Read Local: Public Displays of Oddity

Categories: Read Local

Tiled Steps, 2005, by Colette Crutcher and Aileen Barr, at Sixteenth Avenue and Moraga Street.

New York City might be home to the big houses, but this scrappy city just happens to be the epicenter of publishing on the Best Coast. Join Alexis Coe every Wednesday for Read Local, a series on books produced in the Bay Area.

San Francisco might not be the cultural center of the world, but unlike Manhattan, we're surrounded by public art. The city's urban landscape reflects its citizens' celebration of diversity, creative energy, and political activism. Often commissioned or funded by the tireless efforts of the San Francisco Arts Commission, one can hardly walk a block without passing a sculpture garden, WPA mural, music venue, or photography exhibition.

What isn't always abundant, however, is how the work got there, but a new book from Bay Area publisher Heyday Press, San Francisco: Arts for the City: Civic Art and Urban Change, 1932-2012, fills that void. Writer Susan Wels begins with one of the San Francisco Arts Commission's first projects, the WPA murals at Coit Tower, once hotly contested, and concludes with the 2003 sculpture on the Embarcadero, Crouching Spider by Louise Bourgeois. Here are sample pages from a book that belongs on every San Franciscan's coffee table.

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Nothing about Coit Tower, perched atop Telegraph Hill, suggests the battle royal that ensued over the interior. In May 1934, artists painting the interior had clear views of the Pacific Maritime Strike picket lines, when teamsters and freighters brought the city's commerce to a halt. Their art, as a result, became increasingly political. Dr. William Heil, then director of the de Young Memorial Museum, wrote to Washington that he surely spied communist symbols.

A month later, tensions were explosive. Picket lines, which were now right outside the tower, turned bloody. On July 5, subsequently known as "Bloody Thursday," two were declared dead, 31 wounded by gunfire, and 78 badly injured by bricks, clubs, and tear gas. Just a month later, the strike was over, and the controversial panels by artist Clifford Wight removed. When doors opened to the public in October, the backstory of the largest and most contentious PWAP program in the country was soon forgotten.


Fully aware that pop-up galleries and site-specific art engage viewers, the San Francisco Arts Commission does not shy away from new forms of expression that delve into social issues. Aerial dancers in Project Bandaloop, suspended from a building, explored the relationship between movement and gravity, bringing greater awareness to viewers' awareness of the natural and built environment. Below, performers from Scott Wells and Dancers presented Wrestling with Affection at CounterPULSE in SOMA. The dance theater piece focused on men, music, and war. Both were made possible by a Cultural Equity Grant.


When SFO renovated Terminal 2 in 2011, site specific art was installed throughout, making the inevitable time spent waiting in an airport, or fleeing from it, far more enjoyable. Every Beating Second by Janet Echelman adds necessary wonder to an otherwise uninspiring modern environment.

Kary Schulmal (top) and Ellen Schumer

Kary Schulman should be smiling. For the past 30 years, she has successfully directed the Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund program. It supports a wide variety of arts and culture activities in the city. Below, City Hall historian Ellen Schumer speaks to these contributions. Many exhibitions have been installed in and around City Hall, including Three Heads, Six Arms, the 26-foot-tall, 60-foot-long, 15 ton sculpture celebrating the 30th anniversary of San Francisco's Sister City partnership with Shanghai.

In 1932, the San Francisco Arts Commission was established to mediate aesthetic issues, and has proven to be a diligent cultural innovator. Art has reflected and influenced the city's politics and identity, both in the center and out in the farthest-flung neighborhoods. Pride should be taken not only from seeing these infrastructures of expression in the city, but understanding how they came about, which this San Francisco: Arts for the City: Civic Art and Urban Change, 1932-2012 beautifully, and adeptly, supplies.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook. Follow Alexis Coe on twitter @alexis_coe.
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