‘Comfort women’ memorial costs SF major art project

San Francisco is expected to become next year the first major U.S. city to install a comfort women memorial, but the decision to locate it in the St. Mary’s Square extension has come at a cost — the loss of artwork by world-renowned artist Sarah Sze.

The Board of Supervisors voted last year in support of installing the memorial to recognize the women who were sexually enslaved by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II.

The vote sparked controversy as some Japanese-Americans said it would promote hate against the Japanese. But supporters said it is needed to bring justice to those impacted and call attention to human trafficking.

At the time, there were several locations suggested, such as the Richmond’s Lincoln Park and Portsmouth Square in Chinatown.

But with Mayor Ed Lee’s approval, St. Mary’s Square extension, at the corner of Pine and Kearny streets in Chinatown, was picked. Retired judges Julie Tang and Lillian Sing, co-chairs of the Comfort Women Justice Coalition, who are leading the effort, said Recreation and Park Commissioner Allan Low first suggested the site.

Complicating matters, however, is that prior to the decision to locate the memorial there, the developer of 500 Pine Street Company, LLC, entered into an agreement, as part of the development’s approval, with nonprofit Chinese Cultural Center to select the artwork with community input for St. Mary’s Square extension.

A rendering depicts the proposed “comfort women” memorial at
St. Mary’s Square in Chinatown. (Courtesy rendering)

Out of 100 artists worldwide, the winning proposal was from Chinese-American artist Sarah Sze. The developer and Sze began working on the Book of Rocks artwork for the site, which Sze visited in person. But when Sze later learned the memorial would also be located there, she withdrew her project.

That news was recently lamented by members of the Arts Commission. During a Nov. 16 Arts Commission’s Visual Arts Committee hearing, the works of the runners-up were met with less than applause and comments that they were unfit for the public arts collections.

Arts Commissioner Dorka Keehn said at the time “it’s a huge unfortunate situation that’s occurred.”

Jenny Leung, spokesperson for the Chinese Cultural Center, said they weren’t part of the process to site the memorial.

“Sarah Sze is a world-renowned artist. We’re definitely saddened she has withdrawn. It is a loss to not just Chinatown but to San Francisco,” Leung told the San Francisco Examiner on Tuesday.

Chinese Cultural Center artist director Abby Chen told the Examiner that “politics trumped the community process.”

Despite the concerns, the Arts Commission approved earlier this month the location of two artworks for St. Mary’s extension — the memorial and the cultural center’s runner-up — and early next month is expected to approve the design of the memorial. There remains a debate about the language that would be on the plaque, which would be voted on at a later date.

During a conference call with Tang and Sing, Tang responded to questions about the art conflict.

“I don’t know why people are trying to dirty up our project,” Tang said.

They said both Low and the developer discussed sharing the space and “thought it was a good idea.”

“We did not barge in. We did not aggressively kick anybody out,” Sing said.

They said they thought the two pieces — noting the memorial requires a space the size of a yoga mat — could work together and said that the Chinese Cultural Center should have been aware of the shared space concept but failed to disclose it to the artists.

But the Chinese Cultural Center denies that allegation. Chen said they selected Sze in May and the first she heard of the memorial possibly sharing the space was in July through a notice from the Arts Commission.

The developer’s representative, the Mayor’s Office, Recreation and Parks Commission and the Arts Commission did not return requests for comment.

“Unfortunately, after the selection and before entering into contract, we’ve been informed about significant changes in the original conditions of the project as set by the developers,” said Evelyne Jouanno, founder of Ars Citizen and representative of Sze in an email to the Examiner on Tuesday. “This information was not given during the process of the competition. After discussing with SFAC and the developer, we were unable to restate the original conditions, Sarah Sze and Ars Citizen regretfully decided to withdraw the winning proposal from the commission process.”

Sze did not respond to requests for comment.

As for the loss of Sze’s artwork, Sing said, “She is a great Chinese-American artist, but this is about Asian-American women in general.”

Joshua Sabatini
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Joshua Sabatini

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