Art Silicon Valley/San Francisco (Art SV/SF) is Art Miami's new International Contemporary and Modern Art Fair on the West Coast. It ran October 9–12, 2014, in San Mateo, California.
"Ten dollars to park, thirty dollars for valet." —Parking attendant
I hand the woman in the booth a twenty. She makes change. The arm of the traffic barrier heaves itself out of the way. My Honda and I roll forward. We take in the massive unlit parking lot, the line of cars being waved into rows upon rows of spots. For an absurd moment, I wonder, What happens to those who go for valet? Do they hand over their keys and hoof it the quarter mile to the event center? As I inch ahead with the other self-parkers, I feel like I do when I’m in Las Vegas or Miami or Mississippi, surprised to be so unsurprised—by the scene, by the crowd, by the cars.
"It's a nice show for little San Mateo, huh?" —Bartender
I’m at my first International Art Fair: Art Silicon Valley/San Francisco. And it’s at the San Mateo County Event Center, home of beer festivals, gem shows, and bootcamps for job hunters. I feel very far from Venice. I am a snob, ruined by years of schooling on the East Coast, and returned, baffled and cynical, to the sunny, smiling West. In my ignorance, I find the prospect of a local art fair silly. How could the world possibly need another one of these? And why stick it in the suburbs?
"You just can’t rely on the collectors coming to you, so I think it’s important to cultivate new collectors into the market and bring them art." —Nick Korniloff, director
Turns out I’m the silly one. Turns out hosting an international art fair in a Northern California town best known as the birthplace of Merv Griffin is a fantastic idea. Millionaires and billionaires are minted here every day in the latest tech boom, and San Mateo is at the geographic center of it all—equidistant from San Francisco and the southern edge of Silicon Valley. The era of the destination art fair is over. The best destinations have been taken. People would rather get in an Uber than a plane. The era of the staycation art fair has arrived.
"Should we go this way?"
"Maybe we should go to the outside."
"Where would you like to go?"
"I have to find her!"
I make my way through the parking lot, counting the rows between my car and the dark bulk of the event center. I know I’m getting close when I see the pop-up Maserati showroom and a phalanx of flacks with clipboards and headsets. I present my credentials, cross the threshold into the event space, and am immediately, hopelessly lost. It’s like I’ve stepped into a bizarro Costco, where everyone is wearing fancy clothes instead of yoga pants, and there are samples of sparkling wine instead of chicken sausage, and there is art instead of three-pound bags of dried mango. But it’s still fridge-like and utilitarian, with high ceilings and no windows. It’s still a warehouse, where everyone is spending more money than they intended to. And everyone is having a blast.
"Hey honey? I'm here with Charley by the VIP lounge." —Visitor
The VIP area, a gated community in the center of the fair, is a helpful landmark. Since I’m here for the VIP preview, I’m not sure who the hell these very VERY important people are who have access to the lounge. But if I were one of them, I’d be finding it hard to relax. They’re fenced in like gazelles, on display for me and all the other schlubs on safari. I skirt the lounge, sneaking glances at those on the other side of the fence. They appear to have come from Europe by way of Miami. The men have elegant stubble on their chins, cheeks, and scalps. The women are thin. Everyone is very tan. And looking bored.
"There's so much T and A in the art here." —Visitor
I roam the galleries. The work on the walls teaches me about the organizers’ perception of the new Silicon Valley art collector. This collector loves Andy Warhol and Banksy and Dave LaChapelle—bad boys who have been reified by the art world. He (and I do mean “he”—eighty-eight percent of Bay Area software engineers are men) will pay top dollar for sculptures of guns, drawings of porn stars, paintings of graffiti, paintings of Mickey Mouse, paintings of Steve Jobs, paintings of Bart Simpson, paintings that look like Bart Simpson made them. There is plenty of thoughtful, subtle art—there’s plenty of everything—but the overall impression is of candy, work that’s more tasty than tasteful.
"Can we bring this one back and get a credit toward a larger piece?" —Visitor
The new Silicon Valley art collector is here to buy. He is a man now, with a new house and a gorgeous fiancée. He needs to get something to fill a wall in that house. It’s a big wall, so he wants something big. It’s a modern house, so he wants something modern. But it’s also Tuscan style, his fiancée reminds him, and he has no clue what to do with that. He is an engineer. He is most interested in the measurable aspects of the piece. What are the dimensions? What does it cost? What’s the return policy?
"We can look at the art and then go grab something to eat. What time is it? 8:30?! Okay, wellllll, we’ll pretend we’re New Yorkers." —Visitor
I swim around the fair for an hour or so, sipping a glass of cold white wine, dipping into conversations and galleries. Despite (or perhaps because of) all the sensory stimulus, the experience is nearly frictionless. I am numbed by the maze of art cubicles, the delighted screams of forty-something blondes who minored in art history ("This is like a weird version of a GiacoMETTiiiiii!"), the trailing mumbles of their huffy men ("Excuse me? We just broke a glass here."), and the fawning overtures of the gallerists ("It's very collage-based. You see a lot in it. Like that? That's clearly a head.") My senses are muted by the sameness of the difference. Eventually I drift out into the night, feeling like a ghost, having avoided buying, selling, or even talking during my visit. A few rows into the parking lot, I begin obsessively clicking the lock button on my key, praying for the Honda to make its humble confirming toot, to know me, and to take me back home to Oakland.