The Politics of the White Cube: A Call for Alternative Exhibition Spaces in SF

The New Saatchi Gallery. London, UK.

Have you ever walked into an art gallery and had the feeling that you’d crossed the threshold of a tomb? The sterile white walls and the hushed whispers demarcate a sacred space. This territory is known only as “the white cube.”

We all know the formula: white walls + appropriately spaced framed artwork + title cards = reserved artistic space that inherently warrants out respect. We slowly and reverently walk from piece-to-piece, our hands clasped, pausing only briefly to tilt our heads contemplatively. We mutter in agreement about the use of color to the companion(s) we brought along with us. We observe cultural rules and etiquette surrounding gallery spaces, but why?

The answer is as complex as the question, but what I want to highlight is the counter-movement that has challenged the conventions and expectations of the white cube.

I am a proponent of democratization of art. Put simply, I think a diverse artworks should be readily available to the public with all pretense left behind.

Alternative exhibition spaces allow people to interact with art on a more personal level without feeling self-conscious about their opinion; my experience with many commercial galleries is that if you don’t have a certain look (read: don’t look like you have money to spend on art), then you’re readily dismissed.

Our comrades in arms in Chicago have flourishing do-it-yourself communities who have crafted a brilliant and accessible alternative: apartment galleries. People exhibit art in their living spaces, post hours when they’ll be at home, and open their doors to the public.

San Francisco, I love you, but you’re bringing me down. If there are unconventional exhibition spaces out there, they aren’t making nearly enough noise! San Francisco is seven square miles of artistic potential that has only been partially tapped.

Bottom line: Exhibition spaces around the city have to make a choice: they either exhibit cutting-edge pieces or they create a revolutionary space. It’s my observation that they gravitate towards the former, and thereby leaving the realm on unconventional exhibition space wide open for anyone brave enough to take a chance.

There are plenty of galleries who showcase emerging artists working with experimental materials and ideas, however many of these venues still align themselves with white cube conventions. Why aren’t more venues and individuals taking risks?

The following spaces and others like them arguably have a corner on the market for accessible alternative exhibitions:

– The Shooting Gallery and White Walls, both owned by Justin Giarla, that are committed to showcasing emerging artists and a variety of mediums. The name White Walls critiques the notion of a conventional art space… but does this space do much to subvert the norm? Sure, the art that has been exhibited is far from mainstream, but do the bones of the structure support the reform that its name suggests?

The SUB: The SUB has been a great friend to Artlarking in the past, and has opened its doors to a number of collaborative efforts.
Incline Gallery: Home of the San Pancho Art Collective. This architecturally quirky space also strives to nurture Bay Area artists.


I would particularly like to point out the burgeoning culture in cafes that exhibit art. Places like Ritual Roasters, Four Barrel, and The Summit SF showcase local artists, and when it comes to democratization of art, this is a great jumping off point. There are people out there who do not actively search for the next hip art opening, but they do enjoy their morning cup of coffee. These caffeine-hungry individuals should have access to art without having to search near and far. Additionally, a number of salons around the city have begun exhibiting artwork. I’d also like to mention the success of the Lower Haight art walks; hundreds of people attend and enjoy the casual spaces where they can see the work of emerging artists, socialize, and have a great time.

The point is, there is an audience that is ready and eager for spaces that diverge from the cold, formulaic, and exclusive white cube aesthetic.

If you know of any unconventional exhibition spaces around the Bay Area, please leave a comment. Let’s get this conversation started.

4 thoughts on “The Politics of the White Cube: A Call for Alternative Exhibition Spaces in SF

  1. Pingback: The many manifestations of public art in San Francisco. |

  2. Pingback: The many manifestations of public art in San Francisco « Untitled Work in Progress.

  3. Pingback: Controversy in local and regional art |

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