How Public Art Exposed Class Tensions in San Francisco — a series of conversations about art, class and race that emerged from “Block by Block,” a public art project.

Insights From Our First Public Art Collaboration

Installation of “Block by Block” in its new home in Mission Bay. Credit: Darryl Smith, Luggage Store Gallery

The Kenneth Rainin Foundation is fortunate to work alongside partners who are willing to challenge the status quo, test new ideas, and share knowledge. “Block by Block,” a public art installation the Foundation funded, was an experiment — we understood the tensions in San Francisco’s Central Market neighborhood going in, yet we firmly believed, along with our partners, that the community would benefit from a public art project that brought people together. Collectively, we felt it was a risk worth taking.

We think there’s a lot to be gained from transparency and we are grateful to our partners for their candor. “Block by Block” was a success on many levels. This project reinforced some of our insights going in, while others were shaped by the variables of working in public space. As we reflect on this project, we embrace what we heard from others and what we took away from the experience, and we are incorporating these lessons into our future projects.

1. Engage public space in creative ways. The beauty of public art is how it catalyzes connections between people and space. Engaging public space injects new energy and encourages interaction while creating a sense of local pride and ownership. The scale of a project can also contribute to the dynamics. Paul Chasan from the City’s Planning Department posited that if “Block by Block” had been bigger, it may have encouraged more participation as people would have had more freedom about where to sit.

2. Analyze the location, identify a comprehensive list of stakeholders and incorporate neighborhood outreach. A thorough site assessment and open communication with neighbors and businesses before and during an installation’s life is essential to success. Stakeholders will have questions, concerns and feedback that needs to be discussed. For “Block by Block,” reaching out to more residents like Wayne Shaw at the San Cristina Hotel may have unearthed additional insights from locals who intimately knew the block.

3. Create a relationship to the site. Public art can make a significant contribution by embracing the unique assets of the neighborhood. Projects should take into account the site, its history, foot traffic and the surrounding environment. The artist behind “Block by Block” did just that by including a seesaw and swing, interactive features meant to inspire connection and play in a divided community.

Music and dancing at “Block by Block.” Credit: Darryl Smith, Luggage Store Gallery

4. Build trust and embrace the learning process. Public art is negotiated and involves partnership and compromise. Frequent meetings and consistent communications with stakeholders throughout the process are necessary for exchanging information, leveraging resources, and strengthening relationships. These actions help to mitigate tensions and potential problems down the road. “Block by Block” was a learning experience for all of us and being candid created transparency, built trust and advanced our work in this area.

5. Engage community members in the space. Programming activities and events at the site attract a broad audience and can disrupt negative activity, benefiting the work and the artist. The Luggage Store Gallery coordinated a variety of programs at the site. Ilana Lipsett of The Hall commented that “Block by Block” was at its best when occupied with sewing classes or live music.

6. Acknowledge and celebrate accomplishments. While a project may encounter resistance and challenges, it’s important to honor its positive outcomes. “Block by Block” revealed promising aspects — the woman who found refuge in the platform, the entrepreneur who was hired by the neighborhood food hall, and moments of levity that included dancing, singing and knitting. It also contributed to some unlikely relationships and strengthened existing ones.

7. Stewardship is vital. According to Simon Bertrang of the Department of Public Works (DPW), “There’s no substitute for staff.” The City of San Francisco has full-time staff monitoring public bathrooms and needle drop-offs. Based on the “Block by Block” experience, DPW positioned staff at “Sound Commons,” the Exploratorium installation at UN Plaza. The staff members serve as docents — in addition to making sure the site is safe and clean, they help people engage with it.

Public art can be a constructive force for addressing critical issues and we encourage others to support this work. “Block by Block” became a vehicle for creative solutions and new relationships, influencing other public art projects that were in the works as well as future planning efforts, and inspiring us to continue funding work in the public realm. The lessons we learned and the partners that joined us have informed our strategies and were instrumental in helping us fine-tune the Rainin Foundation’s newly launched Open Spaces Program, which will support temporary public art in Oakland and San Francisco.

This post is part of a series of conversations about art, class and race that emerged from “Block by Block,” a public art project.

Let’s hear from other stakeholders…

The Funder: Shelley Trott
The Neighbor:
Wayne Shaw
The Guardian:
Darryl Smith
The Artist:
Marisha Farnsworth
The City Planners:
Paul Chasan and Neil Hrushowy
The Entrepreneur:
D’Mond Hill
The Changemaker:
Ilana Lipsett
The Gatekeeper:
Simon Bertrang

Where does the story begin?

How Public Art Exposed Class Tensions in San Francisco