2.21 / It Is Good to Think Good Thoughts for Everyone

Social Materials: Storefront Art in Central Market

By Shannon Jackson July 12, 2011

Image: Mayor Edwin Lee unveiling Greetings from Central Market mural by artists Vicky Knoop and Beatrice Thomas at 998 Market Street, San Francisco, during launch of Art in Storefronts on May 13, 2011. Photo: Lydia Gonzales.

“It begins with art, it will be sustained with arts…with all the different definitions people have,” Mayor Edwin Lee called out, welcoming a crowd to the public launch of Art in Storefronts (AIS) in the Central Market neighborhood of San Francisco. “You are going to have fun tonight,” the mayor assured them. “You are going to have great fun…. And there are going to be many, many more parties.”

While a skeptic might question the easy equation between “art” and “fun” in a city space such as Central Market, “fun” has a politics. Nearly a dozen small-scale public art sculptures were commissioned to combat the perception that this neighborhood is a place without fun, or rather, a place where “amusement” often takes a dangerous turn. “Dangerous,” “seedy,” “dirty,” “blighted,” an “eyesore,” and an “embarrassment,”—the language that surrounds Central Market is an assembly of urban clichés. Having been the object—or target—of thwarted efforts at urban renewal in the past, occupants of this neighborhood might be forgiven for greeting the latest plan for economic redevelopment with a wary eye, even if this one promises to be different. The current program places the arts in partnership with local businesses, nonprofits, social services, and schools. This plan was buoyed by Gavin Newsom, who brought the press corps to the Luggage Store Gallery to announce his 2010 city budget, a location chosen by the outgoing mayor because, he said, the gallery embodies “everything that is spectacular about this city…and everything that is challenging.”1 The National Endowment for the Arts soon followed that gesture with $250,000 in support of public arts projects in Central Market. While such funds might be a drop in the bucket by certain measures, they symbolically and fiscally empowered the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) to launch arts events in what local officials are now calling the ARTery Project corridor of the city; these include the Lights on Market Street and the 2011 AIS project, currently up through August 13.
 
The use of the arts in urban vitalization has a long experimental history, one with mixed results. Those experiments and mixtures are on the minds of those who now hope for Central Market’s transformation. If the pejorative language of urban blight sticks relentlessly to this neighborhood, it shares space with an equally unsupple discourse of urban renewal. In the mid to late twentieth century, such a language famously rationalized the razing of marginalized neighborhoods and the displacement of their residents. Today’s language of “vitalization” sounds more humane, but it also can make assumptions about what vitalization looks like, assumptions that in turn affect how the arts are understood in the plan. Those plans stereotypically define artists as the energizing agent of dilapidated neighborhoods, paving the way for developers who raise property values until neither the local residents nor the artists can afford to live there. Much of the journalistic reception of AIS to date has an all too familiar ring, channeling a rhetoric that places the public artist somewhere between janitor and makeover professional. While some celebrate the artist’s “gift” of vitality and creativity to the neighborhood, they often condescendingly assume that creativity did not exist before the gift of art was generously bestowed. Finally, much pro-arts urban-planning discourse avoids being directly concerned with the goals, lives, and long-term livelihoods of the artists charged with doing the sprucing and the giving. Can artists keep sustaining neighborhood life when they themselves scrape for studio space and balance four day jobs, often without the security of basic health insurance?

Many artists and project leaders of AIS seem all too aware of the instrumental rhetoric that celebrates urban arts. As commissioners craft arguments, curators negotiate with property managers, and artists mix their paint and install their wares, navigating the push and pull of that rhetoric turns out to be an art form in itself. It means that civic figures like Elvin Padilla, executive director of the Tenderloin Economic Development Project, are joining forces with people like Judy Nemzoff and Robynn Takayama of the SFAC to devise shared social and aesthetic goals. In such a landscape, no single barometer seems adequate to assessing the success of a project like AIS. Indeed, the evaluation of the project warrants an evaluation of how we evaluate in the first place, as well as a willingness to devise new barometers that are rigorous both socially and aesthetically.

Art in Storefronts San Francisco

Procession toward United Nations Plaza during launch of Art in Storefronts on May 13, 2011. Photo: Roxanne Quezada Chartouni.

Let’s begin by considering the phrase “Art in Storefronts” and ask particularly about how that preposition “in” functions. Right there, we have a question about whether we understand the “Art” to exist independently from the streetside environment, about whether it can be frictionlessly moved “in” and “out” of the storefront. But we might also remember that storefront art is rapidly joining the mural movement and other socially engaged forms in becoming its own genre, one that makes art from the environment and systems of the storefront itself. The storefront then is not simply a container for the art, but also its primary material. The challenge and opportunity of site-specific art thus comes from how we understand the storefront, the plaza, or the building exterior, materially and discursively. What is the artist’s storefront or the muralist’s wall? What is the relation of that front or that wall to a wider civic infrastructure? Site-specific art not only brings new images to a site but prompts an engagement and re-imagining of the fundamental structures of the site itself. It expands the place of art by simultaneously reflecting upon how we construct our sense of place.

That more complicated sense of site has informed the 2011 AIS pieces on view, even if we also find AIS artists making different judgment calls about how to re-imagine Central Market’s social materials. The SFAC received over seventy applications from local artists who pitched designs for the site; a curatorial team assembled by the SFAC chose eleven projects. “The quality of the proposals was very high and included a diversity of media: painting, sculpture, community-based practice, video, sound, and interactive installations,” says Kelly Lindner, a freelance curator and project manager hired by SFAC to coordinate AIS.2 Six artists were assigned vacant storefronts, and five received permits to create murals on selected building exteriors. The launch of these projects coincided with the installation of others, including an eponymous podcast of the city’s Sights and Sounds, receptions at local arts organizations, and large public sculptures transported from Burning Man’s playa to the United Nations Plaza at Seventh and Market. With all of this variation, Mayor Lee’s offhand reference to the “different definitions” people have of the arts seems pointed, and those differences have implications for how we understand the form and content of public art practice.

Madeleine Trait’s Trashformation at the Public Utilities Commission building at 1155 Market Street offers a somewhat familiar response by crafting beauty from empty aluminum cans. Using a material that previously symbolized trash and is now a primary symbol of the recycling movement, she cut the aluminum into hundreds of butterfly shapes and placed them in a beautifully lit window whose black background recalls a high-end jewelry store. Some of the butterflies gather in a mass at the bottom of the window while others swoop into a shimmering, jewel-like swirl to the top of the casement, a straightforward but precise vision of hope and transformation. For Alexis Arnold, bicycle wheels became a primary material, and their transformation partook of a similar strategy of beautification. Her project at 1106 Market Street is part of an ongoing practice that uses crystals to alter our attention to found form, in this case bicycle wheels. A delicate layer of Borax-based crystal defines the geometry of the spheres and spokes, glistening in the window and rising into a composition that floats in the air. As Central Market planners make efforts to transform the area into a bicycle-friendly zone, the playful assemblage also has a politics, inviting us to imagine a bike-forward crowd of spheres and spokes en masse in the ARTery corridor. The pro-bike civic effort faces its own anxieties, though, including one over theft. Arnold decided to address this element by assembling gold-painted bike locks in a regular pattern on the grate outside the storefront window. Arnold’s piece thus imagines the ubiquitous bike locks left forlornly at sites of theft as a distributed form of public art. If the re-use of found materials is now a standard practice in environmental art, this piece raises the stakes. By re-using what Arnold calls “theftovers,” the discourse of crime occupies the interior of the work.

Alexis Arnold Art in Storefronts San Francisco

Alexis Arnold installing The Chrystal Bike Blanket, 2011; mixed-media installation, 1106 Market Street, San Francisco. Courtesy of the ARTery Project, San Francisco Arts Commission. Photo: Lydia Gonzales.

While some site-specific art prompts a renewed attention to the material world of Market Street, other pieces call attention to systems and histories that are less visible. Amber Hasselbring’s mural at 1089 Market Street depicts an enlarged image of a Western Tiger Swallowtail butterfly atop the branches of a London Plane tree. Both are examples of the fauna and flora indigenous to the Market Street neighborhood, representing an ecological system in an area where little attention has been paid to the natural world. Poised across the street from the Golden Gate Theatre and along the exterior wall of Show Dogs

restaurant, Rafael Landea’s mural at 1020 Market Street offers a visual homage to a missing theatrical history. Recalling all of the defunct theatres that once enlivened the corridor, his 20,000 Missing Seats is a mural depicting a tumult of chairs; the curved backs, arched handles, and patterned upholstery seem to somersault involuntarily along a rich red background, hurtled along like abandoned brushweed. Extending his preoccupations with theatrical infrastructure—his parents worked in opera and a young Rafael loved the view of the theatre from backstage—the piece uses the exigencies of theatre as a co-present medium to ask who is responding to its call to show up. But the piece also provokes attention to the many theatres that still populate the neighborhood and the many different kinds of activity that come under the theatrical label. Is theatre a venue for local playwrights (Exit Theatre), for decidedly nonlocal Broadway tour (Golden Gate Theatre), for mainstream film, or for the XXX adult show?

One barometer rooted in the goals of urban vitalization would measure the effectiveness of the AIS project in attracting a varied population of culture and white collar workers. The hope, as Takayama says, is “cultural enrichment” and to “draw foot traffic,” a goal that also opens up questions about whose feet will traffic, how fast they will walk, and who will linger and why.3 AIS is part of a larger program advanced by the Office of Economic and Workforce Development and other civic entities that have engineered much debated loans, rental arrangements, and tax incentives to lure tenants such as BLICK Art Materials, Farmer Brown Restaurant, the Black Rock Arts Foundation (of Burning Man fame), and its most recent coup, the offices of Twitter, to the neighborhood. One would be hard-pressed to assemble a more emblematic representation of the “creative class.”

A different “empowerment” barometer would measure AIS’s effectiveness by its representation of “voices of the community,” touting art as a vehicle for airing the aspirations and oppressions of marginalized neighbors. By this logic, the arts are important to the degree that community members see themselves reflected in the work. Finally, suspicious of all of the above, some aesthetic discourses would worry about the predetermined commitments of public art, concerned that the aesthetic integrity of a work would be compromised by processes that subordinate an independent aesthetic vision to the prepackaged content of urban planners or the desired forms of community concern.

Certainly, the Central Market art project could be celebrated by one of these frames as intensely as it is critiqued by another. The Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, recently relocated from Taylor to Market Street, mixes science and art with enough playful rigor to be an attraction to Twitter’s digerati. And depending upon how one imagines Twitter’s role in the future health of the neighborhood, the match is either a terrific cultural synergy or an insidious corporate conspiracy. (Reminding me that two million square feet remain vacant even after the Twitter occupancy, Padilla asserts, “We need a dozen Twitters.”4) On the subject of community representation, the Indigenous Arts Coalition (IAC) is quite clear about its political agenda, and some of their projections at 1112 Market Street take the commission as an opportunity to represent a visual history of Native American oppression that is less specific to the Central Market site. But by calling the piece Displaced/Replaced, IAC more pointedly joins the displacement politics of gentrification in San Francisco with that of Native American relocation.
Vanesa Gingold Dreams on Market

Vanesa Gingold. Dreams on Market, 2011; mixed-media installation, 1066 Market Street, San Francisco. Courtesy of the ARTery Project, San Francisco Arts Commission. Photo: Lydia Gonzales.

The question of how directly the content of AIS addresses the content of Central Market comes into focus by comparing the different choices and strengths of Vicky Knoop and Beatrice Thomas’s mural and that of Paz de la Calzada. Knoop and Thomas toured the neighborhood and interviewed people at different times of the day and in different spaces in order to identify distinctive sites and figures. Using the bold lines and colors of the vintage tourist postcard, their mural depicts Central Market chess games, its street cars, the Luggage Store Gallery, and the long-time retail space Piper’s Jewelry, whose history is also chronicled on Sights and Sounds. Cigarette Man—a distinctive personality and neighborhood fixture—also makes an appearance, a choice that neighborhood regulars celebrated with delight and approval. If urban planners talk of making Central Market a “destination,” Thomas and Knoop’s reverse tourism asks us to notice how local culture already functions as an “attraction.”

In contrast to these specific references, de la Calzada’s mural is not overtly legible as a neighborhood piece. Located along the foundational lower wall of the defunct Strand Theater, she takes the word strand in a metaphoric direction by enveloping the building's lower structure in a flowing mass of hair; strands of hair delicately drawn in charcoal undulate in and around each other, softening the lines and corners of the building’s structure while simultaneously invoking a Dali-like surrealism in its furry sentience. The imagery bears no literal relation to the neighborhood; nor does it evoke the bold, colorful graphics of the street art on view elsewhere. For Padilla, such work also has its place. “Most of the time the weight here is inescapable, and it’s good for there to be a diversification of different realities. I want art to take me some place else. I have this argument with my friends in social services: I say we are not defined by our poverty. Don’t give me the same old fist pumps, the same old images. That exhausts me. It’s an imposition. A one-size-fits-all mentality. Basically, I want the artists to do their thing; I just want them to invite someone else along.”5

The desire to “invite someone else along” seems key to understanding how the social dynamics of a site structure an aesthetic act. For many of the artists, this challenge was both conceptual and pragmatic. Before the AIS commission, Vanesa Gingold’s practice focused on installations that recalled the experience of childhood and, in particular, the impulse to create cocoons of play and safety. Her Dreams on Market continues previous work by installing tunnels and canopied environments created from delicate paper-based cutouts, though in this iteration visitors cannot “enter” the environment. Gingold’s decision to think about childhood on Market Street turns a romantically nostalgic gesture into a pointedly political question. According to Pat Zamora, the director of the Tenderloin Boys and Girls Clubs, the Central Market neighborhood has one of the highest proportions of the city’s children, a fact that sits ironically next to the perception that the neighborhood is too dangerous for children to be there.6

Gingold also interviewed neighborhood residents about their memories of childhood and made the transcriptions available at dreamsonmarket.org (painted on the store marquee). The website includes as many drawings as it does textual transcriptions, thanks in part to her work with visitors to the Community Arts Program (CAP) at Hospitality House on the first floor of the Luggage Store Gallery building. CAP hosted an open house at the AIS opening in May, offering a vivid reminder of how “different definitions” of the arts circulate and what it might mean for the arts to “bring someone else along.” Across the street from where the mayor made his announcement, CAP welcomed visitors while its regulars looked on at the crowd that kept them from getting back to work. Paints, pens, drying racks, and paper normally available for them to use were pushed to the side, and the walls displayed neighborhood artwork as well as flyers advertising mental health services and workshops on renters rights. Txutxo Perez, an artist who is also responsible for maintaining supplies and helping the community’s artists develop their techniques, talked about the role of CAP in helping locals “grow as people” and the need for organizations that simply offer them “a break in the daily hassle.”7 If culture work serves a social function at Hospitality House, Gingold’s piece echoes the daily work of people like Perez by re-incorporating that sociality into the material of an art event.

Paz de la Calzada Central MArket Dreamscape

Paz de la Calzada painting Central Market Dreamscape, 2011; mural, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco. Courtesy of the ARTery Project, San Francisco Arts Commission. Photo: Lydia Gonzales.

If site-specific art’s engagement with place means “bringing someone else along,” then each of these artists felt the dynamics of that encounter in different ways. Sometimes it meant extensively negotiating with property managers, lobbying to repaint a window frame or, as Alexis Arnold did, working around the construction of a new restaurant in her assigned space. The encounter with civic infrastructure was often reciprocal; Show Dogs Restaurant let the artists use their bathrooms, and several neighbors dropped off food and water for the artists as they worked. Encounters were more continuous for muralists than for storefront artists who worked behind a window. “I was an unusual element of their landscape,” said Paz de la Calzada; as such, she and all of the muralists found themselves in ardent conversations with people who wanted to give them advice or tell them about their lives.8 As a cross-sector collaboration, the AIS project is a place where everyone is re-skilling. Health service staff buy art supplies; curators become property negotiators; artists find themselves engaging in a social practice that verges on social work. For Padilla, the project is essentially “visual evidence of someone caring.”9 Apparently, AIS is a also place where community organizers start to sound like art critics.

AIS advances and questions an inherited practice of public art, refusing the monumentality of the single “plop art” sculpture by dispersing an aesthetic imagination in the nooks and crannies of the neighborhood. Given the weight of neighborhood existence, however, some might question whether dispersed, small-scale projects are robust enough to make an intervention or if their location leaves them too vulnerable. Some projects are encased by the iron black accordion of security gates; the protection makes it harder to see Gingold’s piece, for instance, though arguably it adds another somewhat menacing layer of reflection to a piece about safety and comfort. Meanwhile, the muralists know that they are leaving their art open to all forms of neighborhood engagement, even those that might deface it. Hopefully, “it will have a long lifespan,” said Robert D. Harris of his mural at 998 Market Street, knowing that the neighborhood would ultimately decide the character of that life. In fact, de la Calzada’s piece was tagged within a week of going up. As she talked about it on a recent tour, a middle-aged woman came running up to hug her, telling the group that Paz was “my girl” and “this girl has been working so hard here every day, and look, they desecrated her shit!” De la Calzada laughed good-humoredly, pointing to the defacement and saying, “Well, you can see that this work has become a collaboration.” As the woman continued to hug her—even proposing marriage—it become apparent that it already was.

 

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NOTES:

1. John Coté, “Anticipated Grant to Help Central Market,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 15 2010.
2. Interview with Kelly Lindner, June 29, 2011.
3. Robynn Takayama, introducing “Art in Storefronts Artist Talk and Art Walk” at the Luggage Store Gallery, June 15, 2011.
4. Interview with Elvin Padilla, June 23, 2011.
5. Ibid.
6. Interview with Pat Zamora, June 15, 2011.
7. Interview with Txutxo Perez, May 13, 2011.
8. Paz de la Calzada speaking at “Art in Storefronts Artist Talk and Art Walk” at the Luggage Store Gallery, June 15, 2011.
9. Interview with Padilla.

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