The San Francisco Art Commission unveiled Art in Storefronts in 2009, a program of temporary public art commissioned by local artists to populate vacant storefronts. Many of the city's commercial corridors were hurt by the economy and empty storefronts contributed to a palpable malaise. Further, vacancies invited vandalism that propagated more vandalism, which dispelled new business. Inviting artists to revivify empty storefronts, it was theorized, would generate community pride and increase foot traffic. Beyond its success locally, this San Francisco program, with its open source online Toolkit, has become a model for other cities across the country.
The current iteration is along the Central Market Street corridor, between UN Plaza and 6th Street. It features eleven site-specific projects, including murals and sculptural installations, along with seven additional projects hosted by community partners including the Luggage Store and Gray Area Foundation for the Arts. As a walking experience, the program invites a reconsideration of areas you may not visit often, or ever. While looking for the projects, denoted with purple and gold signage, you notice things that could easily be construed as art but are simply components of the urban fabric, such as vintage signage for places like the Odd Fellows Temple or the mysterious and anachronistic International Art Museum of America.
I emerged from the Civic Center station, blinking confusedly like a mole adjusting to sunlight. Though I know the city well enough, this particular area felt unfamiliar. I was intrigued by a traveler's sense of wonder without having gone any further than downtown.
Paz de la Calzada's Central Market Dreamscape (2011) wraps around the exterior of the defunct Strand Theater. Rendered in charcoal, the artist created a swirling mass of hair-like strands over the boarded-up former entrance. Above the iconic sign and marquee, a cut paper installation adorns the second floor windows, evocative of street artist SWOON. A diminutive paper signature spelling 'Swoon' made me wonder if I stumbled upon one of Swoon's actual interventions or the work of a copycat. My eyes traveled back and forth between the drawing, the original theater sign, and the cut paper in the windows, thinking about how simply the artist encapsulated the layered histories of the site: there isn't one strand, there are many. I crossed the street to see the work better but the finely rendered drawing was a sooty mass from a distance. To really take it in, you had to stand close -- but if you stood too close, you couldn't really take it all in.
"TRUTH," Rigo 23, 2002.
It was like a metaphor about living with urban peculiarities. From across the street, I spied a tiny corner of something compelling on another building. To see it more clearly, I backed further and further up UN Plaza, going behind the fountain while holding my breath to avoid the stench of piss and god knows what else -- this is a city, after all. And there it was, for anyone who had the fortitude to look from that vantage point, Rigo 23's TRUTH (2002) spelled out larger than life in black, white, and silver. Like Art in Storefronts, you could almost miss it in the visual cacophony of the street.
"Swallowtails & Sycamores," Amber Hasselbring, 2011.
Further up Market, Keith Agoada's City of Green (2011) presents a vertical garden on the exterior of the Luggage Store. With so much discussion in popular media about greening the urban cityscape, it felt plausible that I was looking at an actual garden and not an artwork. Another work, Amber Hasselbring's digital mural Swallowtails & Sycamores (2011), depicting indigenous butterflies and trees on the exterior of a former drug store, further complicated my sense of reality.
Do butterflies really inhabit downtown? I wondered as I made my way back down into the caverns of another transit station. Before today, I might not have imagined such intricate phenomena on Market Street.
Art in Storefronts runs through August 13, 2011 along Central Market Street corridor in San Francisco. For more information or to listen to the Sights and Sounds of Central Market podcast visit sfartscommission.org.