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San Francisco Takes Art to the Streets: Painters and Sculptors Transform Neglected Storefronts in Central Market

Some artists worry about pleasing galleries and buyers. Painter Rafael Landea takes feedback from the homeless.


Working on the corner of Market Street and Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco’s blighted Central Market neighborhood, Mr. Landea has spent the past few weeks painting a mural on a neglected stretch of street that depicts empty theater seats. The mural is meant to evoke a lost era when theaters filled the neighborhood, now littered with abandoned storefronts.


Passersby, including many homeless people, haven’t been shy about sharing their interpretations. One person complained that a seat looked more like a barber chair than a theater seat, and Mr. Landea made some changes.


“People are a lot more interested in art than we believe,” said Mr. Landea. “But some people don’t feel that they can go into a museum or an art gallery.”


San Francisco officials are bringing back a project that is filling empty and under-used retail locations in the Central Market area with 11 site-specific art installations, including Mr. Landea’s mural. It officially opens May 13. After a trial run in 2009, program organizers learned lessons about what works—and what doesn’t—in public art for downtrodden areas.


One lesson is that the artwork needs to serve two purposes, said Luis Cancel, director of cultural affairs at the San Francisco Arts Commission. It must make the street a more inviting place to linger, but also fit into the neighborhood, like Mr. Landea’s mural. “People really appreciated seeing themselves and their community reflected in the artworks,” said Mr. Cancel. “It’s a dialogue.”


The first time city officials tried using art as an economic stimulus they had some difficulty persuading property owners across a range of neighborhoods to participate. But the program succeeded both at decreasing graffiti on those buildings and increasing foot traffic to other businesses, said city officials and neighborhood groups.


This time, the program is focused just on the mid-Market neighborhood as part of a broader revitalization effort for the area backed by a $250,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Mr. Cancel said the city had no difficulty finding willing landlords because many had heard of the program and were onboard with revitalization plans.


For many of the artists, who are given a $1,500 stipend, the project’s community component meant taking a second look at a neighborhood they admit they usually avoid.


“You learn to put blinders on when you walk through there,” said sculptor Alexis Arnold. So the recent graduate from the San Francisco Art Institute set out to create a project that passersby would notice from the street and would encourage them to stop and pay attention.


Ms. Arnold took inspiration from what she calls “theft-overs”—bits of bicycles left on city streets after thieves have stolen all of the parts that aren’t locked down. For her piece, she covered used bicycle wheels with crystals, and installed them in the window of a former restaurant. On a metal grate that partially covers the window, she attached gold-painted bicycle locks.


The idea is to “take objects we usually discard or never think have a purpose in society and highlight the aesthetic form,” she said.


Vandalism is a concern. During the last effort, one artwork was tagged with graffiti and two windows were broken in different installations.


This time, the selection panel kept safety in mind when choosing projects—discouraging technology that might attract thieves, for example, and muralists have been warned not leave open any spaces in their designs that might attract graffiti.


Madeline Trait decided to make her sculpture for the program out of trash, both for practical and symbolic reasons. Her project features old aluminum cans cut to look like they are transforming into butterflies.


“The idea is creating beauty in what people don’t necessarily see as beautiful,” she said. “This art in its own way could help with a transformation in the community.”


Some of her butterflies will extend beyond the storefront window and high up into nearby trees, she said. If somebody were to walk off with one of her butterflies, she would be “OK with that,” she said with a laugh. “I hope they enjoy it.”


Published by Wall Street Journal.

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