Public art may play a much larger role in San Francisco as a 2-year-old program is about to bear its first fruit with a more than $1 million project planned for a building facade in the heart of Civic Center.
While The City has historically required downtown developers to contribute to artistic projects, the works were often placed in lobbies or other less accessible areas and the Arts Commission was not involved in artist selection, recommendations or inventory.
But that changed in 2012 with new legislation that broadened the areas in which developers had to pay an art fee — 1 percent of construction costs — and established a Public Art Trust under the purview of the Arts Commission, which developers could contribute to in order to satisfy the requirement.
The first Public Art Trust project is underway with a search for artists to compete for the work to be placed on the west facade of the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, a public building on the south end of a Civic Center park managed by Another Planet Entertainment for concerts and private events.
It is expected to be funded by $1.5 million from developer Emerald Fund as a result of two ongoing construction projects at 101 Polk St. and 150 Van Ness Ave., in the Civic Center area near mid-Market Street, according to Marc Babsin, a principal with the Emerald Fund. Babsin said that for $1.5 million, an artist “will come up with something that looks pretty cool” and help transform the area into a destination spot.
That stretch of Civic Center has long been dominated by two surface parking lots and overshadowed by the auditorium, but is being transformed with new high-rise development in the area.
The Arts Commission approved the project site last month.
“What’s exciting about this is it’s an opportunity for new dollars to come into public art in away that we have not seen before,” Arts Commission Director of Cultural Affairs Tom DeCaigny.
Within the last five years, the commission provided an average of $2.8 million a year to artists for public-art projects.
Developers can still spend the required art funding onsite, often meaning the work is less visible to the general public, but members of the commission praised the new fund’s ability to promote more art in the open.
“Instead of enhancing their own property and providing an art experience to a limited audience, they have opted to create a cultural amenity that will be seen by thousands of people each day,” Arts Commission spokeswoman Kate Patterson said of developer Emerald Fund.
Emerald Fund Chairman Oz Erickson told the Planning Commission last year when it voted to approve the 101 Polk St. project, that it was the art-fee revenue “we pray and hope will transform the really ugly side” of the Bill Graham Auditorium.
The 162-unit development is across the street from the auditorium and will contain 19 below-market-rate units. The build will be 13 stories, 125 feet high, on what was once a gas station but long used as a parking lot.
Erickson said at the time the development will continue to help change the area that had already “really radically changed” with the adoption of the tax break for the mid-Market area to benefit Twitter.
The 420-unit development at 150 Van Ness is in the permitting process.
Public art can transform an urban area but it can also be a very demanding task for an artist. Jill Manton, director of policy for the Arts Commission, called this specific art project “a daunting challenge.”
“I think it will take a very talented, innovative, creative thinker,” Manton said.
Part of the reason is that in the center of the facade are two sets of outdoor stairwells. Additionally, in Manton’s discussions with the Department of Real Estate and city planners, the project was given some guidelines given the building’s historic standing. While there is a lot of latitude, there are some rules like no painting on the masonry and nothing can conceal the building’s architectural elements.
“They didn’t prescribe any particular methodology,” Manton said.
Ultimately, the project will depend on what the artists think up and what the Arts Commission selects in consultation with the developer.
“It can be somewhat diaphanous,” Manton said. “It would be something that is mounted similar to the way that Firefly at 525 Golden Gate is mounted to the facade of the building.”
That building, which is the headquarters of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, has on its north facade stretching from the second to 14th floor a lattice of thousands of 5-inch square, clear-polycarbonate panels hinged to move in the wind. It was designed by artist Ned Kahn.
Whatever is decided upon will become the newest member of The City’s existing art portfolio.
“We are talking about a permanent artwork that would eventually become part of The City’s art collection,” Manton said.
It would join the more than 4,000 pieces of art valued in excess of $93 million in The City’s existing Civic Art Collection, which includes such pieces as the Coit Tower murals and sculptures by Beniamino Bufano.
Whether the Public Art Trust will have a large output in the coming years remains unclear.
“What we are hearing from developers is that they are very interested in an art program that affords them greater flexibility in the way that they are able to contribute to the arts ecology,” said Patterson, the Arts Commission spokeswoman. “Based on this feedback and interest we’ve had from developers, we are very optimistic that Public Art Trust will continue to gain momentum.”
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