Here’s How San Francisco Became a Top Art City, and How Your Town Can Too

A stroll or drive through the 46-square-mile city brings visitors and residents face to face with a slew of public art. This includes art inspired by nature—such as Andy Goldsworthy’s statues made of trees and earth in the Presidio—to massive, metal works by artists Richard Serra and Mark di Suvero.

San Francisco has earned its reputation as a city determined to protect and promote the arts.

It may be easy to think that what San Francisco’s art community has achieved is out of reach for smaller cities. However, the steps are attainable for any city or town.

San Francisco values public art

The city founded the San Francisco Arts Commission in 1932. Even today, the Arts Commission has the authority to preserve and care for all Civic Art.

Less than 40 years later, in 1969, the city voted to enact the Art Enrichment Ordinance (also known as the 2 percent-for-art program). The ordinance guarantees funds to facilitate art in public spaces and buildings.

As part of every civic construction contract, 2 percent of the budget must be allocated for public art.

Sea Change Sculpture
Sea Change by artist Mark di Suvero carries a lot of meaning—the artist built it in 1978 at the port where he first entered the U.S. from China as a child. [Photo courtesy of Yelp/Adam S.]

In addition to the Art Enrichment Ordinance, San Francisco instituted a separate “1%-for-art-program” that “requires all projects involving new building, or the addition of 25,000 square feet or more in the Downtown and nearby neighborhoods, provide public art equal to at least 1% of the total construction cost.”

The program, established in 1985, has resulted in more than 1,000 murals and thousands of public art pieces.

The result? A city that serves as a civic art museum

As of 2012, developers have the option to dedicate part of their “1 percent art requirement” to San Francisco’s Public Art Trust. That option has delivered a surge in support for new public art projects.

The money is funneled toward “enlivening and activating the downtown and other core areas” of the city, according to the Arts Commission.

The art projects allowed under the trust’s rules runs the gamut. They include temporary to permanent sculpture installations. They also include performing arts, light and video projects, and special art events or art markets.

The Public Art Trust also oversees the management and restoration of the city’s Civic Art Collection. This contains more than 3,500 monuments, art memorials, donations, and art festival purchases. In addition, it includes hundreds of contemporary pieces commissioned through the Art Enrichment Ordinance.

Worth well more than $90 million, the Civic Art Collection is a tangible representation of San Francisco’s commitment to intertwining art in the everyday life.

San Francisco is home to more than 250 galleries and nearly 100 museums. However, art is not confined within the halls alone.

Public art can be found everywhere in San Francisco. It’s found in zoos, playgrounds, libraries, plazas, and more. The city boasts the first airport-based art museum in the United States. SFO showcases more than 40 exhibits each year.

The variety of art installations makes San Francisco one of the nation’s top destinations for immersive art.

See an excellent curated guide—complete with a map—to San Francisco’s public art at Curbed San Francisco.

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