Artists Who Have Been Priced Out Of San Francisco Show The City What It’s Missing

Wish You Could Have Seen This tells the story of a vibrant community that’s been pushed away.

Last June, a group of 70 artists in San Francisco lost their lease on studio space in the city’s Mission District. A few months later, 46 more artists lost a workspace in SOMA. Dozens more have lost either their studios or apartments, or both, in the last year–and with rent now higher than anywhere else in the country, many have left the city.


A new installation tells the story of San Francisco’s disappearing art scene. In a gallery facing City Hall, a series of lights flash messages from displaced artists–in Morse Code–about why they left. (An app translates the messages for those of us who can’t read flashing lights.) At night, the messages are replaced by images of their artwork.

“It’s a poetic gesture, trying to deliver these messages to the city,” says artist Ma Li, who created the installation, called Wish You Could Have Seen This, for the San Francisco Arts Commission. “The idea was inspired by long-distance communication–a creative way to structure the community and create this platform for people to work together even if they left.”

In a survey last year of 600 artists, the Arts Commission found that 70% had already left San Francisco, and most of the rest were thinking about leaving. “It’s also my personal concern, if I should leave the city or stay here,” she says. “I have many, many peers who have left in the past couple of years.”

Ma reached out to many of them directly, and invited others to collaborate via Instagram. Over the next few months, she hopes to share the work and stories of more formerly local artists on the platform, and to get more non-artists in the city thinking about the problem and how to solve it.

“It affects the whole art community here, because we are not sure who is going to be here in the next couple of years,” she says. “We tried very hard to build a community here. That brings us more questions about why this city, when I first moved here eight years ago, was so dynamic and vibrant, and how somehow things changed.”

Have something to say about this article? You can email us and let us know. If it’s interesting and thoughtful, we may publish your response.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.