GRIFF WILLIAMS


SFAQ issue 4, Gallery 16 & Urban Digital Color, by Gregory Ito, Winter/Spring 2011
Im sitting with Griff Williams in Gallery 16 on another rainy, cold day in San Francisco. Griff, can you talk about your background and your involvement with Gallery 16?

Well, I am an artist and I came to San Francisco to go to the graduate program at SFAI, this was 1991. And upon getting out of the graduate program there, I decided to start an exhibition program and was really interested in the idea of connecting myself to the community of artists that were living in San Francisco. A lot of the things I was interested in showing, I didn’t see being shown in other venues. So, right after I got out of graduate school, I launched Gallery 16 with a partner who started Urban Digital Color in 1993. What are the primary goals of Gallery 16?
Well, I guess they’ve changed a bit over the years. For a long time I saw it as an extension of an artist’s studio because we are involved in so many different activities related to artmaking. I think the fundamental tenet is the idea of giving artists the freedom to use our space, equipment and resources in the way that they want to--the idea of giving artists the freedom to experiment in the space. I’ve always bristled at the notion that we’re strictly a commercial gallery or that we’ve operated in the service of the marketplace. We really don’t. We’re not advocating for the benefit of collectors, we’re advocating for the authority of the artist. In some ways, I think we’ve always kind of operated in this kind of chasm between the alternative space and the commercial space; it’s kind of a hybrid of these two things.
Can you tell us about the relationship between Gallery 16 and Digital Urban Color?
The Gallery and the Fine Art Press have always had a kind of symbiotic relationship. In the early days of our business, like every young alternative space, we found ourselves having a very difficult time making ends meet, strictly by virtue of what we were selling. So we wanted to have a revenue stream that would allow us to have more flexibility and take greater chances in terms of what we were showing. So the Press was really designed to function two ways: One was to be able to act as a resource for artists and photographers around the nation, and also to be able to provide a revenue stream to fund the exhibition program. I mean, it’s ebbed and flowed over the years. In the early days, UDC was really critically important to the economic survival of Gallery 16, and nowadays, G16 makes more money than the Press does. So, it has supported itself in different ways over the course of its history.
So it’s the co-existent relationship between UDC and Gallery 16 that enables survival in the current art market today?
Well, in the early days the printing and editions and publishing that we were doing made up the lion’s share of the revenue that we were making. We always kind of thought of it as our version of listener sponsored radio. People that were hiring us to make editions were supporting the artists that we were inviting to present exhibitions at Gallery 16. We didn’t advertise it that way necessarily, but we were spending the money that was generated through the printing press on the artists projects and installations that the gallery presented. Nowadays, because we’ve been around for 16 years, the art market has grown up around us, the artists that we’ve shown over the years have increased in value, so, the gallery probably makes the lion’s share of our revenue. But it is still important that the businesses function in tandem. Every artist that we invite to participate in the exhibition schedule is invited to publish an edition or a book or a multiple of some kind. So in that way, it’s kind of like an artist residency.
How has the fight surrounding federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts shaped the model that became Gallery 16?
Before I went to graduate school, I spent some time in Washington DC lobbying Congress on behalf of artists spaces--like Artist’s Space in New York and Highways in Los Angeles. During this period, federal funding for the arts, particularly as it related to the National Endowment for the Arts, was dwindling rapidly, and under attack. This was absolutely true for the arts program for individual artists. So when I finished grad school and was thinking of ways to develop a self-sustaining exhibition space, the idea of creating a non-profit model made no sense to me whatsoever, partly because I felt like the pool of resources that arts organizations had at their disposal was diminishing. The religious right and the conservative Congress at the time wanted to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts entirely. The NEA has always been a great leveraging device to raise private money. The amount of money that the Federal government spends on arts every year is a paltry sum, but it leverages a great deal of private money. When the leverage is gone, so goes some of the private interest in philanthropic endeavors. I did not want to become a full-time fundraiser, and I certainly thought that the notion of following this traditional non-profit model would make me a full-time fundraiser. I figured that the support of these projects would be better realized if I just funded it myself. So I think the culture wars, this period in the 90s where we were fighting over the value of supporting the visual arts as a country...I think that really helped set the tone for me deciding to go on a more entrepreneurial path with the business.
You guys talk a lot about the development of technology and the growing relationship between technology and art. How does your programming present this?
Well I think we talk about it because it was so fundamental to the way we started. Gallery 16 as an exhibition program hasn’t ever been primarily invested in work that is made with technology. It has not been a curatorial focus or a specific interest of ours from the standpoint of the artwork that is made. But, rather, it afforded us all these opportunities to exist. In the early 90s when we started, we were amongst only three other places in the country that used the kind of printing technology that we had for artistic purposes. We used it to allow artists to experiment. I think we broke some ground from the standpoint of the kinds of things that were being made with technology at the time. Certainly some of the early shows that we were doing were seminal exhibitions with artists like Lynn Hershman and Rebecca Bollinger. Many of these artists have gone on to do really amazing things with technology as a function, in part, of their studio practice. But, for us, it was both a resource opportunity--a way for us to make money and be self-sustaining--and also to offer the technology to artists to create something new. So it was like the best of both worlds. We had this equipment, and we wanted to use it to produce artwork.
Are you the primary curator of the space?
Well, I own it, so yeah, I get to do what I want. But, I’ve been fortunate to have great staff over the years. Vanessa Blaikie and Troy Peters are totally involved with every aspect of the business. There is constant conversation about the kind of things that we are going to be exhibiting and publishing. It’s a community effort around here, but, yes, ultimately the decisions are mine.
Does Gallery 16 focus on solo shows or group shows?
Solo shows, primarily. The space has always been run from the perspective of an artist. Right from the beginning, I knew I wanted to create a place that I would want to show in. It was important to me that artists understand our faith in them. That faith extends itself to the question of group shows versus solo shows. We’ve always felt that it was important to allow artists to do precisely what they want in the space, as a mechanism of support, as opposed to the group show mentality, which is more curatorial driven. I wouldn’t say that we are totally anti-curatorial in principle, but we’ve definitely favored allowing artists to develop bodies of work under their own conditions. In that way, I think it’s more supportive of the individual artist, rather than imposing our curatorial conditions upon them.
Gallery 16 was started in the Mission?
Potrero Hill. 1616 16th Street. That’s where the name came from.
Now you’re in the SOMA South Beach Area. Can you talk about this transition?
The difference in communities, and the progression or digression of the artists community in these areas. The whole notion of the “arts community” is a funny one. The community of artists is one thing, and that was initially the community I was interested in connecting with. As an artist myself, I wanted to know the other artists that were working here, and have interesting dialogues about what people were up to. But the buying public, the viewing public, that’s a very different thing. The people who are going to come to Michelle Grabner’s show are not necessarily going to come to Lowell Darlings. We have a show of photographs, and people who collect sculpture don’t go to see photography. There isn’t one art community. People talk about it like there is, but there isn’t. There are a lot of different little communities. We used to be on Potrero Hill with a third floor walk up, squirreled away--you couldn’t see us from the street. You really had to know that we were there to even be aware of our existence. It was really a destination, there wasn’t much around. CCA hadn’t opened their campus up yet, the Center for the Book hadn’t opened. Now, we’ve moved to this corridor between the ballpark and SFMOMA, we’re on street level, and very visible. It’s fundamentally about more visibility and providing more attention to the artist that we’re working with, which was kind of the point all the way through.
Can you discuss on your thoughts in regards to the city of San Francisco in comparison to cities like Los Angeles and New York?
In terms of the quality of artwork that’s produced, and the artists that live and work in those communities, it’s not radically different. There are certainly conceptual differences between the objects that are made in LA, New York and San Francisco. But I think that artists that live in this city make a distinct decision to be here because of the obvious benefits of living in a place like San Francisco. Clearly different from the urban sprawl of Los Angeles, and the density of New York, and the careerism that accentuates both of those places. San Francisco is a different kind of community in that way. It’s never supported the arts in terms of the marketplace in the same way that places like LA and NY do. But I think it gives artists much more freedom to explore here. It allows for the opportunity to create a life in the arts as opposed to a career in the arts.
When did Gallery 16 start publishing?
We started publishing just a couple of months after the businesses opened.
What was Gallery 16’s first published book?
Well we always invited artists to create something while they were exhibiting with Gallery 16. So again, it was just a way of experimenting and learning about the technology and the methods of printmaking forms that we were investigating at the time. Every artist that we invite has the opportunity to create something different. So we had to figure out a way to make those things--it was a big learning curve. In the early days, we were making really complicated hand-bound books, and limited editions. Special collections libraries and book collectors were collecting them. The prints, books and multiples we were making were expensive and complicated to produce. Our publishing now is often a response to those early, really expensive and limited production runs. It was disarming to realize that we weren’t even able to afford the things we were making. We found ourselves selling artwork to a community of people who could afford it. These people weren’t our peers. So we started making books that were much cheaper to own and hopefully would spread the word a little more, in a more populist way. But, to answer your question, I think Ann Chamberlain’s “Stain” was our first published book.
So you publish books so that the artist’s work can be more obtainable?
That’s one reason. It’s definitely more true to the original concept of printmaking. The printing press was designed to communicate with as many people as possible, so our efforts now are more in that spirit for sure. “I think the fundamental tenet is the idea of giving artists the freedom to use our space, equipment and resources in the way that they want to--the idea of giving artists the freedom to experiment in the space.” Charles Linder Margaret Kilgallen, 1997. Stephen Hendee. Sonny Smith performs.
What are some of the benefits that come with printed material in contrast to the internet and the free forms we see on the web?
Well, I’m not sure that we aren’t watching something disappear before our eyes. The nature of the printed page seems to be really important to certain communities and utterly irrelevant to others. I’ve got a 15 year-old and he consumes every bit of information that he gets from the media online. He has a very different relationship to the printed book, or printed material in general. I may be simply embracing a kind of nostalgia. I mean, its truly important to me; I understand that this discrete physical object has a beginning and an end, a tactility, a physicality that has been carefully designed. But, I don’t know if it’s important to the coming generations. Having said that, I don’t think these ideas are mutually exclusive. I think both can and should exist in the world; they represent fundamentally different ways of experiencing information.
Can you talk about the new book Gallery 16 is publishing?
We are really excited to be publishing a book about the last 16 years of the gallery. It’s called “These Are The People In Your Neighborhood.” It’s a look at the life of Gallery 16, and there are about 75 artists represented in the book. There are probably another forty artists that didn’t get into the book because of space limitations, which is a shame because I would have loved to include them all. There are essays by Maria Porges, Glen Helfand and Mark Van Proyen. I think it is an interesting story of how we’ve merged these businesses and created a new model for art support. But it’s also a rich history of the Bay Area’s artist community. There are some amazing artists that we have had the opportunity to work with over the years. And we felt like it was really important, at this point in our history, to look back and honor the artists that we have had had the pleasure to work with.
Are there any shows that we can look forward to at Gallery 16?
In January and February we will be presenting recent editions we’ve produced with Shaun O’Dell, Amy Ellingson, Stefan Kirkeby and Inez Storer. We are going to follow that up with a show of new work by Deborah Oropallo. In May we will present a show with Tucker Nichols, a local superstar. He’s becoming a real fan favorite in San Francisco. Throughout the year, we have exhibitions that sprinkle new artists like Jared Sprecher that we’re showing for the first time, with artists we have worked with for many years like Rex Ray in September.
Any shout outs or special thanks?
I have so many, I wouldn’t know where to start. I owe a huge debt to everyone who has made it possible for us to continue. We’ve made it through some really turbulent times with the support of so many people in this community. San Francisco is an amazing town that way. I don’t think we could have made this particular business model work in any other city in the country.