When Martin Muller arrived from Geneva by way of Little Rock, Ark., to open a San Francisco art gallery in 1979, he was too new to know not to put it upstairs in a lighting warehouse South of Market.
Modernism, as he called it, turned out to be the first commercial art gallery in SoMa. Now Modernism is pushing the frontier again, having come to rest wedged between an SRO hotel and an auto body shop on Ellis Street.
“I find it personally exciting, as someone in the world of culture, to be a pioneer in a neighborhood where I feel I can have a meaningful contribution,” says Muller, who laces his formal English with a French accent. When asked the precise name of this neighborhood, he is unashamed to summon his gallery director, Danielle Beaulieu, to tell him where he is sitting.
“Danielle tells me it is called Little Saigon,’’ he says. “You have to understand I’m here since a few days but I’m planning to become very knowledgeable about the Tenderloin.”
Pioneer though he is, Muller is not the first art dealer to stake a claim on the raggedy side of Ellis. Jessica Silverman opened her gallery in a vacant corner store at Ellis and Leavenworth three years ago and “it’s been fantastic,” she says. “We have not had any issues in the neighborhood to speak of.”
But the blocks heading west from Leavenworth to Larkin are long and rough before you hit the severely modern facade of Modernism. The door is locked, and if you press your nose against the glass you can see an oversize painting of a young girl holding an assault rifle.
Is this security or art? Anyone enticed enough to find out can press the buzzer for admittance through a heavy metal door. It is like being let into a bank vault. Which is not too far off. The concrete building, put up in 1946, was originally Diebold Safe & Lock Co..
“In 1979, people were calling the (SoMa) gallery asking if it was safe,” Muller says. “All the same questions as now.”
There is one major difference to the answer. Uber has taken the danger out of parking and car break-ins. Ubers lined up like limos at the grand opening of Modernism on Feb. 9. Bohemian clubbers and nightclubbers stood shoulder to shoulder to see Gottfried Helnwein’s paintings of children smeared in blood, wrapped in bandages and pointing automatic weapons at them.
After seeing that, nobody complained about safety on the street, though it helped that a driving rainstorm had emptied the sidewalk.
During gallery hours on a sunny day, the north side of Ellis is a good place for people to warm in the southern exposure, often while lying down on the pavement. There are needles on the sidewalk, but once inside, with that door locked behind, any visitor is treated as a personal guest by Muller, 63, who considers himself an educator above all else.
He is self-taught as an art historian, and has 35,000 volumes in his collection. That’s even more books than bow ties. “I cannot yet offer you a martini at this stage,” he says, apologetically, at the beginning of a gallery tour.
Muller’s gallery program swings from one extreme to the other. He either wants to show the European Avant Garde of the early 20th century or the provocateurs of the early 21st.
“Martin is an intensely intellectual guy and is always interested in showing art of its time,” says art historian Barnaby Conrad III, who has known Muller for 35 years. “When he shows a Russian constructionist picture that was done in 1917, he’s not just showing it because it would go with your sofa. He knows exactly why that picture is important.”
He may come across as a boulevardier, but he is the hardest working gallery owner in the city. He’s put on 405 exhibitions, the majority at his second location, in the eight-story Monadnock Building on Market Street.
“The building kept changing ownership,” he says. “That triggered a lot of ongoing commotion. It was the opposite of a place conducive to reflection and study and looking at art. ”
The commotion that bothered him the most was a rent increase he describes in his typically overheated way as “dramatic and exorbitant, to the tune of doubling.”
In response, he sent his broker to follow the art gallery wagon train south to Dogpatch and the Do Re Mi (Dogpatch, Potrero, Mission) Arts District. His demand was for a place lacking in commotion, meaning he did not want to share it with another tenant.
Unable to find anything, he took a 10-year lease on the lock shop, 5,000 square feet. Part of the deal was to shore up the four-story Marathon Hotel next door.
“To me it’s a healthy cultural dynamic,” he says. “If everyone does a little something, it helps the neighborhood.”
Muller is cheerful about his new location, given that burglars came through the skylight once during construction and were foiled a second time by an alarm. At the end of his tour he comes out onto the street in his hand-tied bow and rakishly upturned collar, to address two women using the window ledge as a dressing stand.
“Excuse me,” he says, with all the politeness of a maitre d’ having to show away diners without a reservation.