A & E

Nightlife venues moonlight as art galleries

Art rocks
Blackbird Bar supports local artists such as Renee DeCarlo Johnson, whose work is on display through April 2 photo: Maryann LoRusso

It is a typical Friday night at the 111 Minna Gallery in SoMA. Hipsters crowd the dance floor, drinks in hand, scanning the room for something or someone interesting. A few gazes land on the gallery walls, where a couple dozen works are on display, including photographer Traci Griffin’s curious Hair, Sky SF No. 1, which depicts a spidery creature floating in a baby-blue sky, and artist John Waguespack’s enigmatic interpretation of a presidency, Resurrecting Lincoln.

Then, suddenly, the lights dim, club music pumps out of the speakers and, in one of the galleries, a winter bathing-suit fashion show ensues. Models strut onto a runway wearing nothing but sequined bikinis, lip gloss and flowers tucked behind their ears. For the remainder of the night, a D.J. spins local house music, and the 4,000-square-foot space morphs into a full-fledged nightclub.

111 Minna claims to be “in the business of art and leisure,” and was one of the forerunners in the trend to meld the art and nightlife cultures. Revolving art shows feature both international artists and local up-and-comers, and in the evenings, the establishment caters to a party crowd, offering full bar, live music, film screenings, and some of the City’s best D.J.s.

This art-meets-nightlife movement has caught on big-time in San Francisco, as many other bars and clubs are dabbling in the art world.

One of these is Blackbird, a popular Market Street hangout that attracts discerning drinkers with its carefully edited selection of local wines, craft beer and cocktails. Blackbird’s inviting atmosphere features a modern-industrial décor, including red-leather seats, a wood-planked ceiling, newspaper-plastered walls, a drink menu handwritten on scrolls that hang above a mahogany bar — and lots of art.

On a recent Saturday evening, Blackbird debuted the vibrant, mixed-media works of Cow Hollow artist Renee DeCarlo Johnson. In between sampling unique drink concoctions, patrons stopped to peruse the bold, emotionally charged pieces in Johnson’s dynamic new collection, Hybrids: Biographies and Landscapes.

Supporting local artists has been a goal of Blackbird proprietor Shawn Vergara, a cordial, energetic host who works the room with vigor. From a business standpoint, Vergara maintains that hosting artists not only drives new traffic into the bar, but also encourages patrons to return. “Refreshing the space with new art helps our guests stay interested and engaged,” he said. “Art is a great conversation starter, a great way for people to come together and engage in conversation that may differ from their current topics.”

A bar that has been incorporating art, in all its forms, into its highly creative atmosphere is the popular Madrone Art Bar in NoPa, whose mission was to turn the neighborhood bar into a “conceptual art vehicle” and provide a “total aesthetic cultural experience” for customers. Paintings, photographs, mixed media, sculpture, video, film, fashion, music, and dance come together at this lively and intimate venue, which is also regarded for its potent cocktails and a highly creative calendar of events. Where else can you view the latest works from local artists, while experiencing unique shows such as The Prince vs. Michael Experience, a 1980s pop-star smack down?

Lovers of both art and nightlife have plenty more choices in San Francisco. For example, Onsix Gallery in SoMA presents group and solo art exhibitions, as well as live music, D.J.s, and special events. And when it’s not hosting internationally known D.J.s in its converted warehouse space, Project One in the design district presents the works of emerging contemporary artists.

Whether you’re in the mood for drinking, dancing, or delving into the art world, any of these city establishments are perfect for an eclectic night out.

111 Minna: Art shows, D.J.s and special events
111 Minna Street (at Second), 415-974-1719,

Blackbird: Happy hour and art exhibits
2124 Market Street (near 14th), 415-503-0630,

Madrone Art Bar: Revolving art, dance, live music, and special events
500 Divisadero Street (at Fell), 415-241-0202,

OnSix Gallery: Art exhibits, live music, D.J.s, and special events
60 Sixth Street (at Jessie),

Project One: Art exhibitions and international D.J.s
251 Rhode Island Street (near 15th), 415-938-7173,

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Maryann LoRusso is a San Francisco-based journalist who also writes a blog for women at