HANG ART: The Original Egalitarian Gallery Celebrates 10 Years in the Biz

HANG ART’s Ten Year Anniversary: "Then and Now," June 1- June 30, 2008, Opening Reception June 5, 2008 6-8pm; HANG ART & HANG ART annex; 556 & 567 Sutter Street; San Francisco 94102, 415 434 4264; Mon-Sat 10-6, Sun 12-5 (annex hoursTues-Sat 10-6); http://www.hangart.com/

When Shanna McBurney founded HANG ART 10 years ago, the idea of posting price tags next to the art was considered gauche by other gallerists, but the customers loved it.

Over the past 10 years, HANG ART has evolved to play an important role in the community as a “starter” gallery for collectors, artists, and arts professionals alike. Man-on-the-street reviews posted on yelp.com are effusive: “low-key, unpretentious, nice.” For some collecting virgins, HANG is the only gallery that they can recall by name. Many a HANG artist sells enough work to paint full time.

The appeal to new collectors is obvious: a comfortable atmosphere created by friendly, down-to-earth customer service, eggshell colored walls (because that’s the color your walls are at home), a rent-to-own program, and a thirty-day full refund return policy. The average price point is $1500 with plenty of choices under four figures.

As many as 60 artists are represented by the gallery, all from the Bay Area, all painters and sculptors, all ages (currently 21-74). HANG's practice of displaying one example of each of its artists' work at all times is unique and is a great way for a rookie collector to decide what styles of art she likes. Customers are cheerfully beckoned to the enormous stock room to see more if they express interest in an artist on display.

350 artists submit their portfolios every year. Staff scour ArtSpan’s annual “Open Studios” and the local BFA and MFA shows. Each artist is reviewed by the entire staff, many of whom are artists themselves. Senior staff serve on jury panels; future participation includes Director DJ Harmon helping out at an Academy of Art show and Manager Denise Ruiz at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery.

HANG benefits from heavy foot traffic on its busy block of Sutter between Powell and Mason: tourists sent over by the Sir Francis Drake concierge; students filtering in and out of the Academy of Art campus buildings; ladies-who-lunch teetering up the hill on their way to the Francisca and Metropolitan clubs; and of course the masses of regular folk going in and out of 450 Suffer all day.

Tobias B. Wolff, former professor of law at UC Davis, now with UPenn, credits HANG with getting him into collecting. “It was HANG that introduced me to the idea of collecting artwork. The staff are uniformly knowledgeable, friendly and enthusiastic, and they talk about their artists like family. I feel very fortunate to have found them.” Wolff has gone on to purchase 12 more pieces for his collection since his initiation in 2003 with “Kristin: Homage to Chuck Close,” by Kevin Moore. After "Kristin," nine came from HANG and four more Moores from Hespe Gallery.

Many an artist who got his first break at HANG has gone on to galleries that also feature the work of mid-career and established artists. Alums whose work will be on display at the June 10th anniversary show include Kevin Moore, who graduated to Hespe in 2004, Anna Conti, now with Newmark, and Saundra McPherson, now with Andrea Schwarz.

Nick Coley is a typical example of an artist who is hoping to join the ranks at HANG. This Beaux Arts-trained 37 year-old has been featured in group shows around town over the years but hasn't yet been able to reach the brass ring of gallery representation. His vibrant oil paintings of urban landscapes are the intimate vistas only the locals know: a look up the north flank of Divisadero; the Richardson Bay overpass; the wide expanse of asphalt parade ground at the Presidio Main Post. He’s built up a following that pays the bills from meeting collectors while out and about painting plein air. However, Coley would prefer to split his profit with HANG in the hopes of finding an even wider audience.

HANG has been good for Addie Shevlin’s business. McBurney discovered Shevlin in the continuing education program at CCAC (now CCA) in 1998. Shevlin paints abstract landscapes with an Asian influence. Over the years she has sold hundreds of pieces through HANG and has caught the eye of many local collectors, including Rick Turley and Brendan Koon, and Kim Swig. Knowing that she had a solid customer base at HANG has allowed her take risks and as a result her work continues to evolve and grow.

Unsurprisingly, Shanna McBurney, who excelled in her undergraduate elective art history classes at Pomona, was an art world outsider when she launched HANG. As a newly minted Stanford MBA with a background in marketing medical devices she decided to apply her sales know-how to selling art. At one point in the earl 00’s, HANG had four locations: 556 and 567 Sutter, University Avenue in Palo Alto (closed 2003 during the last recession), and a partnership with Canvas Café Gallery at 9th and Lincoln (shuttered 2007).

McBurney has always had confidence in her staff, and for a long time now has been completely hands-off. Current and former employees speak highly of McBurney’s empowering leadership, and many go on to positions of increased responsibility in the art world following her tutelage.

Michelle Townsend was director of the Sutter Street location from 1998-2004. She’s currently the director of Portola Valley’s SPUR Projects but soon will be managing the international exhibition of “The Missing Peace” full time and returning part-time to the consulting business she founded in 2004 called Art Scout. “Shanna McBurney gave me tremendous freedom to recruit artists and create the exhibition program. This freedom went hand-in-hand with the need to test HANG as a [place] to have a first-rate customer experience.”

Lea Feinstein, a former studio arts professor at prestigious east coast institutions before her tenure at HANG, is now a full-time artist and widely published writer in high profile art publications such as ARTnews. She was the director of the Palo Alto location from 2001-2003. Feinstein is proud of HANG’s pioneering mission and felt a great deal of freedom under McBurney to shape the programming: “I wanted the gallery to be a place where people could learn about art, and where artists could grow and develop while they sold their works...a place where any question was an OK question.”

Christian Frock, now Associate Director at Catharine Clark Gallery and also curating her own venture, invisiblevenue.com, was Associate Director of the Palo Alto branch from 2001-2003. Frock sees McBurney as an important mentor in her career. “When I first was accepted to the curatorial program at Goldsmith’s, I called Shanna to let her know that I would be moving to London and, to my thinking, moving on.” But McBurney said, ”Well, that’s great Christian! But how are you going to continue your responsibilities at HANG?” Frock continued to work for the gallery long-distance for some time after that.

HANG’s business model has evolved to include a healthy rental and corporate art business and has tapped into a new corporate trend: companies abandoning their indoor landscaping programs and redirecting that money to art leasing. Some use Hang's leasing program as a reward, allowing select employees to pick the pieces that will be on display. When these employees visit HANG to make their selections, it is usually their first time inside a gallery… and often they become customers.