Ken Garcia: How many allowances must be made for guerrilla art in parks?

When the dripping fog rolls in, there are quite a few slippery spots at Brooks Park, a tiny, little-known, green parcel that sits high above San Francisco’s Oceanview district. But no slope is quite as slippery as the one fashioned by a vocal park activist, who decided to install a guerrilla art project in the trees and on the hill.

And as Peter Vaernet has found in recent months, one man’s muse is another agency’s lingering headache. By trying to craft his own “don’t tell, then ask’’ policy, Vaernet has inspired The City’s Recreation and Park Commission to come up with stricter guidelines for art in public parks — and much of the discussion so far has not been to his liking.

Recreation department officials were rather surprised one day to find that their nicely manicured park had been adorned with six new structures, including a large ceramic hand, a giant wind chime and a stone-and-wood bench that on clear days offer stunning views of the ocean and the green expanse near Lake Merced.

Vaernet acknowledges that he organized the project in conjunction with art students at San Francisco State University — and he must have needed a lot of their equipment to pour the cement and hang some of the installation. The only problem was, he never sought permission for the art installation, which is why his little project hangs in the balance.

I toured the park recently to view the pieces, which range from ordinary to fairly charming — but they’re hardly the great environmental teaching tools that their advocates claim them to be. Yet the merry prankster in me can certainly enjoy the kind of inspired mischief that stirred the project. It wasn’t so long ago that I was applauding the artist who crafted and planted a pot-bellied gnome of Jerry Garcia in Golden Gate Park on the anniversary of the death of the Grateful Dead’s gifted guitarist.

But lest anybody forget, the 3-foot mini-Jerry was nabbed for violating official city protocols on art and parks, in probably the quickest movement ever by two snaillike agencies — the Arts Commission and the aforementioned Recreation and Park Commission. There was much hand-wringing among Deadhead discussion groups about the unfairness of it all, but the gnome never made another appearance, and the idea of a more permanent Jerry shrine drifted into the wind.

When Vaernet’s project was discovered and he was told that he would have to remove it, he asked the Recreation and Park Commission for a three-month extension — a period he used to try to build support for the art. But shortly before the deadline approached, he made another request to make the installation permanent, a move that several commissioners felt was an end-run around the process.

“We gave him an extension for the installation and he agreed to it,’’ Commissioner Meagan Levitan said. “And for three months he didn’t do anything about exploring a permanent permit. But the bottom line is that we can’t support unauthorized art projects because then it’s potentially open season on our parks.’’

Vaernet argues that similar objects had appeared in other city parks — in particular a series of wood carvings that were placed in Cayuga Park by a retired gardener there. Why should his beloved park be singled out, he said, when other unauthorized art appeared around town?And you can see why there was much gnashing of teeth among park commissioners and others at City Hall, since no one really wanted to be known as the grinch who seized artwork in cool and fuzzy San Francisco.

Before he left for Europe, Vaernet left me a lengthy message outlining the reasons he thinks the art should stay in the park. But there are problems beyond just the fact that it was unpermitted — the Arts Commission recently ruled that the objects are not art. So how can you allow art in the park if it’s not art? That will explain why the whole thing is in limbo — that and the fact that there are enough city officials involved to impede any obvious response.

“We’re trying to work out a solution that’s amicable,’’ Rec and Park spokeswoman Rose Dennis said. “And we’re hopeful that a decision will be reached fairly soon.’’

So it’s not art and it’s not legal and it doesn’t have a fairly strong advocacy to keep it. Even the art instructor at San Francisco State has been mum on the subject.

Brooks Park gardener Kitty O’Shea noted the root problem in the controversy.

“Peter has done a lot for this park,’’ she told me. “But maybe he should have just asked for permission.’’

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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