Santiago Alonso creates bicycles made of aluminum and plastic near the Ferry Building. (Michael Ares/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Santiago Alonso creates bicycles made of aluminum and plastic near the Ferry Building. (Michael Ares/Special to S.F. Examiner)

City crafts new plan for street artists

Under an overcast sky Monday afternoon, Santiago Alonso twisted wire into the shape of a small bicycle at Justin Herman Plaza among the daily gathering of street artists selling their wares under San Francisco’s Street Artist Program.

For five years, Alonso, 48, has set up his table and supplies to earn money for a room in a North Beach hotel. On his best day, he sold 10 model bicycles at $15 apiece. He explained how, earlier in the day, an unruly person messed with his wares, but he said he had no complaints about the program and that a security guard wouldn’t have help.

It comes with being on the street. Some things you can’t control, like the rain, he said.

But in recent years, as real estate prices and rents have soared, San Francisco has seen a 14 percent decline in artists in the program — 416 artists in 2011 dipping to 359 this year — and Art Commission officials overseeing the program say changes are needed.

The commission is currently evaluating the program.

“The Street Artists Program has the potential to be a significant source of income for local artists,” said Kate Faust, the policy analyst who issued the “Revitalizing an Urban Arts Market” report. She noted the importance of promoting the artists and the program’s history.

“The commission really just needs to tell the story of this historical program built by activist artists who sought refuge from police harassment. It’s an incredibly relevant narrative today,” Faust said.

More than 40 years ago, when San Francisco was full of all kinds of creative types, street artists protested at City Hall over constant police harassment when they tried to sell handcrafted goods in neighborhoods, such as the sidewalks of Haight-Ashbury.

Other changes recommended are a public review panel to decide what items can be sold, improved designation of what would be called “Urban Arts Markets,” and possibly limiting sales to three days a week or on the weekends.

The report said it is difficult to ensure high-quality handcrafted art is sold in the markets. It called out so-called vendor entrepreneurs, currently comprising between 11 percent and 23 percent of participants, who are selling low-cost goods like items found in jewelry stores chains, Giants T-shirts and Hello Kitty hats, which “drastically shift the character of the markets.”

“Patrons expect flea market prices and are unwilling to purchase quality art at the requisite price,” the report said. “Consequently, it has become more difficult for artists to make a living through the markets. In this way, the program is increasingly failing to fulfill the agency’s mandate to promote the employment of artists.”

For example, Arts Commission director Thomas DeCaigny noted that crocheted Angry Bird hats are a popular sell among tourists and all one has to do is prove they can make one by hand to get a permit to sell in the program.

“There are not any guidelines that allow us to say we have over 100 artists making Angry Bird hats and maybe from a curatorial view there are too many artists making an Angry Bird hat,” he said.

He added that “the real challenge is the ability” to tell the difference between handmade items and in cases when a program participant decides to import cheaper goods that look like a handmade item.

Of those overall goods sold by the artists, 28 percent is jewelry, 27 percent is clothing and accessories, 28 percent is visual art and 17 percent is other designed objects. There are 132 selling spaces at Fisherman’s Wharf, 117 at Justin Herman Plaza and 70 at Hallidie Plaza. Artist pay an annual fee, which is currently $696.

“The Arts Commission should clearly designate these areas as open air markets and outfit them with Arts Commission signage that really signals to the public that these are legitimate art markets where they will find high quality work,” Faust said.

The arts and craft movement has grown into a $30 billion movement as more cities have embraced the selling of crafts and websites like Etsy.com promote artists goods. Arts Commission officials see opportunity here to capitalize more on the industry.

Currently, 57 percent of program participants earn more than $10,000 annually, the report said.

As the Arts Commission is examining ways to improve the street artists program, it is also addressing the displacement of artists from their studios or homes. An online survey asking artists who are facing evictions in studios or homes was filled out by more than 300 people. The data gleaned from the surveys is expected to be presented to the commission next month.artistsArts CommissionBoard of SupervisorsHaight-AshburyhousingNorth BeachrentSan FranciscoSantiago AlonsoThomas DeCaigny

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