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White-Wall Destroyer

Wendi Norris thinks she’s found an answer to San Francisco’s art-market dilemma: Abandon the gallery.

Wendi Norris is closing her eponymous Jessie Street gallery in favor of a new, mobile approach to showing artists’ work.

The traditional art gallery model—hanging solo or group exhibits every month or two in a stylishly antiseptic white-walled space—is no longer sustainable, Wendi Norris says. Not for her, and not for so many other San Francisco gallerists. Whether edged out by rent increases, declining foot traffic, or the proliferation of art fairs and online sales, numerous downtown San Francisco galleries have gone dark or packed up for more affordable spaces in recent years. Now even the survivors—including Norris’s eponymous 5,000-square-foot gallery space in SoMa—are experimenting with alternative strategies. “I’m trying not to use the word disruptive,” Norris says about her latest gambit. “But yes, it is.”

Norris is among those looking for a new way to effectively sell art in 2018. This month, she’s shuttering the Jessie Street gallery she’s operated since 2009 in favor of what she’s calling, a bit oxymoronically, a “targeted and global” approach to representing her stable of artists, a vision she first articulated in a widely shared essay on titled “Why Uprooting My Gallery Space Is the Best Thing I Can Do for My Artists.”

If Norris is the latest to (wince) disrupt the traditional gallery model, it’s by transforming herself from stationary presenter into roving art-world location scout, pairing her artists with spaces around the globe where their work will best resonate. Her first projects will include showing Julio César Morales’s new work inside the stunning cantilevered Torre Cube (built by Catalan architect Carme Pinós) in Guadalajara, Mexico, and an exhibit by María Magdalena Campos-Pons in an abandoned warehouse in the Presidio that once housed orphaned Vietnamese refugees.

“Where shall we go and why?” Norris says of her new guiding principle. “I want to step back and say, ‘Where is this body of work best suited? London? New York? L.A.? Which collector circles and museums pay the most attention to your work right now?’” Anthony Meier, who has had a gallery presence in San Francisco for 20 years and is vice president of the Art Dealers Association of America, nods to Norris’s pivot as one example among many of a rapidly evolving gallery world. “This is a retail business, and retail is always changing,” Meier says. “So being mobile, a little unpredictable, and nonconformist brings excitement.”

The struggles of San Francisco’s middle class of galleries are well-documented, as more than a dozen have either closed or moved away from downtown in the past five years, according to the San Francisco Art Dealers Association. Many others, like Norris, are breaking away from the traditional gallery model, including FraenkelLab, a Market Street offshoot of Jeffrey Fraenkel’s venerable photo gallery focused on alternative programming, and Wirtz Art, an Oakland spin-off of Union Square’s now-dark Stephen Wirtz Gallery. There’s also the single-destination Minnesota Street Project, a concentrated art-scene revitalization effort that opened in spring 2016 and houses 14 galleries in Dogpatch.

Despite all that flux, Norris says, local spending on art, especially among the new-wealth techie set, is booming. Yet both she and Meier cite the gallerist’s challenges of competing with rapidly multiplying online art auctions and destination art fairs and overcoming local buyers’ tendency to look to New York, rather than here at home, to build their collections. The key is finding a new way to appeal to those buyers. “There’s no guarantee with any of this,” Meier says, “but spicing it up is a good thing.”

For Norris, the change of plans is more than that: It’s an economic necessity. A self-professed data junkie (she left a marketing position with a data storage company to launch her gallery), Norris records detailed information about clients and buyers—their artistic interests, price range, referrals, and so on—the depth of which she says few other local galleries can match. “I mean, who uses Salesforce for their gallery? I did!” Norris says with a laugh. “The interface is super robust and allows me to understand my clients and where they’re coming from.” After crunching the past four years’ numbers early last year, she found that just 10 percent of her sales had originated from exhibits. “An artist would come and put together this amazing exhibition, and nothing would sell,” she says, pointing to otherwise standout shows like Wolfgang Paalen’s Philosopher of the Possible, Val Britton’s massive paper installation Deluge, and Ana Teresa Fernández’s breakout exhibit Erasure. “But the moment I took [the work] out and put it into a museum show or took it to an art fair, voilà, it was gone.”

Norris says she’d heard similar complaints from others during her two years as board president of the San Francisco Art Dealers Association: “I had one local gallerist tell me he hadn’t sold one thing out of an exhibition in over a year.” Ranu Mukherjee shares her gallerist’s frustration. The Mission district artist, who has had three solo shows at Gallery Wendi Norris, says of her most recent exhibit, in May, “I was really excited about this body of work, and not that many people saw it. There were no reviews.” Regarding Norris’s new direction, she says, “It’s exciting to be part of a conversation: Where will we go? What will it look like? There’s all kinds of potential there.”

Norris’s 2.0 launch will come this month with the opening of her “global headquarters” inside a new building at 8 Octavia—which, she stresses, is not a gallery, although it will display works along a 20-foot-long street-facing wall. First up will be Mukherjee’s.

Locally, Norris plans to host pop-up exhibits in vacant commercial and mixeduse spaces, as well as sites in various stages of construction. A cocurator of the massive installation by San Francisco light artist Jim Campbell atop Salesforce Tower, Norris counts mega-developers Boston Properties and Related as clients, giving her no shortage of potential sites around San Francisco. Her first site-specific project is If I Were a Poet, an exhibit of new work by Campos-Pons, the Afro-Cuban photographer and painter, opening on January 11 on Crissy Field. After that will come the show for Morales, an SFAI graduate, in Guadalajara— which the Mexican-born artist calls “hotter, more of an art-world destination right now, than Mexico City.”

After that, Norris is planning a new exhibit from Fernández, like Morales a San Francisco artist, whose shimmering Dream was recently installed on a Bernal Heights hillside overlooking Highway 101. “She wants to present her next project near a body of water,” Norris says. “We spent 90 minutes yesterday talking about where to go with her work. Miami, pros and cons? New York, pros and cons? Where are we going to have the biggest impact? I’m looking at the data.”


Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco

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