By Erin Bank
The small but vibrant art scene in the Sunset District has always been focused on creating a community, a sanctuary, and a way to communicate the current hardships facing humanity.
Galleries have needed to make drastic adjustments since the March 17 shelter-in-place order was enacted to slow the spread of COVID-19. They persisted through the growing pandemic, the wildfires ravaging Northern California, social unrest, financial insecurity, neighborhood construction projects, and – in one case – a heart attack.
Despite their own struggles, local galleries remain in service of the artists they support and the neighborhoods they inhabit.
John Lindsey opened the doors of The Great Highway Gallery on Lawton Street at 43rd Avenue in 2011. The most unique aspect of his small, quirky space is the outside window display. Although the display may seem perfect for a world in which gatherings are prohibited indoors, getting artists on site to dismantle and install their pieces was nearly impossible at first.
John Lindsey of The Great Highway Gallery. Courtesy photo.
To add to the challenges, Lindsey suffered a heart attack in May and subsequent heart surgery early in September.
“I’m a rule-follower anyway, and then I get a heart attack, and suddenly I’m high risk, which made everything even more challenging,” he said.
Following his heart attack, instead of opening his doors by appointment like other store fronts, he installed a camera in his gallery, allowing visitors to his website to view the art from more than 100 artists – 95% of whom are local to the San Francisco and Bay Area.
“Because of the window, I’m still able to give the community an experience 24 hours a day, and that’s kind of neat,” Lindsey said. A street permit obtained from the City helped designate viewing space for the window display. He added a sign outside with instructions to donate to the gallery’s Venmo “tip jar,” which helps the exhibit earn a little bit of money.
In addition to updating his online store to include a wider range of price points, Lindsey also plans on expanding the capacity of the digital printing studio in the back of the gallery.
The Far Out Gallery on Taraval Street at 40th Avenue also made adjustments to re-create the gallery experience online.
“We opened with trepidation,” owner Anne Herbst said. But she taught herself how to record and post videos of artists speaking about their work and increased her social media presence to adapt to fewer visitors and maintain a connection to the artists despite the loss of standard opening parties.
Anne Herbst of the Far Out Gallery. Courtesy photo.
The foot traffic is also down at the Far Out Gallery due to the smoky air in August and September and the ear-piercing construction on Taraval Street. She keeps updated schedules and videos on the gallery website and in her newsletter.
The San Francisco Women Artists (SFWA) Gallery on Irving Street at Eighth Avenue suffered a major setback when their annual fundraiser – at which they expected to raise more than $30,000 – had to be canceled because of COVID-19.
Although artists are applying for membership and submitting pieces at a higher rate than normal, the gallery has suffered from a drop in foot traffic both due to COVID-19 and the unhealthy air quality due to the Northern California wildfires.
Gallery Director Janice Rumbaugh (right) works at her computer in the San Francisco Women Artists Gallery at 647 Irving St. Two new exhibits have recently been installed and the gallery is now open full time. Courtesy photo by Pam Borrelli.
The SFWA organized an online auction, something they will keep doing even when they are able to have in-person fundraisers again. The gallery also now has an online store. A grant for small galleries will help their doors stay open for the year, but the future is unpredictable.
“There is uncertainty of our historic organization remaining sustainable,” said SFWA Board President Pam Borrelli.
All three galleries are struggling to make ends meet. Yet they are guided by their mission that art is especially important in trying times.
The pandemic and racial unrest are “affecting all of us,” Lindsey said. He sees art as equal parts escapism and communication for both the artists and the consumers.
“I question the importance of the gallery all the time,” he said.
That mindset allows him to constantly evaluate the role he plays in the Sunset neighborhood and in the art community.
“I believe most powerfully that art is for everyone,” Herbst said.
She maintained this connection to her neighborhood community at the beginning of the pandemic by inviting anyone who wanted to submit a small piece of art to be hung in the gallery window. Soon, the entire window front from the ground to the ceiling was covered in art, connecting the gallery directly to the outside world.
All three gallery owners say the gratitude of their neighbors keeps them going.
“Everyone who comes in says, ‘We’re so glad to see you open,’” SFWA Gallery Director Janice Rumbaugh said.
Gratitude is not all they need, though, Lindsey explained. He emphasized the importance of donations and sales in any amount, which all galleries rely on to keep going.
“I can’t have an opening where I’d make sales,” he said. “But I feel pretty positive, it’s an opportunity to expand my prints and smaller items.”
The Great Highway Gallery is located at 3649 Lawton St. It is open Thursday and Friday, noon-6 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., Sunday, noon-3 p.m., and by appointment. For more information, visit www.thegreathighway.com, email email@example.com, or call (415) 680-3891.
Far Out Gallery is located at 3004 Taraval St. It is open Thursday to Sunday, noon-6 p.m. and by appointment. For more information, visit www.faroutgallery.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (415) 463-5537.
San Francisco Women Artists Gallery is located at 647 Irving St. It is open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sunday noon-4 p.m. and by appointment. For more information, visit www.sfwomenartists.org, email email@example.com or call (415) 566-8550.