Public Art Gems Brighten SF’s Civic Center

by Sura Wood

Works of public art in the Civic Center neighborhood are emblematic of the San Francisco Arts Commission goal of enhancing a visitor’s experience of public spaces.

If you know where to look, you can find inspiring works of art throughout San Francisco: in courthouses, hospitals, libraries, parking garages and other public buildings as well as at an array of outdoor spaces, from urban walkways to neighborhood parks. Since 1969, when the Art Enrichment Ordinance was implemented, requiring that 2 percent of construction costs from new civic projects be allocated to public art, more than 1,765 sculptures, paintings and installations have been commissioned or acquired by the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC).

“[Public art is there to] enhance the visitor’s experience of public spaces, to perhaps teach them about the history of the site or the community, or just to delight them with color and beauty,” says Jill Manton, SFAC director of Public Art Trust and Special Initiatives. The works are exhibited either permanently or temporarily. Some are in plain view, while others have a more limited audience. For example, Lewis deSoto’s “Jury Assembly Room” (1997) the actual room where potential jurors await selection for trials, is on the lower floor of the San Francisco Superior Courthouse on McAllister Street. The entire space is designed as a functioning, cohesive work of art, but those who haven’t been summoned for jury duty there probably haven’t seen it. Visitors pass through an illuminated projection of the state seal of California on their way into a room beautifully appointed with rich wood paneling, reminiscent of an Ivy League library. It contains 32 maple chairs and four cherry tables; finely crafted wood study carrels ring the perimeter.

DeSoto brought his own jury experience to the project. “I remember feeling like a prisoner in a dreadful, uncomfortable room,” he recalls. “The despair was palpable, like you were being punished for being on a jury. I felt not valued as a citizen. [So] I tried to create an environment I would enjoy. Everything was made with solid wood, [which]… implies a kind of dignity, a gravitas that I liked.” Napa artisan Ed Clay built the furniture, in a style, says deSoto, that echoes the furnishings that appear in eight edge-lit glass panels that are divided into two sets and hang on opposite sides of the room. Sandblasted on glass, the imagery, based on a painting in the collection of the Library of Congress, depicts the founding fathers, their faces blank—deSoto wanted jurors to see themselves in place of the founding fathers—gathered around tables at the signing of the Constitution.

Framing the scenes are excerpts from that historic document, but the text is deliberately blurred to conform with the request of the Superior Court judges that there be no words exhibited in the space that could be construed as instruction in the law. “The handwriting is not completely discernible,” explains deSoto. “But people instinctively understand its source.”

To view the Jury Assembly Room installation, call the Superior Court Communications Office: 415/551-5957.

One of the essential aims of the SFAC program is that the art reflect the purpose of the facility, a goal certainly achieved with projects installed at the San Francisco Main Library. In the atrium, beginning on the first floor and rising several stories high, is Nayland Blake’s “Constellation” (1996), a tall, majestic rectangle featuring rows of illuminated glass shades inscribed with the names of 20th-century authors, whose books are contained on library shelves. “Functional and Fantasy Stair” and “Cyclone Fragment” (1996), related aluminum sculptural constructions by New York artist Alice Aycock, are both spectacular and seamlessly integrated into the architecture. Connecting the 5th and 6th floors, the Fantasy Stair climbs and spirals upward, seemingly going nowhere; a large, corrugated metal fan shape is anchored on the floor next to the stairway, and an upside-down cone, adjacent to the right-hand railing, surges volcanically toward the ceiling. The whole ensemble seems to undulate even though it’s stationary. “Cyclone,” a companion piece suspended from the ceiling in the atrium between the 4th and 6thfloors, and best viewed from the 5th floor bridge walkway, resembles the inside of a mammoth, deconstructed observatory or the coiled metal skeleton of a vast spaceship adrift in the firmament. “For my generation, it was hard not have been affected by the euphoria of going to the moon and thinking about how to get off the earth,” says Aycock, who, in her art practice, associates stairways and spirals with the quest for knowledge, a pathway that’s dynamic but not necessarily linear. “I like to play with the notion of defying gravity and vortexes of energy and thought in motion,” she explains.

For a contemplative experience, hike from Civic Center to David Best’s Temple at Patricia’s Green at Octavia and Linden Streets in Hayes Valley. Since its unveiling in June, the 37-foot-high wood structure with ornate Asian motifs and a central spire has quickly become a congregating spot for the community. Though it looks like it has always been there, this new iteration replaces a similar temporary temple on the same site that the artist constructed and took down in 2005. Best, who’s famous for the monumental edifices he erects and sets ablaze at Burning Man events in the Nevada desert, fabricated sections of the current temple at his Petaluma studio and assembled them on site over the course of a week with the assistance of his crew and local volunteers. Not simply a work of art, it’s a functional, interactive space intended as a place of remembrance and informal communion, where visitors can meet, talk and leave personal notes or their initials on benches and the surfaces of the artwork. It’s also a refuge from the sun on a hot day and a perfect lunch destination for workers in the area. It will be up for a year. “David’s pieces are universally beloved,” says Manton. “Talk about artworks that are place-making! This is a perfect example.”

For more information on SFAC public art projects and locations: