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New, old, quirky, costly: Get familiar with SF’s Civic Art Collection

Mikko Miller of Burlingame takes in the view of Vaillancourt Fountain as water flows from it at Justin Herman Plaza on Tuesday, August 15, 2017 in San Francisco, Calif. | Lea Suzuki/SF Chronicle via Getty Images
Arts & Entertainment

New, old, quirky, costly: Get familiar with SF’s Civic Art Collection

San Francisco has one of the “largest and broadest” public art collections in America.

That’s according to Allison Cummings, senior registrar for SF’s Civic Art Collection, who said the city’s holdings include “everything from the WPA murals at Coit Tower and Beach Chalet to the contemporary art installations at SFO.”

Weighing in at around 4,000 pieces, the city’s Civic Art Collection encompasses historic monuments, ceramics, photography, art festival purchases and even jewelry. About 20% of the artworks are tucked away in storage and the whereabouts of some are a bit of mystery. But you can find others on city streets, inside city buildings and alongside the moving walkways at the airport. 

“Public art is art that has a job to do,” Cummings said. “It’s artwork that beautifies civic space, that supports community.”

We took a look at the city’s collection, sorting through the thousands of items in the catalog, so you don’t have to. Here are five pieces we found particularly interesting.

The Most WTF Piece

San Francisco's Vaillancourt Fountain may be among the more quirky pieces in the city's broad and large civic art collection. | Lea Suzuki/SF Chronicle via Getty Images

Love it or hate it, the Embaracadero’s Vaillancourt Fountain is definitely one of the more stop-you-in-your-tracks pieces in the city’s Civic Art Collection. It just might make you pause and wonder aloud: “What the f**k?” 

Designed by Quebecois artist Armand Vaillancourt, the (sometimes) water-spouting sculpture was originally conceived as an answer to the now long gone Embarcadero Freeway and has been eye-catching and controversial since its 1971 debut. The San Francisco Chronicle’s critic at the time likened the Brutalist artwork’s rectangular tubes to “technological excrescences … deposited by a giant concrete dog with square intestines.” Ouch! Supervisor Aaron Peskin even proposed a resolution to demolish the fountain back in 2004.  

More recent reviews have been kinder with The Chronicle’s Tony Bravo calling the artwork “gorgeously stark, wonderfully abstract… and fabulously eccentric.” Wherever you stand on the fountain’s artistic merits, it’s certainly a more quirky attribute of San Francisco’s urban landscape. It even made a cameo in the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater video game franchise. 

The Most Expensive Piece 

Andrew Selbo, a San Francisco resident admires the wrapping murals on the ground floor of Coit Tower in San Francisco, Calif. on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

The priciest piece in the city’s art collection is a bit difficult to pin down, but Coit Tower holds a treasure trove of top-dollar art, according to the San Francisco Arts Commission. 

“There are over 4,000 pieces in our civic art collection, many of which are priceless and difficult to fully appraise,” wrote Coma Te, the art commission’s Director of Communications, in an email. “The murals found in Coit Tower, painted by 27 artists, are estimated to be valued at $4.5 million.”

Taken together, they form one of the “most expensive pieces in the collection,” Te confirmed. 

Painted in 1934 by a group of artists employed by the Public Works of Art Project, a precursor to the Works Progress Administration or WPA, the paintings depict life in California and San Francisco during the Depression, according to the San Francisco Department of Recreation and Parks’ website. Most of the painters were deeply influenced by the work of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, who has a few prominent murals scattered throughout the city, and his social realist style, according to SF Travel. Together the murals at Coit Tower comprise, “a monument to the use of the fresco technique in America,” wrote WPA-era art historian Dr. Francis O’Connor.

The Oldest & First 

An over 200-year-old Buddha statue in Golden Gate Park’s Japanese Tea Garden holds the distinction of being the oldest object in the city’s art collection. Officially named “Amazarasti-no Hotoke” (“The Buddha that sits throughout the sunny and rainy weather without shelter”), it has seen many moons, sunrises and sunsets since about 1790. The statue was gifted to the city by luxury home decor retailer Gump’s in 1948, according to the arts commission.   

The large bronze Buddha statue at the Japanese Tea Garden was cast in Tajima, Japan for Taionji Temple, then presented to the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco in 1949. Made around 1790, it is the oldest piece in the city's art collection. | Photo by John S Lander/LightRocket via Getty Images

But even though the Buddha statue is the oldest piece in the city’s collection, it wasn’t the first to be added. That distinction goes to Lotta’s Fountain, which famous Vaudeville performer, Lotta Crabtree, gifted to the city in 1875. Crabtree made a mint as a Gold Rush-era entertainer and, according to Atlas Obscura, used “some of the gold coin, gold nuggets and gold watches that gentlemen bestowed upon her” to buy the city she loved a fountain. 

Lotta's Fountain, gifted to the city in 1875, holds the distinction of being the first piece in the city's art collection. | Photo By Liz Hafalia/SF Chronicle via Getty Images

After San Francisco’s devastating 1906 earthquake, the fountain became a meeting point for survivors to reunite with loved ones. Since then, the fountain has become a site for remembrances of the earthquake, famous concerts and a fixture of countless San Franciscans’ commutes at the intersection of Kearny, Geary and Market streets.

The Newest 

Bow (2022) is a painted steel, aluminum, glass and wood sculpture shaped like the bow of a boat created by Walter Hood (Hood Design Studio). | Courtesy Ethan Kaplan/ Collection of the City & County of San Francisco

This one is a bit of a tie. Landscape architect and MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner Walter Hood’s shiplike Bow and Cuban American artist Jorge Prado’s lollipop-like light sculpture Untitled were unveiled within a month of each other this year as part of two milestone public works projects. 

Bow complemented the March 10 completion of the San Francisco Fire Department’s new floating fireboat station at Pier 22 ½, the first of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. The sculpture creates an observation platform for sweeping views of the Bay and Bay Bridge; its glass panels depict historic fireboat responses to the Loma Prieta Earthquake and 2020’s pier fire at Fisherman’s Wharf.   

Untitled by Jorge Pardo (2022) is comprised of painted steel, fiberglass, acrylic and LED light fixtures on the Van Ness Avenue Geary Street Boarding platforms. It was commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission for the California Department of Transportation/Caltrans. | Courtesy Ethan Kaplan/Courtesy of the San Francisco Arts Commission

Prado’s Untitled brings a pop of whimsical light and color to the Geary Street Station of the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit Project, which finally opened April 1 after more than two decades of planning. Riding Muni may draw mixed opinions, but this sculpture undoubtedly makes the commutes of riders a little bit brighter. 

Best Reason to Get to SFO Early

Not missing your flight is one incentive for getting to San Francisco International Airport with plenty of time to spare. But if that’s not enough, SFO offers travelers many interesting pieces of eye candy to peruse while waiting for flight crews to finish whatever it is they’re always tinkering with underneath the plane.

There’s a whimsical pair of high-heeled shoes by the “princess of polka dots,” famed Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, in Terminal 1; a hanging star of contorted aluminum by sculpture Mark Handforth on the departures level; inverted “tectonic plates” suspended from the ceiling at one security checkpoint; even hanging lights inspired by the literary luminescence of San Francisco writer Rebecca Solnit.

“The art collection found at SFO has many notable Bay Area artists that welcome and bid bon voyage to countless travelers every day,” wrote Te. 

Interesting pieces and places to see or visit in San Francisco’s public art collection.
Woody De Othello's Time, Turn, and Light, (2019) is located on Level 3 of the San Francisco International Airport's International Terminal and was commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission for SFO. | Courtesy of the San Francisco Arts Commission

But the most eye-catching artwork may be that of up-and-coming Oakland sculptor Woody De Othello. Titled Time, Turn and Light, the set of bronze sculptures depict sets of hands intertwining with clocks, a flashlight, a candle and a doorknob in a surreal, Dali-esque fashion. The artwork can be found on an outdoor terrace and observation deck in the International Terminal. 

Wondering where to find all these wonderful pieces? Check out our map: