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Elevating Public Art

By Christian Chensvold

The Salesforce Tower has illuminated the San Francisco skyline since it officially opened in 2018. It surpassed the Transamerica Pyramid to become SF’s tallest ’scraper.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it’s also in the hands of bureaucrats and developers. At least when it comes to San Francisco’s two public art programs, which aim to beautify the City and sprinkle place-signifying sigils hither and thither. If the Golden Gate Bridge is the Great Pyramid, then these are the smaller monuments scattered throughout the seven-by-seven kingdom that give it a sense of identity and help define its culture. But as with everything subjective, one man’s Treasure Island is another man’s trash heap.

San Francisco has two separate but overlapping programs for art that’s visible to passersby. The public program, which we’ll call the 2 Percent, was enacted in 1969— making this year its 50th anniversary —and decrees that any public project must devote that amount of its budget to publicly viewable art. The private program, aka the 1 Percent, launched in 1985 and mandates that all construction or renovations of more than 25,000 square feet in the downtown C3 district allocate that percentage of total construction costs to public art.

The former falls under the jurisdiction of the Arts Commission, the latter under the Planning Department. To further confuse matters, developers disinclined to artistic statements can elect to donate their 1 percent to the Arts Commission’s trust fund. Since its founding in 2012, the trust has received just under $4.3 million for 11 projects.

If it all sounds a bit confusing, and you routinely pass by open-air art and wonder how it got there and whose taste it represents, you’re not alone, as even the experts can’t keep track.

“What’s difficult, not only from the public’s perspective but even mine,” says retired San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker, “are what pieces fall under the Arts Commission and which are in public view but privately commissioned.” What’s more, epic works such as Leo Villareal’s Bay Lights on the Bay Bridge was actually a hybrid public-private project that still relies on fundraising to keep it going.

But enough about money matters for now. Let’s turn to the question that has bewitched and beguiled art critics for centuries: Is a particular work of art any good? The bridge lights succeed as art, according to Baker. “I like that it’s abstract and you don’t need any special preparation to understand it,” he remarks. On the other hand, what does it say about San Francisco itself?

“My knock is that it celebrates an aspect of the City that is extremely debatable,” Baker argues, “and that’s its dependence on the digital economy. It celebrates the takeover of digital culture and its entrepreneurial and venture capital forces, whose effects have been more deleterious than positive. It has a hypnotic quality that is enchanting, but it doesn’t call for reflection. Not many public pieces do, here or anywhere else, and that’s the problem with public art in my view.”

Baker’s gold standard, which he says is shared by many of his peers, is Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, nicknamed “The Bean,” in Chicago. The sculpture is an immense rounded form of stainless steel set at ground level that can be walked around and through, reflecting all the activity around it.

“It’s formally beautiful, doesn’t require any explanation, and people love it,” says Baker. “It’s not running kinetically. It’s just sitting there inert, activated by your curiosity, and is constantly changing based on time of day and who’s there to see it. It’s living through the city’s history without having to do anything.” Coincidentally, Cloud Gate was fabricated by Oakland’s Performance Structures for a whopping $23 million.“Even though the price was extravagant, it’s certainly proved its worth,” he says. “It’s fully respective of whatever’s brought to it, doesn’t dismiss anybody or anything, but also has subtler levels of interrogation.

That said, Baker admits that if he had read a summary of the work, he would’ve had no way of knowing the concept would prove a hit, and that’s much of the challenge when it comes to deciding how to please all of the people all of the time.

“I don’t know that you can have a successful template for public art,” he says. The Transbay Transit Center leaves him unmoved (he thinks Jenny Holzer’s work is the best), and as for Jim Campbell’s Salesforce Tower, “like so much corporate-sponsored art, it celebrates the patron, and it’s meant to celebrate the City.” Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Cupid’s Span is “physically clunky and collapses into a punch-line,” which is a danger of public art that is figurative.

“You stop looking because there’s no reason to continue looking,” Baker notes. “But with the Kapoor piece in Chicago, you feel that you can keep looking as much as you can stand.”

The San Francisco Arts Commission boasts 15 members who are appointed by the mayor. This fiscal year, its public art budget is $16 million.

“Right now, given the capital pipeline to the City, the percent for the program — just like all City programs — is at an all-time high,” says Tom DeCaigny, the commission’s director of cultural affairs. “All the cranes in the sky are bringing a lot of opportunity for artists.” (The biggest is a redesign of Harvey Milk Terminal One at San Francisco International Airport, which has earmarked $26 million for its art program.) When a new project arises, the commission puts out a nationwide call and whittles down the artists to three finalists. The selection process is public, and, not surprisingly, the proposals have become more political last two Trumpian years.

“Our progressive values allow us to do incredible things,” says DeCaigny, referencing initiatives that include honoring the late Maya Angelou with a monument outside the Civic Center, for which two out of the three sculptors in contention are local African American women. “We’ve really looked at the issues of racial and gender equity, and dedicated more staff time to reaching out to artists who may not feel they have experience [in public art]. One of the things we’re the most proud of is that you don’t have to have any public art experience at all to apply.” The City helped artist Val Britton, who works in paper, with an airport commission, and connected her with a glass fabricator for the project.

There’s one simple way of judging the program’s success, says DeCaigny, and that’s the national award won by Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital.

Since the ordinance passed in 1985, private development has spurred the creation of 50 new pieces of public art. The works are tried in the court of public opinion, much like the City bigwigs responsible for helping to choose them. “We don’ts pend a lot of time assessing how to measure success,” says Jeff Joslin, a director in SF’s Planning Department. “We frankly leave that up to the public, the Arts Commission, and to some extent, our politicians.

That hands-off approach actually allows for more adventurous art. The department simply reviews a project’s numbers to make sure the 1 percent is accounted for, oversees how the art will be placed within the development site, and asks to see plans for the art along with an artist bio and samples.

“But we don’t dictate the artwork to developers,” Joslin says. “It’s ultimately up to the project’s sponsors what they’d like to do. People might say you could end up with horrible things, but art is subjective, and our program provides a very diverse interpretation of what art is.

“But we don’t dictate the artwork to developers,” Joslin says. “It’s ultimately up to the project’s sponsors what they’d like to do. People might say you could end up with horrible things, but art is subjective, and our program provides a very diverse interpretation of what art is.

No doubt the greatest charm of public art is not the work itself, but the very experience of stumbling across the unexpected. In a city that’s become built on the back of the internet, it’s a joy to spontaneously discover something that wasn’t recommended to you by an algorithm based on all that you’ve looked at before. Kenneth Baker is fond of works by Richard Deacon and Joel Shapiro located at Foundry Square at the intersection of First and Howard Streets. “Both corporate commissions are very good, and people even in the art world don’t know about them,” he says

And then there’s his local favorite, Ballast by Richard Serra, installed at the UCSF Mission Bay campus in 2005. Baker deems it a simple and terrific optical illusion that achieves the supreme goal of never getting old. “Once you get caught up in it,” he says, “it’s really quite mysterious and is as surprising the hundredth time as the first. So you go back again and again because you can’t believe what you’re seeing. And its bafflement lives on in the memory as a lot of public art does not.”

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