Arts for the City: 80 Years of Public Art in San Francisco

Out this month is a new book telling the rich history of public art in San Francisco. Written by award-winning author, Susan Wels, the book is entitled Arts for the City—Civic Art and Urban Change, and was commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission.

In the book, Wels narrates the role of the San Francisco Arts Commission as “the force behind the city’s evolution into an urban center filled with world-class painting, sculpture, music, dance, literature and community arts programs.”

Director of Cultural Affairs, Tom DeCaigny, says that art and design is as vital to San Francisco as “libraries and parks,” and he believes “ensuring broad access to the arts is an essential city service.”

At 224 pages, Arts for the City is issued as a hardcover, bursting with full-color photographs by a talented cast of photographers including, Richard Barnes, Ruth Bernhard, John Chiara, Imogen Cunningham, Jim Goldberg, Doug Hall, Todd Hido, Reagan Louie, Mike Mandel, Richard Misrach, Dan Nicoletta, Ira Nowinski, Susan Schwartzenberg, Larry Sultan, Catherine Wagner and Henry Wessel.

Arts for the City is published by Heyday, an independent, non-profit publisher that promotes awareness and celebrates “California’s many cultures, landscapes, and boundary-breaking ideas.”

“Three Heads, Six Arms” by Zhang Huan (Image: Bruce Damonte)

On April 17th I spoke with DeCaigny by phone, and in the following interview he talks with me about some of the notable works in the city’s public art collection, about the history of the Arts Commission, and about the new book:

Max Eternity: For an old art junkie like myself, I have to say this book,Arts for the City: San Francisco: Civic Art and Urban Change, opened my eyes in some new and unexpected ways. I know it speaks to a milestone for the San Francisco Arts Commission. Beyond that, why was it written?

Tom DeCaigny: I had the pleasure to come in when the project was well under way. The project had been commission by my predecessor; to develop an educational tool to help the public be in touch with the cultural landscape of San Francisco. How the arts were so critical in terms of social change, the shifting landscape—the many ways that art has changed the city in so many ways. Arts for the City speaks to the value of art defining our physical environment and capturing the expression of our city over the past 80 year.

Max Eternity: Until reading the book, I did not know the story behind the founding of the De Young museum, which was compelled by the owner of the San Francisco Chronicle, H M de Young. What do you know about his life, and how would you say this man’s presence shaped the creative life of San Francisco.

Tom DeCaigny: I actually recall that he survived in an assignation attempt, though I’m not sure of the exact circumstances.

I think that vision that he [DeYoung] had was a grand vision. As an immigrant of San Francisco, he saw art as a way to define the city as an international and cultural capital of the world, and part of that was for the city to have a defining art collection. It’s my understanding that that was the impetus for him to donate his collection to found the De Young.

Max Eternity: We met at the unveiling of Leo Villareal’s monumental light sculpture on the Bay Bridge. I had a chance to speak with Villareal, and wrote an article about his sculpture, entitled “The Bay Lights.” However, I did not have the opportunity to ask your thoughts on “The Bay Lights?”

Tom DeCaigny: I think what’s exciting is that it’s a private investment, but it shows the value of art—the return of investment in terms of tourism. The World Conference of Mayors is having their conference here this summer. That [The Bay Lights] project’s investment is going to have a real positive return. It’s also really exciting to see the new exciting generation of philanthropy is happening, on a large scale, generating a new cycle of art revenue for our local system.

“The Bay Lights” by Leo Villareal (Image: Wendy Norris Communications)

Max Eternity: In Chapter 5, the book delves in to an artistic revival in San Francisco that arose during the 1990’s, starting with the opening of the Yerba Buena Center and Museum of Modern Art. These were bold initiatives that shaped and impacted the city in what ways, would you say?

Tom DeCaigny: I think the movement of the 1990’s is a movement around of cultural development. We now have the Jewish museum, Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) and the Mexican Museum will be moving into the area too, through State Redevelopment. The state has since closed down that agency, unfortunately, which is having an impact on local municipalities. The arts really transformed the South of Market (SoMA) area. The arts have played a role in rejuvenating and uplifting the neighborhood.

San Francisco Airport Terminal 2 (see credits below)

Max Eternity: Being a lover of both public libraries and public art, I am especially enamored with the soaring, sculptural installation at the Main Library, which incarnates a curved floating stairway in its design. I think this is one of the most innovative publicly funded art and design projects I’ve seen in the last decade. Your thoughts?

Tom DeCaigny: I think that work is a prime example of the power of public art when it is fully integrated into the architecture of a building. In terminal 2 at the airport, it’s the same; where the artist really engaged in the architectural composition of the building.

It’s a bonus having public art in public libraries, because it’s a demonstration of our collective humanity, the value of democracy and transparent government; all these things that really symbolize a vibrant democracy and a freedom of creation.

San Francisco Main Library – Central Atrium (additional credits below)

Max Eternity: Recently I had the occasion to visit the Laguna Honda Hospital. In front of the original building there is a terrific sculpture of Florence Nightingale. Its fluidic stylization is testament of what can be done with a little concrete and a great imagination. Inside the new building, the Works Projects Administration (WPA) inspired murals left me awestruck in their visual narrative, technical and artistic execution.

Tom DeCaigny: The art projects at the Laguna Hospital is an example of ordinances that work. Through this the conservation of the nightingale sculpture was restored, and conversely the tiled murals, which is the cover of the book, are in some ways demonstrations of the powerful integration of historical imagery, like the Golden Gate Bridge being an icon. There’s Coit Tower, and the lineage of artist Diego Rivera in the city—the long history of murals—murals seen in the mission. It’s a powerful way to define San Francisco through time, with a historical aesthetic and a contemporary one.

Coit Tower fresco, by Maxine Albro (Image: SF Arts Commission)

Max Eternity: I lived in San Francisco in 2001 and 2002, moved away and returned in 2010. One of the first things that caught my eye was the monumental sculpture on Civic Center Plaza in from of City Hall. Including Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, I can think of no other city that would fund the exhibition of such a mesmerizing work of art, and place it on lawn of city hall. Amazing!

Tom DeCaigny: You’re talking about Zhang Huan’s monumental sculpture, “Three Heads Six Arms.” I think it was an incredible temporary art project. It’s such a great example of what art can do in terms of place making. It was really well received by the public.

City Hall—this is the center of government, and an opportunity to have a civic work of art which has ties to a country that we have ties too, China.

I find that temporary public art is a great way for people to remember the city for a period of time that that art was present.

“Three Heads, Six Arms” by Zhang Huan (Image: Bruce Damonte)

Max Eternity: From my own research, I know that art stimulates the economy—that it usually provides an enormous return on its initial investment. And yet, I find this often gets missed in political debate and public hearings. What’s your insight on this?

Tom DeCaigny: I think we luck in SF are much more interested in the research related to public art. We recently invited Americans for the art for a study of the economic impact of the arts in major us city. The arts commission invested grants to participate locally in sf. Our policy makers see the value of the arts. With the hotel tax funds helps generates dollars that are used for the arts, from the ballet, the African art and culture complex. An investment in the arts is an return of development, and that return is a great economics engine. There’s more that we need to to do to educate the public at large. It think it’s our job to help people understand how the arts are a part of the economy, so we need to keep that flourishing.

Max Eternity: In an article I wrote last year about arts funding, one of the people I spoke with was Gilbert Sams, who is a retired urban planner for San Francisco. Sams is a long-time champion of the arts and humanities and the first thing he said to me was that when thinking of public art the question that we need to ask is “[h] do we communicate, and how do we build community?”

Untitled (Three Dancing Figures) by Keith Haring (Image: SF Arts Commission)

Tom DeCaigny: I think for me, public art is a reflection, and I don’t just mean painting and sculpture, but really civic art—all kinds—including grants for local dance companies…all art. Civic Art has the ability of creating interest in our collective identity.

Whenever there has been a controversy around civic art it really is getting down to the issues we are grappling with as a society. And art does that in a way outside of politics.

The arts offer an opportunity to communicate on different levels, and different plane, through different media. There is a real way where are is a reflection of where we are as a society; by funding and supporting new art. It’s part of the historical documentation of who we are as a society, and this book is part of that.

Additional Image Credits

  • (San Francisco Airport Terminal 2) Marc Katano American, born in Japan in 1948
  • Torso, 1986Oil on canvas, 108 in. x 54 in.Greeting a Totem, 1983Oil on canvas, 86 in. x 78 in.
  • (San Francisco Airport Terminal 2) Seiji KunishimaJapanese, born 1937
  • Stacking Stones, 1983Nose stone, 140 in. x 42 in. x 42 in.
  • Alice Aycock Fantasy Stair, 1996 (San Francisco Main Library). Photo: Michael Rauner
  • Maxine Albro Detail of California, a Coit Tower fresco