Has Silicon Valley Lost its Taste for Art?

A photo of people looking at a painting at the De Young Museum in San Francisco.

The De Young Museum in San Francisco.
Photo courtesy of Mark Gunn at Flickr Creative Commons.

In the early days of the Silicon Valley tech explosion, it was pretty common for wealthy execs to invest heavily in their own art collections, many of which were eventually bequeathed to area art museums. The newest generation of tech wealth, however, seems less inclined to invest in quite the same way. Is there less interest in art in general? Or are the new Silicon Valley wealthy simply focusing on putting their money into other things?

The heyday of big name tech investors like Thomas Weisel, whose donations have gone to SFMOMA, the deYoung Art Museum, and more, may very well be over. Still, the legacy continues to a certain degree with the continued interest in art fairs like San Francisco’s Untitled Art Fair. Big names in tech, like Ruchi Sanghvi, the first female engineer at Facebook, and Connor Zwick, whose lucrative flash card app was acquired by Chegg, are regularly in attendance at these kinds of fairs. But their desire to plop down massive amounts of money for the latest in modern art is thin at best.

“When a $1,000 piece brings me just as much enjoyment as a $30,000 work, I don’t see why I would ever spend $30,000,” says Zwick. Sanghvi notes that, despite her interest in art, she finds “investing in the art market intimidating. I don’t know where to start, and I don’t know how to educate myself.”

Sanghvi also argues that the drive for physical possessions has dimmed with this generation of tech maven—another possible reason why new tech millionaires aren’t as keen to add to their personal art collections.

That might also explain why the current tech elite are more likely to invest in local art nonprofits as opposed to collecting art to hang in their mansions. For example, the nonprofit Silicon Valley Creates, located in San Jose, relies on donations to help support their mission to improve the “cultural and aesthetic quality of life in Silicon Valley.” Their programs support local creators, raise the visibility of the arts, and increase access to creativity. They do this through seed funding, grants, and workshops available to local participants from all walks of life. In addition, they publish Content Magazine, a bimonthly publication collecting news on the arts scene in Silicon Valley. They also support local artists through their Artist Laureate and Poet Laureate programs.

While investors may be turning to art organizations rather than art pieces, that doesn’t mean art museums don’t still have an important place in the community. Many museums in the surrounding area, including the Portland Museum of Art, have embraced the tech scene and offered their locations up as conference venues. Portland’s TechfestNW has made its home at the PMA, allowing visitors to get in on both the latest in technology developments and the opportunity to experience art in the moment as they spend two days in the museum learning about virtual reality, artificial intelligence, design, and entrepreneurship.

Silicon Valley still maintains its iconic love of art. But like art itself, that love is ever evolving. There are now even more opportunities to invest and ensure that art—both what can be hung on the wall and what can be created within the community—will be available and accessible for years to come.

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