Saturday night, San Francisco Arts Quarterly co-founder Andrew McClintock braced himself at the podium and sputtered shyly into the microphone, sweating in the spotlight as he introduced artist J.D. Beltran, the moderator of SFAQ’s third symposium.

SFAQ Symposium panel members chat before introductions.

Jitters continued throughout the night as guest speakers jumped uncomfortably from topic to topic, from wanting to avoid labeling artists to whether expensive MFA programs are forcing San Francisco’s talent to leave the city to get out of the red.

Commemorating SFAQ’s third issue, which features interviews with directors and owners of Mission District galleries and art spaces, the premise of the symposium (a fancy word for panel discussion) at the San Francisco Art Institute was to discuss the so-called Mission School of art.

The subdued qualities of Beltran’s garb — black from head to toe — were disrupted as soon as she took the microphone, which squealed uncontrollably.

The panel and audience of more than 65 people laughed nervously while speaker Terri Cohn, an art historian at the San Francisco Art Institute, tried but failed to fix the mic.

Feet were shuffling when panelist Glen Helfand, a co-founder of Stretcher.org, decided to project his skepticism about adhering to labels like the “Mission School” without the mic. “Here, I think people are really resistant” to labels, he said, something he believes makes San Francisco artists unique, compared to those in what the panel often referred to as commercial art centers like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Helfand is credited with coining the term Mission School in a 2002 San Francisco Bay Guardian article, but he was loathe to even name figures associated with the style.

“Nobody wants to be pigeonholed,” agreed Amy Berk, another Stretcher.org co-founder. Berk said she knows more than one artist who rejects the Mission School label.

Most of the panel members were inclined to define the Mission School as a product of artists’ similar circumstances rather than a movement.

“The Mission is a place where young artists can afford to live in San Francisco. It’s a sensitive subject because when artists move in, it often edges poor people out,” said panelist and writer Renny Pritikin.

An audience member asked if Latin culture in the Mission District has a strong influence on the Mission School.

Most of the Mission School “are white kids,” Pritikin responded. Berk said that the Clarion Alley mural project had some Latin American artists.

But the Mission District isn’t necessarily the epicenter of the Mission School anymore.

“I know many Mission School artists who no longer live in the Mission,” Berk said. Just as arts publications have disappeared from the Bay Area, some artists have dispersed to places like Portland, Oregon.

Artists in San Francisco don’t feel as much pressure to sell their work as do artists who come up in New York or LA, where the goal is to achieve renown, panel members said. This anti-commercial sentiment leads to experimental art, according to Cohn.

“It’s sort of a youth movement,” she said, describing Mission District artists as “poor and in transit.” “It’s no surprise apartment and closet galleries are popping up everywhere.”

“It [isn’t] a style so much as an attitude,” Berk said, adding that San Francisco artists’ anti-establishment, “my way or the highway” demeanor doesn’t exactly lend itself to starting careers — at least not without some kind of movement or media exposure to take them to the next level.

With that, the five-person panel eagerly veered into more comfortable territory: a broad history of Bay Area arts movements from the Beats forward, and the phenomenon of art micro-communities utilizing the Internet.

But pressed by Beltran, they did pin down the Mission School’s aesthetic: “do-it-yourself,” “folk-style,” “graffiti-based” and, overall, improvisational. They referenced the artists behind the school’s founding in the 1990s: Margaret Kilgallen, Barry McGee, Chris Johanson and Alicia McCarthy, among others.

“They didn’t want to stretch canvas,” said Pritikin, describing how they’d rather use found materials from the street.

Pritikin paid the Mission School its biggest compliment of the night, while at the same time voicing the strongest criticism. “We’re on the fourth or fifth generation of Mission School artists, and it’s getting depressing,” he said. But he admires that “progressive-minded younger artists are building community and working with foodies and environmentalists” to produce work around what he calls “social practice,” based on their “radical pessimism” about both the natural and social environment.

“I think the Bay Area is on the verge of a new explosion,” he said of the socially and environmentally conscious artwork.

Still, having loans from expensive MFA programs on their backs “leads people to leave the Bay Area to actually make a living,” Berk said.

Even the Mission may no longer be affordable. The panel discussed the art scene emerging across the Bay in Oakland, but decided it isn’t up to par just yet.

“Portland is the new Mission,” Cohn said.

San Francisco Arts Quarterly is a free publication and event calendar. The Mission Issue (October-January 2011), is available at sfaqonline.com.