to decor is a virtue. Although it also operates a separate, museum-quality gallery, Limn often displays paintings among the furnishings in its showroom. "[Art] often sells better in the store, when it's shown in relation to product, than in the gallery," says owner Dan Friedlander. Customers who may never have considered buying a work of art on its own feel more comfortable making a purchase when they can see it as part of a real-life setting. Limn's unconventional strategy enables people to envision art as part of their everyday lives.
A disregard for the conventional boundary between art and shopping appears to be a hallmark of local retail/art ventures. Jafön Hakkinen describes Receiver, his design studio, art gallery, and retail store, as a "supersmall, multitasking sailboat." With paintings on the walls, T-shirts and books on the shelves, and Hakkinen behind a computer at the back, the tiny one-room storefront in the Inner Sunset is a center of creative synergy. Receiver produces and sells clothes and posters designed by artists who've shown there, and has recently begun collaborations with fashion designers and musicians. The medium seems to matter less than creativity and camaraderie. "The exhibitions have cemented our relationship with the visual art and design community," he says. "In addition, all of our apparel is screen-printed at Ashbury Images, a local nonprofit [that] provides employment opportunities, job training, and support to individuals recovering from substance abuse and homelessness."
Similarly, Rocket World, a Potrero Hill store that sells collectibles and pop ephemera, makes regular donations to wildlife organizations. While habitat preservation and designer toys may seem like an odd mix, owner Patrick Ma reflects his concern for endangered species in his own series of animal action figures. (Titled "Insurgents Wilderness Gruppo," the collection depicts members of a homicidal troupe of mutant animals bent on saving the world from destructive humans. Oh my.) According to Ma, there's no distinction between toys and works of art; they're all part of the "cult of the object." "Rocket World is simply a venue for a presentation of objects from a particular cross-section that I and other like-minded primates enjoy," he declares. He adds, "We would like to be an example of the possible future in alternative retail; art, contemporary independent culture, and measured, responsible commerce."
"Alternative retail" abounds at Needles and Pens, the brainchild of partners Andrew Scott and Breezy Culbertson. In addition to art, the Mission District store sells zines, books, and DIY clothing; unlike at other gallery/shops, everything at N&P is sold on consignment. Although its products come from the art, craft, and publishing underground, its business model more closely resembles that of a traditional gallery, in which the proceeds are split between the store and the artists. Because it doesn't have to pay for inventory, N&P can afford to offer more diverse, unusual, and frequently low-cost products, although Scott notes that only about 30 percent of its art offerings could be considered "affordable."
Businesses like N&P are important because, simply put, people like to make stuff. Everyday art cave drawings, tattoos, velvet paintings, hot rods has been around as long as people have, but it has seldom made an appearance in the hallowed halls of museums and galleries. Increasingly, skateboard and graffiti art are showing up in downtown galleries. And "outsider" artist and musician Daniel Johnston, who's been known to sell his marker drawings for money to buy Diet Coke, was recently included in the premier exhibition of American art, the Whitney Biennial. So why not buy a painting because it matches the couch?
My resistance to this idea stems from a deep-seated notion that freedom of expression and market forces don't mix. The idea is that if you're expressing yourself truly and honestly, you can't be driven by filthy lucre. This supposed "purity" of art is a sacred cow, but it's also the last shred of a humanistic ideal in which hopes and dreams are independent of commercial forces.
Yet in a world dominated by international brands, merchandising is simply the most effective way to connect with an audience. The impetus to possess and collect is, for better or worse, the primary way in which we define ourselves in the world. Perhaps "alternative" retail is a way of channeling art's anticommercial impulse into a more pragmatic form. Instead of hypocritically denigrating commerce by pretending to rise above it, these businesses use it to foster new forms of creativity, community, and yes, consumption. Hey, if a designer coffee table gives you insight into an abstract painting, I won't call you a sellout.