The many manifestations of public art in San Francisco.

Clarion Alley Mural, between Mission and Valencia and between 17th and 18th. Mission District. Photo © Ingrid Taylar.

When it comes to public art in San Francisco, it’s difficult to find a place to start—public art surrounds us. Although this post will focus on public art in San Francisco, it’s important to note that the Bay Area at large is home to hundreds to public art initiatives; we are incredibly lucky to live in such a culturally and artistically rich region.

I discussed galleries and alternative exhibition spaces and the implications for artists and their audiences in my previous blog post, but this post will dig a little deeper at these relationships once art is presented in the public sphere.

The concept of public art may be one dimensional at first glance, but in fact, it is rife with inter-connected dialogues. Many people assert that public art serves a decorative purpose, whereas other insist public art is defined by engagement at the local level. In a recent SF Examiner article, Susan Kennedy, South City’s interim recreation manager, insisted, public art promotes a “feeling of a well-rounded community,” and it “enhance parks, open space and buildings.”

Is it intrinsically valuable? Should it be subsidized, protected, and/or initiated by the city government? The spectrum of opinions on public art is as varied as the artworks themselves.

Not everything about public art work is lovely and unwaveringly optimistic. There is the dark side of the public art force: vandalism. Living in an urban environment, we’re no stranger to graffiti, but I can’t help but take offense when I see a beautiful work of art riddled with illegible tags.

I doubt many people would disagree with that sentiment. However, my inner devil’s advocate has to ask: Is it detrimental to public art or is it an alternative artistic expression?

Regardless of what you’d call it, there is always a cost.

This SFGate article speaks to the cost of these acts of vandalism, “alternative forms of artistic expression,” or whatever you want to call it: “It’s a growing concern because the commission has a mere $15,000 of its $11 million yearly budget to clean up the tags, carvings and other unwanted artistic contributions to the 3,500-piece, $90 million collection.” I’m all for personal expression, but caving your initials into a sculpture or tagging a mural just down right costs too much. The funds the city uses to repair public art works could be better spent elsewhere, in my opinion.

Lets transition away from the issues at hand and look at some art.  Here are a few of my favorite and notable public art works in SF (both present and future):

Tim Hawkinson, "Untitled" - Courtesy of the artist and Pelli Clarke Pellie Architects

The San Francisco Art Commission champions a number of arts initiatives around the city including public art. Recently the SFAC commissioned a mosaic to be installed in the maternity ward at San Francisco General Hospital (project for 2015).  Most recently, the SFAC announced the commissioning a 41-foot figural sculpture by Tim Hawkinson at the new Transbay Transit Center made from pieces of the demolished Transbay Terminal. Tim Hawkinson describes it as, “a guardian figure marking the intersection or transition of a journey.”

Artlarking centers around collaboration, so I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a collaborative public art work by the SFAC. Take a look at this video discussing the “Valencia Street Posts” installation by Michael Arcega:

While walking to the starting line of Bay to Breakers or riding Muni to Pac Bell Park, we’ve all seen Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s “Cupid’s Span” at Rincon Park. It was commissioned by D&DF Foundation and installed in November 2002.

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s "Cupid's Span" at Rincon Park. Stainless steel, structural carbon steel, fiber-reinforced plastic, cast epoxy, polyvinyl chloride foam; painted with polyester gelcoat 64 ft. x 143 ft. 9 in. x 17 ft. 3/8 in.

Get out and take a self-guided tour of public art works in SOMA with a friend or a date.

Grace Cathedral indoor and outdoor labyrinths are an interactive artwork that visitors might overlook. The outdoor labyrinth is available 24 hours a day. The design is ornate, hypontic even. I love decorative, interactive and meditative qualities.

There is a wealth of public art all around the city, get out and enjoy it!

2 thoughts on “The many manifestations of public art in San Francisco.

  1. La Principessa Errante

    While I agree playing devils advocate is always important, helps you to look at the other side of the coin, not only is it just too dang expensive, I personally feel it is an insult to the original artist. It is defacing what one has put their soul into.

  2. denisebennett Post author

    Thanks for your comment! I couldn’t agree more, it breaks my heart to see public art works “violated” like that. Many cities remove any tagging immediately, but do a haphazard job of it. Do you think there will ever be a solution?


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