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.

The Funder Who Wanted Public Art To Connect a Changing Neighborhood

Reflections by Shelley Trott, Director of Arts Strategy & Ventures at the Kenneth Rainin Foundation

Shelley Trott at Rainin Foundation’s HQ in Oakland. Credit: Kenneth Rainin Foundation

Trott’s role: Once an active Bay Area dance artist, Trott now leads the Kenneth Rainin Foundation’s arts grantmaking.

Read the series intro: How Public Art Exposed Class Tensions in San Francisco


Shelley Trott’s Perspective

The Rainin Foundation understood the tensions in Central Market going in. We wanted to fund artwork that would engage with and speak to the transformation happening in that neighborhood, and “Block by Block” did that. This installation forced attention on complicated neighborhood issues and provoked a lot of challenging conversations.

“Block by Block” became somewhat of a flashpoint. As we were hearing the opinions and complaints around who was occupying the installation and what was happening there, we had to take a moment to pause and ask ourselves, Who are public amenities really meant to serve?

Is there a right type of person who should be sitting at the installation? Some uncomfortable realities around race and class surfaced in these conversations. We were also confronted with questions of public safety and crime…in the public realm. If there’s an issue of crime and safety, who’s responsible for addressing that? The police department? City agencies? The artists? The funder? Local businesses that supported the project? There was some finger-pointing on that question, but no resolution for “Block by Block.”

People enjoying “Block by Block.” Credit: Anna Meussig

“Block by Block” was also an experiment to bring public seating back to the area. We heard from the Luggage Store that gentrification was creating a visceral tension in the neighborhood.

Segments of San Francisco’s population are being excluded from opportunity — displaced — but “Block by Block” welcomed them, allowing them to be seen and heard.

When we learned that “Block by Block” might be removed, we awarded the Luggage Store a grant to support regular arts activities at the site. We hoped to disrupt the negative activity while we engaged with the community in a problem solving process. The activities were temporarily disrupted, but after a few community meetings, it was clear that the outcome was inevitable: the Department of Public Works made the decision to remove “Block by Block.”

The problems that surfaced with “Block by Block” cannot be arrested away. Instead of removing public art from the community, how can we use it to address social justice issues in a non-threatening context? I thought Ilana Lipsett’s response was brilliant and wish we had the opportunity to do more of that.

Public art has the power to break down barriers and inspire. There were many instances that showed us the promise and potential of public art— the woman who escaped domestic violence and found refuge in “Block by Block,” the street vendor who came to know the local merchants and was hired by the neighborhood food hall, and moments of levity and fun that included dancing, singing and knitting. We also saw how “Block by Block” helped strengthen and build relationships among neighbors, businesses, the police department and city agencies.

Reflecting on the experience, I wonder what was ultimately accomplished by removing the installation? The drug-dealing and street violence didn’t go away, it’s just no longer concentrated around the platform.

A young boy swings on “Block by Block.” Credit: Stephanie Secrest
As disappointing as it was to see “Block by Block” relocated, the fact that this experiment was allowed to happen and the way in which it brought the stakeholders together is really important.

This project was successful in affirming our support of public art — in Central Market, and other densely populated neighborhoods undergoing transformation. We gained many insights from this project and used them to create Open Spaces, our new grantmaking program to fund public art projects in both San Francisco and Oakland.

The Rainin Foundation knows that supporting experimental art in the public realm can be controversial. We are more interested in the revelations that are inspired by public art — the resulting learning, growth, and potential cross-sector collaborative solutions derived from it — than we are intimidated by the controversy.


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 the next stakeholder…

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

What did we learn?

Insights From Our First Public Art Collaboration