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Art Riot!: New Book Commemorates a Time When Public Art Sparked Street Violence

Scott Lucas | March 20, 2013 | Lifestyle Story City Life

Partly by design, San Francisco's public art courts controversy. In 1981, Robert Arneson's sculpture of slain Mayor George Moscone was rejected by the city's arts commission because its bloodstains, bullet holes, and Twinkies were deemed offensive. Years later, Supervisor Chris Daly suggested the best place for a sculpture honoring Juan Bautista de Anza, who founded Mission Dolores and the Presidio, was at the bottom of the Bay.

But even with all the strong emotions, nobody has ever been killed over public art—well, at least not recently.

In 1934, riots were sparked after the Examiner published on its front page sketches of the murals that were to be painted inside of Coit Tower. The Communist symbols included the hammer and sickle, copies of books by Karl Marx, and the phrase "United Workers of the World." Two people died and thirty-one were shot in the violence that followed. Though the number of art-related deaths has plummeted since then, public art in San Francisco remains fraught.

In her new book, Arts for the City, Susan Wels traces the history of civic art in the City through the story of the San Francisco Art Commission, the governmental agency in charge of public works of art. Founded in 1932, the Commission and its work is a microcosm of larger aesthetic and political history. "We tend to get in trouble when we don't listen to the community," says Director of Cultural Affairs Tom DeCaigny. "That's why we make an effort to engage with the outside world as early as possible during the projects." In addition to Coit Tower and its murals (restored in 1990) he points to the 1989 Keith Haring sculpture "Untitled" (Three Dancing Figures) as an example of successful civic art.

One of the new challenges for the Arts Commission is to account for the impact of the technology—both in the media of the works and in the changes that the industry has brought to the City. Though DeCaigney doubts that Steve Jobs will be cast in bronze anytime soon, he points to the Bay Lights (not an Arts Commission project) as a forerunner of the kinds of works he hopes to be seeing more of.

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