A ‘Neighborhood’ Tiff : S.F. Officials Put Moscone Art Project on Hold


Three Los Angeles artists have won a tentative San Francisco commission for the largest public art project ever mounted in the city, but the project could be in jeopardy because some politicians are objecting to its central phrase.

The commission, a $500,000 project involving the entire city block fronting San Francisco’s Moscone Convention Center, has been put on hold.

It was tentatively awarded last month to artists Daniel J. Martinez, Renee Petropoulos and architect Roger F. White. A $50,000 start-up fee for the project was approved last week by the San Francisco Arts Commission.


The project centers on four 36-foot-high steel arches, sculpted to span Howard Street, the six-lane roadway separating the convention center’s old and new buildings. Each arch is a “word sculpture,” and when viewed in sequence the arches form the phrase, “THIS . . . IS A . . . NICE . . . NEIGHBORHOOD.” At night, the same phrase appears in Chinese in yellow neon and in Spanish in red neon.

The project also features elements including six “world globes,” each with one enlarged continent taking up the entire globe and various texts sandblasted into the street to be read by pedestrians. Those texts would juxtapose statistics such as the name of San Francisco’s patron saint or the number of restaurants in the city, with “personal” questions such as “Did you feed your dog today?” or “Where did you buy your shoes?”

But the wording on the arches has raised questions among city officials and residents and has been taken to task by the Bay Area press in editorials, columns and cartoons.

The San Francisco Examiner, for example, published an editorial headlined “Arts and Screwy Letters” questioning the phrase: “We have a serious doubt . . . about the content of the huge inscription. . . . The first time a citizen is mugged under those neon arches, the juxtaposition of the event and the boast of the looming art work will make national news under the category of that day’s ironic happenings.”

And Examiner columnist Bob Morse, calling the phrase “something Hello Kitty would make up, as translated by Mr. Rogers,” has asked readers to send in “suggestions,” and has already printed some of them, including “EARTHQUAKE PROOF,” “SPARE CHANGE?” and “LOS ANGELES, 430 MILES.”

According to the artists--who last week were asked by the Arts Commission to consider changing the wording but have sent commissioners a letter refusing to do so--the phrase was “handed” to them by some of the same politicians who are now objecting to it: In early orientation meetings about the Moscone site--which stands in the area that was once San Francisco’s Skid Row--the artists said officials told them a number of times, “This is a nice neighborhood.” The phrase was repeated so many times, the artists said, that all three of them had written it into their notes in several places.

Now, however, various officials--including Planning Director Dean Macris and Environmental Review Officer Barbara Sahm--have questioned the proposed work and are seeking reviews by their own departments and others, even though the Arts Commission has previously had sole jurisdiction over all public artworks. The city attorney has been called in to clear up the dispute, and is expected to rule next week whether additional approvals are required.

“We’re in a holding pattern with the project until the city attorney makes a ruling,” said Jill Manton, director of the city’s Public Art Program. “We’ve never had to get outside approvals before, but this project may be different because of the scope of it and because the sculpture spans the street. So it may require things like special permits, approval by the Board of Supervisors and an Environmental Impact Report. . . . But if they’re not absolutely, legally required, then we’re going to proceed with the contracts. . . . And we’re going to go forward regardless.”

But while she stopped short of saying the artists would lose the commission if they refused to change the wording, Manton said it would be “very difficult” for the project to go through as is.

“I’m optimistic that some variation on this project will go forth, but I don’t necessarily think it will go forth without some change (in the wording),” she said. “The commission could be convinced (to keep the phrase intact), but I think there will be some change.”

All three artists said that the phrase is inherent to their proposal and could not be changed without changing the nature of the entire project.

“We proposed an artwork, not an automobile with interchangeable parts,” said Martinez, 34, who vowed to refuse to do the project if forced to change the phrase. “It’s like dissecting the ‘Mona Lisa’ because somebody didn’t like her eyes. It’s an artwork; we’re talking about integrity of the artists here, not the whims of people who want to be the artists.”

White, 39, said that the area’s troubled past may be fueling the controversy: “Are (the objecting officials) saying that this isn’t a nice neighborhood and that they never want it to be a nice neighborhood? I understand that it opens wounds that many people of San Francisco want to forget, but possibly . . . this can be a catharsis. The phrase can be looked at as an ideal toward the future.”

Petropoulos, 36, who noted that the phrase’s meaning will change over the years with contemporary usage, said the debate proves that it is already successful.

“That was our intention--making something that would make people think and respond,” she said. “These are the kind of debates that have surrounded a lot of artworks, like the Eiffel Tower and Jonathan Borofsky’s ‘Ballerina Clown.’ And it’s exciting to have so many people outside the art world respond. It’s just a little scarier having it happen this soon, when the piece isn’t already up.”

Martinez, Petropoulos and White, according to Manton, were selected from more than 100 original applicants and a short list of five applicants--including more established names like New York artist Vito Acconci, San Francisco artist Martha Schwartz, and the Los Angeles team of Larry Bell, Eric Orr and David Robinson--who were each given $3,500 to develop a model.

Although the artists’ original cost estimate was $640,000 and some press speculations have put the project’s final cost at more than $1 million, Manton said she believed the artists would be able to modify their plans to fit within the $500,000 budget. And Martinez said that they would be willing to make up additional costs themselves through fund-raising and grant applications.

Martinez and White said, however, that the project’s costs would mount if final city approval is delayed. Since the building site is still under construction and Howard Street is still torn up, the artists said they could lay foundations for the arches now at a relatively cheap cost. But if the project is delayed until the street is finished, costs will rise if they have to demolish and refinish it.

“We’re trying to do something that people can be proud of and that can make a bold statement at the same time . . . and we don’t need this bureaucracy holding us up,” Martinez said. “It’s absolutely imperative, if the commission truly believes in art, that they stand behind us 1,000%.”