Servio Gómez remembers when renting a 1,000-square-foot space on Valencia cost about $700 a month. That was 1985, when he opened Back to the Picture.
The shop has been at its current address, 934 Valencia, since 1989, after a different business at the location burnt down. Gómez was excited to take over the spot, moving his shop in from next door, he said. “I got it all new.”
When he first opened Back to the Picture, “there was nothing on Valencia,” he said. “A junk shop, a body shop. A lot of homeless.”
On Saturday, the art and framing shop will celebrate its 30th anniversary with a party at the Valencia gallery that will feature prints, sculptures and other creations by local artists including Michael Roman, Calixto Robles and Juan Fuentes, plus other selections from its private collection, including one of Andy Warhol’s pink-faced Marilyn Monroe prints and a wall dedicated to art by Salvador Dalí.
“I think sometimes people are surprised to see this art in the Mission,” said Gómez. “People ask, ‘Is that real?’”
It is — most are limited edition color lithographs signed and numbered by the artists. The Dalí’s are from the artist’s mid-1970s “Les Vitraux” (French for “stained glass”) suite, plus his sculpture “Christ of Saint John of the Cross,” number 25 of 350, acquired via “a reputable Parisian broker with offices here and in Paris.”
The difference is how the neighborhood gallery makes the elite work more accessible than other settings. Art “shouldn’t be mystified,” said Gómez.
Although Valencia Street is becoming a place you might be less surprised to see high-end art for sale. Gómez said he’s watched the street and the neighborhood change dramatically over the past three decades — and, startlingly so in the last five years.
There were terrible accidents before Valencia opened its bike lanes in 1999, he said. Trees and parklets did not line the sidewalks and gang violence was more common. “I remember one night, we ducked down,” he said. He was walking with his two young daughters on Valencia, when they heard gun shots and hid. They saw a man walking toward 21st Street, bleeding.
That incident was in the 1990s. Last week, his daughters graduated from college; one in New York, the other in San Francisco. Both studied business. “I never told them to be in business,” he said. But, with an eye on the cost of living in the Bay Area, he advised them to ”get a degree where you get paid.”
Gómez said he still sees and appreciates the diversity of the Mission. It is refreshing compared to Encino, the Los Angeles neighborhood where he first worked at a framing shop. “I’d see all these rich ladies,” he said.
While the Mission has grown in affluence, that has brought some change to Gómez’s business without a net improvement, he explained. Sales are up, but expenses are, too, and that leaves his financial picture about the same as always. He credits his landlord, Miguel Perez, for allowing his business to survive.
He said Perez has held off on increasing Back to the Picture’s rent to market rate. But in a year or so, the gallery owner said he doesn’t know what will happen. His rent may increase then, and that might require him to move his business. “Which I think is fair,” he added. If that happens, he said he will find a way to stay in the neighborhood.
A couple years ago, he had to close Art 94124, a gallery he ran in the Bayview for about four years, due to “a lack of activity in the community, and a lack of funds.”
Javalencia, his Valencia Street coffee shop a couple doors down from Back to the Picture, is causing him stress as well. He’s been told it needs renovations that could cost a worrisome $150,000 or more. He is still figuring out what he will do.
Between Back to the Picture’s two locations, in the Mission and on 10th Street in SoMa, the city’s influx of young tech workers may have a larger presence at the SoMa shop. “The clientele over there is much younger and single,” said Derek Hargrove, a manager at Back to the Picture. “They’re there to fulfill a contract at Twitter or something. They tend to spend less money.”
In the Mission, customers tend to be more established as residents and “a little more attuned to the luxury aspect,” said Hargrove. “It’s so expensive to live here, they’re kind of used to it.”
However, nowadays “everybody but the tech people (are) on a little tighter budget,” he said. “But we try to make sure they leave with something.”
A younger influence on the region is still notable. On the streets, Gómez sees more graffiti art in the murals. In the gallery, he now sells some simple “urban planning” posters that “the youngsters like,” he said, referencing transit system map line art.
At a more elite purchasing level, Gómez compared the art business to Wall Street. People invest in big old names, he said, like Man Ray, while most artists he knows living in the Bay Area become teachers to make ends meet. “Selling art is the hardest job, especially as beginners,” he said. “People buy (new artists’ work), but they’re not going to spend a lot of money.”
While Back to the Picture has cut back on hosting group art shows — typically it hosts three to five a year — to preserve revenue, the venue may show local artists’ work later this year.
In the meantime, for the gallery’s anniversary it is filled with work by artists’ Gómez has collected since he lived in Los Angeles decades ago. Among the newest acquisitions, he pointed out pieces by Salvadoran artist Antonio Bonilla, including a wild brothel scene. “I commissioned a piece,” said Gómez. “You tell him what you want — he does whatever he wants.”
Gómez said he chose long ago to support artists by running a gallery rather than working as an artist himself. Maybe when he retires, he said, he might have his own studio.
Is he considering retiring? “No!” he said. “I’m going to be working until I die.”
Back to the Picture’s anniversary party is from 7-10 p.m. on Saturday, May 30, at 934 Valencia St.