Tuesday, September 20, 2011

SF Spends $11K on
Public Art of Helmet-less Bicyclists

There simply is not nearly enough biking safety and promotion of it in San Francisco. The recent death of 25-year-old Nancy Ho, who died from head and other injuries after making an illegal turn and colliding with a truck, and was not wearing a helmet at the time of the accident, illustrated the dangers of riding helmet-less.

For that and other safety reasons, I was not happy to see the San Francisco Arts Commission install a series of six biking-related posters all over Market Street, and only a single image (obliquely) contains a biker with a helmet. That poster feature the rider's helmeted head is heavily obscured by a scrim. It's shown above.

I submitted questions to the arts commission's public info officer, Kate Patterson, ask about the vetting process, total cost, guidelines for depicting unsafe behaviors, such as cigarette smoking or not wearing a seat belt in a car, and did the commission take responsibility for promoting unsafe biking. Kate's reply:

I want to clarify that the Market Street Poster Series is not a public safety campaign. ... The only thing we are promoting is the talent of a local artist who is sharing his creative vision. The artist’s intent was not to depict reality. If you look closely at the images you will see that the artist has included some very unrealistic details, [including] a seagull perched on the head of a bicyclist ...  The artist fee is $8,000, which covers his design work for all six posters. ...

We certainly are in agreement that the series is not a campaign addressing public biking safety, but I was disappointed she had not addressed all of my specific questions and asked her to do so. Kate's second response:

The administrative and printing costs amount to approximately $2,860, so the total project costs around $10,860. As for the selection process, every year we issue a Request for Qualifications (similar to this one, which was issued for the next round http://www.sfartscommission.org/pubartcollection/calls-for-artists/2011/04/20/2012-art-on-market-street-kiosk-poster-series-call-for-artists/) inviting local artists to submit their best work for consideration for the poster series. In the past, the series was curated by a public art project manager. The poster designs are then presented to and approved by the Visual Arts Committee before being approved by the full Arts Commission. All committee and commission meetings are open to the public.

Certainly, “art can feed two birds with one seed,” but that is not the case with regards to this project. At this point we feel we have sufficiently answered all relevant questions with regard to this work.

I had said that public art could easily feed two birds with one seed, promote an artistic vision _and_ safe biking, and while that is not part of the arts commission agenda I don't think they should be glamorizing dangerous helmet-less biking across the city. 

There would be an uproar if the commission funded art illustrated with cigarette smoking or someone operating an auto without wearing a seat belt, with taxpayer dollars, but a series of posters idolizing helmet-less bike riders is acceptable. Not a wise use of public money. 

The artist behind the series, Ian Huebert, shared this message about his work:

I hope that my posters are judged as works of art rather than as a public safety campaign with an agenda. How one approaches bicycle safety is a personal choice. Considering my bicycle is my main mode of transportation, I should hope that everyone on the road respects one another and uses common sense.

Sorry, but I can't divorce the unsafe biking in the posters all over Market Street from the artist's desire to have his work seen only one way. He's more than entitled to place himself in jeopardy if he choose to not wear a helmet and other views. I just don't think the city should be glorifying unsafe biking or other dangerous behaviors.

(Both images courtesy of Ian Huebert/SF Arts Commission. Click here to view the full set of images.)


Anonymous said...

I do appreciate your opinion...but I think you also need to appreciate and respect an artist's work for what it is...or what it is not. The beauty of art is that whether you appreciate it or not is up to you. If these were posters being placed around school bike racks or designed to be a safety campaign then of course it would be a problem...but that is simply not the intent. As someone who also rides a bike to work everyday (wearing a helmet), I do believe that your energy, as good intentioned as it is, is better suited to a cause that might actually result in changed behavior. Criticizing an artist's work, or a city office who's directive is to promote art in this great city and increase access to art for those who otherwise cannot afford to see it due to museum costs and the like, hardly seems like a worthy cause or good use of time.

Michael said...

it's my opinion that one should always question how a city agency is spending public dollars. just look at how the arts commission is facing controversy over the artist who shot a dog for cinematic reasons, and his contract to create public art related to the central subway is now on hold. i'd like to see the city's various commissions and boards get with always promoting biking safety and wearing helmets.