An Art Insider on Art, Tech, and San Francisco

In May 2012 the Creators Project, the lovechild of VICE media and Intel, took over San Francisco’s Fort Mason with an epic celebration of art and technology. The two-day event, which featured monumental interactive art installations, hackathons, and an appearance by the city’s mayor, seemed to herald the future convergence of art and tech in San Francisco, and highlighted the way digital artists are capitalizing on groundbreaking new forms of technology. Several articles last year suggested the wealth coming from San Francisco’s second-wave tech boom is driving a new collector base among tech workers that museums and galleries alike are vigorously courting. Within the city, there have been murmurs from galleries that this patronage has yet to be seen. We caught up with Sabrina Buell—a San Francisco-based art advisor at Zlot Buell + Associates and Stanford alum (a university with close ties to Google and Silicon Valley), to shed some light on San Francisco’s hotly debated art world, as well as her own collection.

Artsy: There have been mixed reports about whether a new tech-world collector base is emerging alongside the boom in San Francisco—have you seen evidence of such a base?

Sabrina Buell: Absolutely. When you think about contemporary culture on a global scale, so much of it is defined by new technology, specifically by the work being done at many of the companies here in the Bay Area. The founders of these companies are all extremely creative thinkers, and there is a resonance between their thinking and what contemporary artists are thinking about. Many of these founders, and their employees, are starting not only to acquire art, but also to get engaged on a civic level with art and culture. It’s very exciting.

Artsy: Can you give examples of the tech community’s engagement with culture in the city?

SB: Two recent examples are Leo Villareal’s Bay Lights public art project, which received a lot of support from the tech community, and SFMOMA’s current off-site project in Los Altos, with site-specific installations by artists such as Chris Johanson, Jeremy Blake, and Spencer Finch. It’s been a great way for the museum to connect with the Silicon Valley community, and it received generous financial support from Los Altos locals.  

Artsy: What are tech-world collectors buying? Do certain artists appeal to them?

SB: One trend that is commonly assumed, but is wrong, is that people in the tech world like to collect “tech art”—new media or art with screens, or that incorporates computer technology into the work. That’s not the case. Tech-world collectors are interested in smart, new ideas. But this can be new ideas in painting, sculpture, or new media. People in the tech world are nonconformists as a rule. So the great thing is that their collections tend to be highly personal. There isn’t an overarching trend or artist they are all going after.  

Artsy: Do you feel that living in San Francisco has shaped your own collection? You own works by Barry McGee—do you collect other San Francisco-based artists?

SB: My collection is almost entirely made up of works by artists, or sold by dealers, with whom I have a close personal relationship. Because I’m based in San Francisco I’m close with many of the great artists and dealers in this community, so yes, we have Barry McGee’s work, and on the opposite side of the spectrum we have Robert Bechtle’s work.  

Artsy: What would you love to acquire for your collection?

SB: In terms of San Francisco artists, I’d love to have a Vincent Fecteau sculpture or something by Bruce Conner.

Artsy: Where do you go to look at art locally? How do you discover local artists?

SB: I love the SECA program at SFMOMA that supports new art by Bay Area artists by giving an award every two years. I also love our local galleries, such as Ratio 3, Jessica Silverman Gallery, and Altman Siegel Gallery. And some of the more established galleries such as Fraenkel Gallery, Anthony Meier Fine Art, Berggruen Gallery, and especially Paule Anglim. She is a living legend!

Artsy: What makes San Francisco a distinct arts scene and how do you see it developing over the coming years?

SB: San Francisco has long been a vibrant collecting community, with incredible patronage, and SFMOMA, one of the very best institutions in this country. I think this will all be strengthened and reinforced in the years to come as the collecting base gets larger and the museum expands. It’s also important to note the other great things happening in the Bay Area now such as the new expanded home for the Wattis Institute at CCA, and the new building for the Berkeley Art Museum by Diller Scofidio + Renfro set to open next year.

Sabrina Buell with her collection of surfboards by Barry McGee. Photo by Winni Wintermeyer.

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