Ritchie: Art is good real estate

Some might interpret the title as a reference to the hopeful rebirth/purchase of the tragically shuttered San Franciso Art Institute campus by Steve Jobs’ widow, as it is one of the most spectacular pieces of real estate anywhere. It is two acres on Russian Hill with the incredible twist that the Diego Rivera mural it comes with might be worth more than the land underneath.

But this is San Jose of course, although there is a tie-in to that story herein.

Locally there was a real hit piece in the media this month from a study funded by Joint Venture Silicon Valley that came up with a clickbait grim-line that about 80% of locals never use our downtowns. It included San Francisco and Oakland to spread the pain.

Not to dwell on why a business-promoting nonprofit think tank would cheerfully publish this, but it does beg the question what that same percentage would have been in the Before Times. God help us if 100% of the population showed up at once downtown, I am sure it has always been a minority that do. That demographic is arguably a more curious and risk-taking crowd that has long tired of the droning retail stroll in our increasingly “Truman Show” lifestyle malls of the world. Downtowns are always meant to be more experimental and cultural. Art-based urban revitalizations have been commonplace throughout the history of the world. Sorry suburbias, not from there.

The picture accompanying Joint Venture’s study was a non-street level view of the long wall of the San Jose Museum of Art (SJMA) banner, a picture that by definition couldn’t show any people as it does not show the street below it. Ironically in that same spot a week earlier was the museum’s annual gala, a sold-out affair that made the circle of palms glow with warmth, donors, artists and high-level auction-action, followed by a jam-packed DJ party inside with Mayor Matt Mahan twirling on the floor. Executive Director Sayre Batton has really raised the bar. The honored artist Enrique Chagoya gave the most impassioned speech about the effect of his art on his life and that of others.

Another of the best bets with public money was the Redevelopment Agency (RDA) cash used to fund a partnership between SJMA and the Whitney Museum of New York in the mid-90s. This was a historic and unprecedented partnership between two museums that allowed SJMA to curate custom shows using the Whitney’s own coveted permanent collection, arguably the largest trove of 20th century contemporary American art on Earth.

San Jose had a beautiful brand new and empty 40,000-square-foot wing, also partly funded by the RDA, but a minor permanent art collection. Thus the idea of the groundbreaking partnership with the New Yorkers that lasted seven years with three major 18-month exhibitions.

As a board member then and later board chair, I reveled at the luxury bus full of Whitney trustees humming to a stop in front of SJMA, for some it was like a trip to Borneo. Anything west of New Jersey for that crowd is a foreign land, other than Aspen. I mean these were the richest of the rich, nearly billionaires all who collect at the tip of the art spear. San Jose?

It was an absolutely brilliant and smashing success that put SJMA and San Jose on the art palate of respectability and renown. It was good for the Whitney too. To this day many in the art world consider SJMA as the model of a local museum advancing the lives and messages of regional artists and their constituents. Other big city museums that shall remain unnamed have become more big donor social climbing gyms than true care havens for local artists, not so for SJMA. But it was fun watching cosmetics emperor and consummate New Yorker Leonard Lauder descend those bus steps dressed practically in a pith helmet.

One cannot understate the role art plays in the urban cores of all cities. The Reno-ssance that gets so much media is the best current Western example, that started as the hubcaps flew off the RVs returning from Burning Man, it was totally organic. And it doesn’t hurt that Reno has an endless supply of flat earth, nearby minerals, sunshine and interstates to fuel the solar battery-ecommerce-EV Megillah that is upon us for commercial eternity. But it’s the art story that gets the notice, same now for Las Vegas if you consider a 10-story roving eyeball to be art, which it truly is.

San Jose has been so good at nurturing Bay Area figurative artists, almost all of whom went to school on Russian Hill at the aforementioned SF Art Institute. Even weirder, many of them were my teachers at Cal Berkeley in the late 70s as I completed my practice of art minor there as a young painter.

Those were energetic days in the Bay Area. I used to chain smoke and drink espressos at the cafe across from Kroeber Hall with my favorite teacher, the late great figurative artist Joan Brown—arguably the leader of that particular group in the Bay Area. Oddly Kroeber Hall was also the anthropology building at Cal that was somehow overtaken by the art gang as it had the best studio geometry. Funny mix of bones and canvas.

Roll tape many years forward and here comes a Joan Brown exhibition carefully shipped from the Whitney and hung on our walls at SJMA. My side-act art life came full circle for me at that moment. SJMA also broke ground with pioneering big museum shows for David Best (think Burning Man temple Dalai Lama), Andy Goldsworthy (using nature to create art unlike anyone) and digital artist Jim Campbell (think Salesforce Tower) when digital art was considered blasphemous by other museums. Same with Nam June Paik (loved his duct taped tennis shoes, a total eccentric) and then even more recently Leo Villareal (think Bay Bridge lights). Leo’s show was seminal for him, plus the idea of the Bay Lights was hatched inside those very SJMA walls as a result.

All of these world-renowned artists will bend your ear about their respect and love for SJMA and the honesty of San Jose in general.

So, let’s respect the role art plays in the narrative of urban cores. We are in a transformative time, let’s do it with style and fun this time.

San José Spotlight columnist Mark Ritchie is the owner of commercial real estate brokerage firm Ritchie Commercial, and has spent his entire career in commercial real estate. His columns appear every second Wednesday of the month. Contact Mark at [email protected].

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