'The Bay Lights' Promises Bright Lights and Big Money in the New Tradition of Grand Public Art

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After two years of elaborate logistics and private fundraising, New York-based artist Leo Villareal's The Bay Lights, a site-specific light installation on the western span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, will be lit on March 5, 2013. The work will be visible as a kinetic light display every evening from dusk to midnight for the next two years. It promises the world's largest light sculpture at nearly two miles wide and 500 feet high; it consists of 25,000 individually programmed white LED lights. Despite its scale, the project is designed to be unobtrusive to drivers on the bridge. There is no doubt it will instigate a wide reaching dialog on the value of art in a way the Bay Area has never seen before. Its sheer accessibility, visible from miles away, promises to outshine the best efforts of any institution within or beyond the city.

Leo Villareal is widely known for his light installations and architectural interventions. He recently created large-scale works for the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and in Madison Square Park in New York. The notion to use the Bay Bridge as the framework for a grand artistic gesture was initially conceived by Bay Area artist Ben Davis, founder and owner of the San Francisco creative marketing agency Words Pictures Ideas. Once introduced to Villareal's work by Zero1 curator Dorka Keehn, Davis became the driving force behind the project. The realization of The Bay Lights is a testament to an admirable force of will, from the artist to the organizers to the fleet of personalities involved including representatives from city agencies, transit workers, engineers, programmers, electricians and more.

People will love it or hate it, to be sure. For the last several weeks, the public has been given previews of the project during test runs on select evenings. Unfavorable comparisons have already been made to the theatrical aquatics of Las Vegas casinos. Light pollution activists have voiced objections on the grounds that the project interferes with stargazing. Others grumble about the wealth of private resources directed at the project -- $6 million of the $8 million fundraising goal has been reached -- while still others find the project lacking in intellectual complexity.

But the fact that it promises to be contentious makes it seem more promising than any other grand gesture in recent memory. When everyone agrees, the subject is quickly changed. In this regard, perhaps The Bay Lights offers more complexity than initial perceptions allow because it certainly does not promise a consensus. But it does make other huge promises, on par with its scale. The website asserts that more than 50 million people in the Bay Area will be impacted, with billions more seeing the project in the media and online. It also estimates that $97 million will be added to the local economy, presumably through hospitality and tourism revenue.

Other recent multi-million dollar, large scale public art projects have made similar claims elsewhere. Mayor Bloomberg's office estimated Olafur Eliasson's The New York City Waterfalls (2008), a series of public art installations staged in the city's waterways, generated $55M in tourism revenue. Another project previously staged in Central Park, The Gates, Central Park, New York City (1979-2005) by artists Christo and Jeanne Claude, is estimated to have generated $254 million in economic activity. Quantifying these claims is difficult, of course, but the suggestion of so much money flowing into the Bay Area is certainly compelling. The promise of monetary return concretizes the value of public art in ways that decision makers seem to understand, at least from the perspective of a spreadsheet. Each of the above projects lasted a fraction of the time The Bay Lights will be up and running -- The Gates were only in place for fifteen days.

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The Bay Lights is negotiating a new category as a hybrid of semi-permanent sculpture and temporary spectacle. How it will sustain interest remains to be seen -- people love to hate public art and then later people hate to see it removed from the landscape. The Bay Lights promises a dynamic display, programmed to be different from one night to the next and from one vantage point to another. Detractors and supporters alike may change their minds over the course of the project, depending on what remains to be seen.

The Bay Lights will be lit March 5 and will run for two years, nightly from dusk to midnight. For more information visit thebaylights.org.