Notice the City’s utility boxes looking, dare we say, prettier lately? Brown is behind the inspired campaign to transform the streets from dreary to cheery.
The next time you hop on a Muni bus, look up at the panels adjacent to the ceiling, and if you’re lucky, instead of staring at an advertisement for tampons, you might see several original works of visual art created by a local artist. Similarly, when walking around town, pay attention to the utility boxes on street corners. Over the past year, 20 of those boxes have been wrapped with the work of artists who live in those communities.
These projects are just a few of the many efforts to bring more beauty into the City by the nonprofit San Francisco Beautiful and its executive director, Darcy Brown.
“We are marketed to madness these days with ads everywhere and pop-ups on our phones and computers,” says Brown. “Public art humanizes an environment. It creates a delightful surprise when you come across it and keeps the character of a place intact.”
“[Public art] keeps the character of a place intact.”— Darcy Brown
Art, though, was not the first thought when San Francisco Beautiful began. Rewind the clock back to1 947: Then-Mayor Roger Lapham had robust plans to retire all SanFrancisco cable cars and pave over the tracks. Even back then, the cars were in disrepair. Upon learning of this, socialite Friedel Klussmann decided to do something about it, and created a petition to save the cable cars. The effort worked, and for the next several decades Klussmann became a prominent activist — working on everything from planting trees on sidewalks to saving historic stair-cases throughout San Francisco.
Her efforts, largely under the umbrella called San Francisco Beautiful, were formalized with a 501(c)(3) designation in 1974, and work continued to preserve the uniqueness of San Francisco.
Donna Casey, who served as executive director of San Francisco Beautiful in the mid-1980s, says the organization was instrumental in initiatives to legalize sidewalk seating for cafes, helping to create permanent, ad-free public toilets in the Tenderloin, and capping the number of billboards allowed within city limits.
“I remember back in the ’80s a lot of downtown buildings were making money selling billboards,” she says.“We didn’t want billboards on top of buildings, especially downtown, so we made an ordinance to prohibit them except for on the Van Ness corridor and on Geary Street.”
Brown took over as executive director in 2015 and since then has steered the organization toward providing public art and beautifying San Francisco in a variety of ways. One of the most prominent has been the Muni Art Project, which highlights the works of five local artists on 100 buses every January through April.
Donavon Brutus, an artist who moved to San Francisco from Florida in 2016, applied for the program in 2017 and was selected as one of the five artists in 2018 in a grand ceremony on the steps of City Hall.
“It was an amazing thing to be a part of,” he says. “I felt a swelling pride when I went up there and did my acceptance speech. As an artist, you get a lot of rejections. It felt amazing to get a yes for such a prestigious project.
Among Brown’s other beautification initiatives: the wrapping of utility boxes (“the primary function is not only to beautify neighborhoods, but also to mitigate graffiti, and people are loving it,” she says) and the renovation of the minipark near the corner of Fillmore and Turk Streets. The latter project has been a long time coming. Conversations started in 2015, and it wasn’t until January 2019 that plans were approved.
I believe an investment in that park is an investment in that community,” says Brown, who grew up in San Francisco. “I’ve seen the devastation of the Fillmore, and I think one of the only ways to revive that area is to beautify the neighborhood.
When asked how she views the importance of San Francisco Beautiful’s mission in light of the City’s constantly changing landscape, Brown doesn’t hesitate.
“We are losing the character of our city in many places; some neighborhoods are unrecognizable,” she remarks.
Brutus can speak to the delightful sense of surprise and enhancement of daily life provided by the efforts of San Francisco Beautiful. While a new class of artists now has their artwork on Muni buses, he can still find his panels on some buses that haven’t been swapped out yet.
“Back when the award was first given, I spent six months looking feverishly on every bus for my work,”he says. “Now, while I know it is still on some buses, I kind of forget about it. That is, until right before I get off a bus. Sometimes I’ll look up and I’ll see my work right there. That feeling is pretty exciting.”