Soft Times Gallery sign of downtown San Francisco arts revival

A cluster of young galleries have opened a few blocks from Market Street

By Max Blue

Special to The Examiner

Emerging from the sloth of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been reevaluating the landscape of the visual arts in San Francisco. At a glance, it seems like it has all been pushed to the fringes — mostly the Dogpatch, beginning with the opening of Minnesota Street Project in 2016 and continuing with the September opening of the Institute of Contemporary Art in the same location.

With downtown shuttered for much of the last 24 months, the consortium of galleries at 49 Geary Street are abandoning the building one by one. Add to that, the Museum of the African Diaspora and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts going quiet through much of the pandemic (both have now reopened) and SFMOMA cutting several public-facing programs last year.

But look a little harder, and you’ll find a cluster of young galleries a few blocks north of Market Street. In fact, a new one opened just the other day.

At 905 Sutter Street, Soft Times Gallery is the most recent addition to the growing arts corridor, which includes Glass Rice, Hashimoto Contemporary and Rebecca Camacho Presents — to name a few.

The gallery’s co-founders, director Sarah Choe and curator Brent Hayden, who is also an artist, began curating pop-up exhibitions in 2017. Identifying a disparity between art institutions in The City and opportunities for local artists led them to open Soft Times Gallery. Their aim is to show emerging artists in a high-end gallery setting.

“It’s either really gritty and DIY, or it’s really high end and inaccessible,” Choe said. “We want to be able to show art in that very polished, traditional gallery manner, without the barriers that are often in place [for artists].”

“We’re just trying to keep it real,” Hayden said, adding that he is determined to respond to every cold call he receives from artists interested in showing at the gallery, an attitude informed by navigating his own career as an artist.

While the pandemic presented a challenge for viewers to see art in person, Hayden says that people spending more time at home has led them to “appreciate having more art on their walls,” citing upticks in both collector interest in his own work and his own desire to collect art.

Soft Times Gallery launched with an online auction in February 2022, the proceeds of which went into building out the brick-and-mortar location. The focus going forward will be on exhibitions and events in the physical space, rather than online, a program the gallery is supplementing with a quarterly print magazine.

The first issue of the Soft Times Quarterly includes interviews with artists the gallery works with, features on other San Francisco art spaces, poetry and an art-themed crossword puzzle.

“It’s another way for us to connect with the community,” said Choe.” In that way, I hope the magazine helps to create more of a community around this gallery.”

Featuring work by 25 artists, the inaugural exhibition at the gallery reflects the community Hayden and Choe hope to serve and is a good sample of the sort of work they intend to represent in subsequent shows — mostly pop-surrealist and abstract paintings in bright colors that feel easy to approach and pleasant to look at.

If the pandemic has been a reason for The City’s downtown to go dormant over the last two years, maybe a counterweight to that upheaval can be a reason to revive the area again.

“The gallery’s name is a reference to the hard times we’ve all been through the last few years,” Hayden said. “Come by for some soft times.”

IF YOU GO:

Soft Times Gallery

Where: 905 Sutter Street, S.F.

When: 12-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday

Contact: (415)400-5165, softtimesgallery.com

The gallery’s co-founders, director Sarah Choe and curator Brent Hayden. (Courtesy Soft Times Gallery)

The gallery’s co-founders, director Sarah Choe and curator Brent Hayden. (Courtesy Soft Times Gallery)

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