Art in Storefronts San Francisco

Art in Storefronts logoSan Francisco's Art in Storefronts program - a collaboration between city agencies, community organisations and the business community - engages San Francisco-based artists to reinvigorate neighborhoods that have been affected by the economic downturn. The program has been temporarily placing original art installations by local artists in vacant and under-used storefront windows and exterior walls since 2009.

Robynn Takayama, Manager, Community Arts and  Education with the San Francisco Arts Commission talked to Lisa Andersen in October 2011 about a program that has economic development, community regeneration and involvement, and really great art at its core.

Responding to economic downturn and vacant storefronts

Robynn Takayama, San Francisco Arts CommissionIn 2008 then-Mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, wanted to address the problem of vacant storefronts in certain areas of the city. Lead by the Office of Economic and Work Force Development (OEWD), local Community Benefits Districts - with revenue from 'curb to property line' improvement taxes on property owners - and the Arts Commission and aided by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Art in Storefronts program placed its first installations in Market Street in 2009.

More than just canvases hanging in windows, the initiative involves artists creating new works, including murals and installations, with a remit to ensure the artworks have a strong connection to local communities. 

“We picked the four neighbourhoods based on areas that OEWD were already working and decided to prioritise artists who live or work in that neighbourhood to celebrate the neighbourhood,” says Robynn Takayama.

“At times OEWD can be seen, negatively, as ‘gentrifiers’ because they’re investing in the business in the neighbourhood. They’re sensitive to that criticism and so, by saying that the artist should be from the neighbourhood or have a connection to the neighbourhood, what we’ve seen are proposals that the community can call their own.  It’s not an outsider coming in and imposing art or dropping art in for a moment. They were projects that largely the community got behind and in some cases participated in.”

By the end of 2011, four neighbourhoods have seen Art in Storefronts projects, The Mission, Chinatown, Central Market/Tenderloin and Bayview. As political decision-makers were keen to focus on the Central Market district, the program returned there for a second time in 2011.

Image Caption: Robynn Takayama, Manager, Community Arts and Education, San Francisco Arts Commission.  Photo: Lisa Andersen

Art in Central Market

Market Street is an artery of the city, which is connected to San Francisco’s financial district, downtown and its civic centre and then moves into more residential areas.

“It’s a major commercial area, a major government area and north of Central Market is the Tenderloin which has been seen as a containment zone,” says Robynn Takayama. “A lot of social services are located there including drug treatment and homelessness services, and so that impacts on how people view the neighbourhood. People think about Central Market as a place you use to go to and from and through but never somewhere that you go to.”

Central Market Dreamscape by Paz de la Calzada (2011)For Robynn, one of the most exciting outcomes was the public celebration of the launch of the first round of Art in Storefronts in 2009–comprising ten artworks in Central Market and three in the nearby Tenderloin created especially for the spaces they occupied.

“The launch was a key part of our program to bring people out, to have that celebration,” says Robynn. “On Market Street the sidewalks are wider than most sidewalks and so we had a band playing. You would never think that you would see people dancing on Market Street and there we had it! 

“So that that was the moment where we saw a huge amount of community come together – coming out to Market Street to look at the art and to expose the neighbourhood in a very democratic way to contemporary art. Maybe the residents wouldn’t go up to the galleries at nearby 77 Geary or pay to go to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, but with this project they’re walking to and from and seeing these beautiful works of art.”

The program generated increased foot traffic and also generated a greater sense of safety in the area because of the large numbers of people the art program brought into the street after dark.

Image caption: Central Market Dreamscape by Paz de la Calzada (2011). Photo by Lydia Gonzales.

Recruiting artists: a community collaboration

Ms.Teriosa by Kelly Ording and Jetro Martinez. Photo by Cesar RubioBecause Art in Storefronts’ key aim was to involve the community, it set up a committee comprising representatives from government, community and arts organisations to choose the artists for the project. Artists received a stipend of $500 for their work in the first round, which increased to $1,500 for later projects based on a better understanding of their expenses in being involved.

A public event was held to answer artists’ questions about how to make a competitive application and the Commission worked with local community partners, such as the Chinese Culture Centre in Chinatown, to get the word out.

“We want to make sure the people in the neighbourhood are prepared to apply and are prepared to be competitive,” says Robynn Takayama. “So we break down what we are looking for when we ask the questions on the application. It’s also a way to let people know that this project is specifically for artists who live in San Francisco. If those who don’t live here want to take part, they need to figure out a way to partner with a local artist.”

The Crystal Bike Blanket by Alexis Arnold (2009)

One installation in 2009 that reflected the local community was 'Ms. Teriosa' by Jetro Martinez and Kelly Ording. The Mission district is largely Latino and the artists took on the history of Latino spirituality by creating a fortune telling store.

“They painted the storefront and that’s pretty much what their installation was but they had a drop box where they had cards that said, ‘What do you want to ask Ms. Teriosa?’” says Robynn. (When you put the word together in Spanish it means ‘mysterious’).

"So you have the kids asking stuff like ‘Am I going to graduate?' 'Is this the person for me?' 'Will I find a job?’ And the artists wrote very clever responses like ‘Stay in school’. The work revealed something about the community and could speak to all the people who lived there.”

In the second round of projects in Central Market in 2011, one of the most innovative was sculptor Alexis Arnold’s installation 'The Crystal Bike Blanket'. Bicycle tyre rims encased in crystal highlighted the bicycle culture of Market Street and the iconic, Central Market detritus of 'theft-overs' from bikes being stripped down and their parts sold.

“It was lit so that they glistened and the window had bars on the lower part and she got a bunch of U-locks and gold-leafed them and included them in th work. So the work really honoured the local bike culture,” says Robynn.

Image captions: 

Ms.Teriosa by Kelly Ording and Jetro Martinez (2009). Photo by Cesar Rubio.

The Crystal Bike Blanket by Alexis Arnold (2009). Photo by Lydia Gonzales.

Working with landlords

The first round of projects was the hardest in terms of getting landlords on board because it was a new idea, but as word got around and with the help of community partners, landlords became much more receptive.

“Any access that we’ve had to the spaces, I think, has been with the help of our community partners,” says Robynn Takayama.

“The project was a new idea and property owners were not enthusiastic at first. But working with local community development organisations like the Chinatown Community Development Center or the Tenderloin Economic Development Project, whose staff has deep relationships with the property owners and the merchants, really helped open doors for us.”

One property owner who saw the value of the program was Andy Young who provided three exhibition spaces - two big windows on one side of the building and a wall for a mural on the back alley - in a former restaurant where representatives had met while drawing up the United Nations Charter in 1945.

“He had a lot of pride in the space and he wants it to continue as a restaurant and to employ people in the local community,” says Robynn. “He was happy to have the space activated while construction was underway. Those were the kind of property owners that we were really excited to work with.”

A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) agreement is used with a 30-day eviction period.

Unlike in Australia, where small, private landlords have been the hardest to convince to allow their properties to be used rent-free for empty spaces initiatives, the ‘mom and pop owners’ in San Francisco have been the most amenable to the idea.

“Initially we thought we would provide an incentive such as publishing contact details for leasing the space on our website to help the property owner generate a lease. But it turns out that with a lot of the spaces, the owners actually don’t want them to be leased,” says Robynn. “They’re waiting for the economy to turn around and they’re waiting for the space to become more valuable."

Niana Liu's storefront at 630 Kearny Street, ChinatownThe Arts Commission also took steps to address landlords’ concerns around insurance and damage to the stores. General liability insurance is provided through non-profit organisations working with the Commission, and a fund was set up to quickly repair any graffiti, vandalism or damage during the installation.

“One of the installations included some televisions in a window and then the glass was smashed and it was hard to know if the culprit trashed the window because of the installation or if it would have happened anyway” says Robynn. 

“That happened in two sites on Market Street so we set up some money in an easily accessible fund so that if there were any vandalism we could pay for it quickly.  That we were able to assure property owners that if anything happens we would take care of it; that opened some doors.

“We also clean up the space and leave it nicer than we found it and we offer to pay electricity, but no-one’s ever taken us up on that.”

And in the case of Niana Liu, an artist who used a space in Chinatown as a mock Chinese restaurant, she became a liaison when the property got sold by introducing the new property owner to the people in the neighbourhood.

Image Caption: Niana Liu's storefront at 630 Kearny Street, Chinatown.

Finding meaningful measures of impact

As with many empty space initiatives, their impact is often gathered through anecdotal evidence, such as the decrease in graffiti during the time the program was running in Chinatown and response to postings by the program on Facebook about particular events.

“At the artists’ talk in Chinatown, people mentioned that they had come from outer counties for the event and were planning to eat out and shop as part of their visit.” says Robynn. “And I get phone calls like ‘I’m coming from south of San Francisco – how do I get to Central Market?’  So just by getting that kind of contact we know the Art in Storefront's project has generated interest. 

“We got destination awards from 7 by 7 and San Francisco Magazine and have generated local tourism - local interest to come into neighbourhoods that people might not have previously visited.”

A academic from the UC Berkeley Public Policy School provided evaluation models to work with in Chinatown but Robynn found the tools were not specific enough to make the direct correlation between the Arts in Storefronts program and benefits to the community.

“Taxes in the neighbourhood went up during the Art in Storefronts program, but maybe they also went up throughout the city,” she says. “With the local surge in tourism and foot traffic - can we say with confidence it’s because of us? It’s the same with the downturn in graffiti noticed by our property owners, maybe there was a police crackdown at that time so the graffiti incidents were down throughout the whole city. 

“It seems really difficult to quantitively measure short-term impact. I think, particularly with Central Market, this investment is going to be about the long term outcomes.”

Since first year of funding for the pilot program, the Arts Commission has invested more money into Central Market project sitest  and Art in Storefronts continues to develop relationships.

“These relationships and activities with the artists, with the arts organisations and with the neighbourhood are immeasurable - but you can see it all out there, on the street,” says Robynn.

Key learnings and future direction

From its inception in 2009, some of the improvements made to the Art in Storefronts program based on feedback include:

The Commission is also currently working on how to standardise the process of deciding which murals will remain after each project has finished in a particular neighbourhood and making them graffiti-proof. 

“Originally it was accepted that they were going to be painted over and that was the artists responsibility but some of them have been so lovely and so well-received that we want them to stay," says Robynn. "But graffiti proofing them wasn't in our original budget so we have to rethink how we will do that.”

Vanesa Gingold. Dreams on Market, 2011; mixed-media installation, 1066 Market Street, San Francisco. Photo: Lydia Gonzales.Another aspect is the potential for artists to be engaged in painting the storefronts of existing merchants, without being drawn into a commercial application.

“A lot of the merchants would see the artist painting a storefront or the inside of a storefront and asked them to repaint their signs,” says Robynn. “So we need to see if there is a way that we can do that and still maintain the artists’ integrity and not have them be commercial artists.

“On Central Market we had this beautiful paper cut 'Dreams on Market' by Vanessa Gingold right next to Piper’s Jewelers. It's an interesting store, which we featured in our Sights and Sounds of Central Market podcast, but the outside signage desperately needs a facelift. What a difference it could make for the neighbourhood as a whole. Should that be part of our project?  But that’s a commercial application. So it’s complicated. There's quite a number of outcomes from the projects so far we need to think through.”

Arts in Storefronts came about as a response to the impact of the economic downturn on local business districts. Robynn Takayama expects that future growth in economy will also see SFAC's Community Arts and Education Program continuing to respond to community needs.

“Then, the need in the arts community would likely change to finding low-cost housing, which would change our focus on empty space to finding live/work spaces for local artists.”

Image Caption: Vanesa Gingold. Dreams on Market, 2011; mixed-media installation, 1066 Market Street, San Francisco. Photo: Lydia Gonzales.

See also:

Art in Storefronts Toolkit: San Francisco Arts Commission's responses to the questions that city entities, landlords and artists frequently ask so that they can start their own storefront program. Includes a sample artist's agreement and property owner's agreement.

SFAC Art in Storefronts Flickr Group:  a pictorial record of the artworks and events from the Art in Storefront's Program.