BART Art: Agency Bypasses Locals in Renovation Plans

Imagine you're a regional transit agency hunting for a piece of art to display outside one of your busiest stations. Do you go with a sculpture of an Aztec serpent god — already built, paid for, and embraced by your agency — or do you go on a statewide hunt for a new, $200,000 piece?

If you're BART, you do the latter.

BART officials recently introduced a Mission District crowd to three artists, one of whom will create a piece for a rebuilt plaza above the 24th Street station. Two — Kipp Kobayashi and Anne Marie Karlsen — hail from Los Angeles. Charles Sowers, from San Rafael, produces pieces for the Exploratorium.

Missionites were flabbergasted that the agency couldn't round up any more local artists.

"We have a wealth of artists in the city that we could have gotten," says Mission native Miguel Bustos. "The BART committee said, 'The mission is changing. We need to reflect that change.' Our response is, '[Latinos are] still here. Don't try to wipe us out.'"

In 2000, Muni commissioned Susan Cervantes, co-founder of Mission-based arts group Precita Eyes, to build a Quetzalcoatl sculpture for a Mission Street bus stop. Then Muni abandoned it. When BART launched plans in 2001 to renovate 24th Street station, they included Cervantes' Quetzalcoatl, says spokeswoman Alicia Trost.

But BART couldn't scrape together funding for the plaza until 2010, when it landed a $2.1 million grant from the federal Transportation for Livable Communities program. That amount was less than expected, and the agency was forced to ax improvements like repaving the plaza, which made an inlaid serpent mosaic impossible, Trost says.

BART put out a new call for plaza art in early 2012, and again last spring. At one point, it used a piece from the Burning Man-affiliated Black Rock Arts Foundation in presentations, prompting further outcry from Mission denizens. Although Trost says BART contacted "local, regional and national arts organizations," they missed major Mission District arts groups, including Intersection for the Arts and the 500 members of Mission Artists United.

"It doesn't seem like they worked very hard for Mission artists," says MAU spokeswoman Trish Tunney, who has helped the San Francisco Arts Commission connect with local creators for Sunday Streets and other public art projects.

Now legislators are jumping in, including Assemblyman Tom Ammiano and Supervisor David Campos. However, BART officials say they are constrained by conditions of the grant (such as requiring the artist to have made public work before, and use outdoor materials) — which will disappear if they don't turn it into a new plaza soon.

The artists have until December to submit ideas; meanwhile, Campos is looking into adding local flavor to the plan.

"The Mission is a community that is rich in artistic talent. When it comes to public space, we want to see that reflected," Campos says.

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