I have worked in the public art sphere since the early 1990s and have observed many changes in the public discourse and perception of art’s role in the community. Public art is complex—it can reflect the culture and/or history of the community where it is located, make a political statement, or simply be decorative. As political and social climates change over time, works may take on new meanings as exemplified by the debates concerning Civil War monuments and their place in public spaces.
The modern history of public art in the San Francisco Bay Area begins in 1934 when a group of local artists and assistants were employed by the federal Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), precursor to the Works Progress Administration (WPA), to paint murals in the Coit Tower depicting life in California during the Great Depression. Controversy arose when some of the artists included images of radical leftist publications such as The Daily Worker along with the Communist symbol of the hammer and sickle. The tower was padlocked for several months while public debate raged, and eventually some of the offending images were painted over. Now the murals are revered for their depiction of life in that era. The local mural tradition remains strong. In the 1970s and 1980s murals by the Mujeres Muralists and Precita Eyes Muralists (still active today) represented the vibrant life of the predominantly Latino San Francisco Mission District. The early 1990s saw the emergence of the Mission School, which included such well-known artists as Barry McGee and Chris Johanson, and currently a group of street artists are taking on divisive political issues.
On the other hand, as in cities elsewhere, “plop” art—sculptures that appear to be dropped into public plazas and parks without regard to the nature of the site—became common. The stark and foreboding Vaillancourt Fountain in Justin Herman Plaza by Canadian artist Armand Vaillincourt, commissioned in 1971 by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, has been much maligned, whereas the Ruth Asawa fountain commissioned by the Grand Hyatt Hotel in downtown San Francisco in 1973, which depicts charming scenes of the city, has been universally well-received. When it was announced that it would be removed in 2013, public outcry resulted in it being restored and incorporated into the redesign of the site.
In 1985, San Francisco instituted a Percent for Art program—administered by the SF Art Commission—requiring that all new buildings or additions of 25,000 square feet or more in the downtown and nearby neighborhoods provide public art equal to at least two percent of the total construction cost. Currently, twenty-four Bay Area cities and counties have such a regulation. Most contemporary programs seek to integrate art into the architecture of the site. Even such well-intentioned plans can be compromised, as was the 1991 Promenade Ribbon Project along the Embarcadero. Artist Vito Acconci collaborated with architects Stanley Saitowitz and Barbara Staufacher to create a two-and-a-half mile stretch of glass blocks, and fiber optic lighting. What should have been a spectacular project was modified to near invisibility due to the program mandates and committee interference. The San Francisco Airport Art Collection administered by the San Francisco Public Art Program, however, has been universally applauded for the quality of the art, diversity of media and artists, and public engagement.
Ironically, the artworks that have become icons were purchased or commissioned by private organizations and donors. For example, Cupid’s Span (2002) by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen was commissioned for Rincon Park by GAP founders Donald and Doris Fisher.
Perhaps most encouraging has been the recent explosion of public-private art organizations. Established in 2003, the For-Site Foundation commissions both large-scale permanent and temporary projects beginning with the works by Andy Goldsworthy in the Presidio, temporary projects such as Ai Weiwei’s installations on Alcatraz Island, and collaborations with local museums. Other privately funded organizations include Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, Ars Citizen, which recently collaborated with Fort Mason in the highly successful, multi-site project by Sophie Calle; Sites Unseen mural projects in SoMa (South of Market); and Bay Lights, which commissioned the LED lights on the Oakland Bay Bridge. In addition, temporary exhibitions, installations, and performances in community centers, parks, and schools around the Bay Area have been funded by the Kenneth Rainen Foundation, Creative Work Fund, and other organizations that promote community participation in the arts.
Along with the increase in private organizations, changes in local public art programs are contributing to what I regard as the beginning of a Golden Age. The belief that public art can be a source of community pride remains a guiding principal, along with the understanding that programs should respond to the reality that communities are diverse and life is increasingly complicated and more mobile. Public art programs are recognizing that they must be flexible, inclusive, and accepting of the global nature of art. Most ordinances now allow for permanent and temporary projects and performances, input and funding from philanthropic organizations, and diverse media and locations. The future of public art looks bright and will continue to enrich the lives of Bay Area residents and visitors, while creating a sense of place in the global community.