Art Works Blog

MICD25 Spotlight on San Francisco

San Francisco, California

Giant Ghosts, 2009, recycled paper, by Paul Hayes, part of the San Francisco Arts Commission's Art in Storefronts project. Photo by Eduardo Solér

Established in 1932, the San Francisco Arts Commission includes providing equal access to high-quality art experiences for all of its residents as one of its missions. The arts commission has partnered with city agencies, urban designers, and local stakeholders to form the Mid-Market Cultural District Partnership, a collaborative effort to redevelop and transform Market Street---one of San Francisco's main thoroughfares---between 6th and 8th Streets into a dynamic, pedestrian-friendly arts and culture hub. We spoke with Director of Cultural Affairs Luis R. Cancel to learn more about the project.

NEA: Please describe your project and what you hope it will bring to the residents of San Francisco.

LUIS R. CANCEL: The ARTery Project is a new initiative aimed at revitalizing a blighted and largely vacant stretch of the Central Market commercial corridor into a nationally-celebrated cultural destination. The project formally launched on December 9 with Lights on Market Street, a series of temporary light installations that are the first step in transforming the area into a dynamic, interactive, and engaging arts district. The three large-scale light installations will use new media technologies that engage pedestrians. Theodore Watson?s interactive projection installation invites the public to have their portrait digitally captured and then dynamically re-drawn larger than life in a wheat-paste style on a wall overlooking Market Street; Paul Notzold?s projection will feature an animated cartoon surrounded by speech bubbles that will be populated with poems created by students in the San Francisco Arts Commission?s award-winning WritersCorps program; and Jim Campbell will create a storefront installation that consists of two suspended curtains of 2,000 LED light pixels that project low resolution, moving images featuring pre-recorded scenes of pedestrians and traffic along Market Street.

We are also using other strategies that place the arts at the core of the neighborhood?s transformation. They are: activating vacant storefronts with local artists? installations that address community issues and history; expanding programming of arts organizations that have long been tenants on Market Street, with a special focus on sidewalk cultural activities and coordinated exhibition openings; placing large-scale sculptures from the Burning Man Festival out on the sidewalks for urban, interactive arts experiences and inquiry; instituting an "Indy Arts Market" at UN Plaza, one end of the Market Street stretch; and providing free music during daytime hours (May ? October) along Market Street.

Our short-term goal is to bring more foot traffic to the area, increase the economic activity for the merchants there, and activate the street with free cultural activities. Our long-term goal (and there are quieter grant-funded activities taking place to this end) is to increase the number of arts organizations located along this stretch of Central Market so that, over time, it becomes what the City has earmarked it to be?a thriving cultural arts district. In order to achieve this long-term goal, arts organizations, both in the neighborhood and those considering relocating to the area, are currently receiving pro bono technical support to have needs assessments of their organizations and space assessments of vacant space to determine where possible property matches might occur. This will help position arts organizations to be first in line when redevelopment funds kick in as early as 2012 with low-interest loans and capital support.
NEA: Why is it important to have arts and culture at the table when planning community revitalization efforts?

CANCEL: The arts are so integral to San Francisco?s entire ecology---economically, demographically, culturally, and academically. We have among the highest per capita of artists and arts organizations in San Francisco along with institutions of higher learning dedicated to professional art practice. The arts have always been at the forefront of neighborhood transformation, and thereby, revitalization. Not only are artists resourceful problem solvers and partners, historically it is their efforts to move into affordable neighborhoods where they can do their work in market rate spaces (or below) that inevitably transforms the neighborhood and its economy, clearing the path for more business activity, more people and more revenue. It is artists that make a neighborhood change from undesirable to a coveted locale. Tying these two points together, the arts are a presence in virtually every marginal neighborhood in San Francisco. NOT having the arts at the table would be cutting them out of a community process of which they are primary stakeholders.

NEA: How do you think the creation of cultural districts benefits the civic life of a community?

CANCEL: The arts have always been a presence in the Central Market district. Historically, the area was home to many movie theaters, and now it is home to the region?s premiere main stage and touring presenters. The Tenderloin and Central Market also have a wealth of community-based arts groups, from the 40-year-old Hospitality House---the only professional art studio open free to homeless and marginalized artists---to the long-time arts and activist organization, The Luggage Store. Too many gentrification efforts in the past have whitewashed the history and culture of a community, diluting its unique character and inevitably causing long-time residents to relocate. The ARTery Project takes the opposite approach. For example, the Art in Storefronts installations are created by San Francisco-based artists and all speak to the specific history and uniqueness of the neighborhood. In addition, the neighborhood?s long-standing arts organizations are considered key partners of this initiative and have benefited by receiving additional support to expand their offerings. This project?s integrity is based on the reflection of those who live and work in the Central Market neighborhood now, and the partnerships highlight the good work happening there among the many community groups(Bayanihan Philipino Community Center, Bindelstiff, LINES Ballet, the California Art Institute, local merchants on 6th Street, Hospitality House, etc.).

Creating an arts district emphasizes the cultural assets that are already extant, bringing into the spotlight the activities that have been ongoing in the area for decades, but were not perhaps touted throughout the city. The ARTery Project is not superimposing another pop-up culture onto Central Market; it is instead, giving it long-overlooked attention and making it the centerpiece of neighborhood transformation. Also, the neighborhood is among the most diverse in the city and the arts organizations in the area already serve the entire community.

NEA: Given the nature of your project, how would you define public art?

CANCEL: Public art that is a part of this project in particular must elicit public interaction and engagement, not in a static, viewing-only way, but in the creation of the actual artwork. For the three public art light installations along Market Street, funded by the NEA MICD25 grant, the community members, pedestrians, and workers in the neighborhood ARE the art. In one installation, a capture station digitally documents people?s faces, which are then morphed into a wheat-paste style portrait and projected on the side of a building two stories up and forty feet high. Anyone can have their portrait captured. It is 100% accessible.Similarly, Paul Notzold?s installation projects the poetry of WritersCorps youth onto the side of a building, two- stories high. The poems and companion images change every 24 hours, so passersby have a unique art experience each time they see it.

NEA: How important is MICD25 funding for the success of your project?

CANCEL: This grant was absolutely instrumental in the success of this project. $250,000 is a very significant sum for the Arts Commission to dedicate to a project. Our city partners---Redevelopment, OEWD, Planning, etc.---typically work with much larger resources, but this amount truly allowed the Arts Commission to come to the table as a major player. While the amount certainly was spread around broadly, we do feel that we were able to be inclusive thanks to these funds. We were able to provide funds for the arts organizations already doing work in the district, so they could expand their programming to fit in with the broader Central Market Cultural District vision.We were also able to partner with Public Architecture---as project managers for the light installations who were key in realizing the project in record time--and this also lead to some $400,000 of in-kind support for space and needs assessments through their One Percent Program, matching up architects and designers with non-profits in need of pro bono pre-development services.

And of course, the cachet of national funding for this local initiative drew significant attention from within the city and throughout the region, state, and country. This level of visibility helped to stoke the fires of political will already burning for this project.

NEA: Any last words?

CANCEL: Anecdotally, there were a number of people who attended the December 9. 2010, launch of Lights on Market Street that said they had never experienced the street like this before. They saw this stretch of Market Street in a whole new way. It was inviting, children from the community were there marching with their traditional Filipino parol lanterns, and engaged neighbors and merchants in a concentration of energy and cultural activities. One woman on her cell phone, giddy with excitement, was witnessed by an Arts Commission staff member imploring a friend to drop everything and come down to 6th and Market Street to see the installations. She told her friend, ?It is really exciting and creative. You have to get down here.? We hope that The ARTery Project will foster many more scenes like this one and that, in time, Central Market will be restored to a vibrant, safe, and exciting place to see and be seen.

Interested in our other MICD25 Spotlights? You can browse them here.

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