Amid Ferocious San Francisco Rental Market, Apartment Galleries Proliferate

  • Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo with her solo show at Lago Projects. Photo by Sarah Burke.

    Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo with her solo show at Lago Projects. Photo by Sarah Burke.

To visit Oakland’s Nook Gallery, head to a duplex on 51st Street, walk up the driveway into the quaint backyard, and enter the red door in the back of the house. Once inside, proceed into the kitchen and slide onto one of two benches that make up what was once a built-in breakfast nook. You have arrived.

Run by artist and curator Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo, Nook is one of many semi-underground galleries located in apartments and houses across the Bay Area. These art venues occupy living rooms, garages, basements, bedrooms—and breakfast nooks.

Some have regular open hours and publicly posted locations, while others require appointments and divulge their whereabouts only upon request. The model makes it possible for Branfman-Verissimo and other home gallerists to showcase art despite the increasingly high cost of rent in the Bay Area.

For many, this approach is also an opportunity to investigate the possibilities of curating outside of the white cube—liberating artwork from the pressures of commerce, while also encouraging a more intimate and casual relationship to art-viewing.

  • Sydney Cohen’s work on view at Nook gallery. Photo by Sarah Burke.

    Sydney Cohen’s work on view at Nook gallery. Photo by Sarah Burke.

At Nook, Branfman-Verissimo intends to curate objects as much as conversation. Pieces hang inside a cozy architectural cubby in which visitors sit, drink tea—or sometimes share a meal—and discuss. Outside of her social practice intentions, Branfman-Verissimo started the space a little over a year ago because she noticed a lack of venues dedicated to showing emerging queer and non-white artists.

“I don’t have money to go rent a storefront, so I’m like, ‘How do we support the most people in the space that we’re already in?’” says Branfman-Verissimo. “I already have people over for dinner, why not have strangers over to look at art?”

Home galleries have long satisfied the Bay Area art scene’s DIY and experimental leanings. Some residential project spaces in the region have existed for up to 10 years. At times, even blue-chip art is shown in houses—such is the case with Anthony Meier Fine Arts, the acclaimed gallery that occupies the ground floor of a gorgeous 1911 mansion in San Francisco.

Renowned San Francisco sculptor David Ireland’s former San Francisco home, meanwhile, opened to the public as a museum last year. And as Bay Area residents wrestle with one of the country’s most merciless real estate markets, apartment galleries appear to be proliferating at an unprecedented rate.

  • Works by Sarah Ann Weber and Brian Rochefort on display at SOME.TIME.SALON. Courtesy of Anna Nearburg.

    Works by Sarah Ann Weber and Brian Rochefort on display at SOME.TIME.SALON. Courtesy of Anna Nearburg.

For the past two years, full-time San Francisco art dealer Anna Nearburg has been curating monthly art shows in the dining room of her Duboce Triangle Victorian duplex, under the moniker SOME.TIME.SALON. For each, she throws an intimate dinner party at which eight people sit down with her and the artist for a four-course meal catered by a local chef.

The goal is to give prospective buyers an entry point into the Bay Area’s tight-knit art scene, and cultivate a connection to the work. “If you’re not a writer or a curator or a gallerist, when do you get to sit down with an artist and talk about their work?” says Nearburg.

The amount she saves by holding shows in her home more than makes up for the lack of a storefront—especially since spontaneous walk-ins rarely turn out to be actual buyers. “It saves you a ton of money, so maybe you can actually not go broke in the process of building the client base that you need to sustain a business,” she says.

  • Anna Nearburg with work by Lauren A. Toomer. Photo courtesy of Miranda Lee Morgan.

    Anna Nearburg with work by Lauren A. Toomer. Photo courtesy of Miranda Lee Morgan.

For other home curators, however, staying out of public view is a way to avoid having to think about selling art. Rachel Cardenas Stallings, who co-runs Oakland’s Lago Projects with her husband TJ Thomander, says that she sees curating as an extension of her own art practice—not a business—and doing it out of a domestic space allows her to keep it non-commercial.

“We really, really wanted to live with the art,” says Stallings. “If it wasn’t in our home, it would change how we view the process and the way we curate and the artists that we work with. Because we are a no-budget operation, we’re able to take higher risks.”

In the process of relocating to Oakland last year, Stallings and Thomander specifically sought out a mixed-use space for the purpose of showing work by historically underrepresented artists. At Lago, the front door opens into a gallery that looks typical, until you see the small kitchen and closet in the back. A staircase on one side leads up to a hidden loft where the couple’s bed is tucked into an alcove lined with books.

Branfman-Verissimo happened to have a solo show at Lago last fall, for which she filled the gallery with sculptures. Any time Stallings and Thomander wanted to leave the house, they had to maneuver around the installation. For the curator duo, this was a small price to pay for the experience of being so close to the art.

“When it was taken down—it sounds cheesy—but I started to tear up,” says Stallings. “It became part of our home, and when it left, it left this huge hole.”

  • Works by Jeremy Ehling seen from outside 100% Gallery. Courtesy of Evan Reiser.

    Works by Jeremy Ehling seen from outside 100% Gallery. Courtesy of Evan Reiser.

  • Installation view of work by Takeshi Moro at 100% Gallery. Photo by 100percent.gallery, via Instagram.

    Installation view of work by Takeshi Moro at 100% Gallery. Photo by 100percent.gallery, via Instagram.

San Francisco artist and gallerist Evan Reiser can attest to the addictive quality of curating in one’s home. Reiser started City Limits gallery in his apartment at the edge of San Francisco in 2012. After two years when he had to relocate, the gallery graduated into its own brick-and-mortar space in West Oakland.

Reiser still co-curates City Limits, but the more traditional gallery setting wasn’t satisfying his itch to start another apartment venue. In early 2015, he opened 100% out of his bedroom in his Mission District apartment. (When people come to visit, he moves his mattress into his studio down the hall.)

At 100%, Reiser curates shows that are more playful and off-the-cuff than what City Limits has evolved into exhibiting. He also toys with the art-viewing experience by presenting the gallery as a speakeasy of sorts—offering minimal information on the website, and requiring visitors to request the address via email.

“I just love the weirdness of having people over every once in a while for an art opening, and cramming them into this small space,” says Reiser. For minimal curatorial effort, he sees considerable returns. “It’s just not that hard to do,” he says, “but it’s really rewarding.”


—Sarah Burke