Project Title: Untitled
Recipient Organization: 509 Cultural Center/Luggage Store
Lead Artist: Barry McGee
Genre and Date Awarded: Visual Arts, December 1994
Completed: May 1998
Artist Barry McGee collaborated with the 509 Cultural Center to create a site-specific permanent public artwork on the four inset walls of a building located at Sixth and Howard Streets in San Francisco—an area undergoing redevelopment over the last decade and one that has long been home to low-income seniors, deteriorating single room occupancy hotels, bars, and Filipino immigrant families. McGee, well-known as “Twist”—the creator of many temporary, ephemeral public pieces—proposed this as his first permanent mural. Collaborating with the 509 Cultural Center and the neighbors in the building’s vicinity, McGee created images that were closely tied to the site and its characters. The mural was completed and dedicated in late spring 1998.
The piece consisted of four 64 foot by 8 foot metal trays fitted to and installed on the inset walls. Large portraits along with smaller, more intimate renderings were enameled and spray painted over the metal surfaces. The panels then were bolted to the inset walls.
When he embarked on this project, Barry McGee intended to work on a building located at Leavenworth and Turk streets in San Francisco’s Tenderloin—a neighborhood where the 509 Cultural Center sponsors many projects. However, the collaborators encountered unanticipated resistance from the building’s absentee owners and similar problems when they tried to move to different, nearby buildings. While the South of Market’s Sixth Street corridor, where the project was eventually produced, has a similar demographic profile to the Tenderloin, it has long been a neighborhood where alternative arts organizations and projects clustered. There the collaborators found a receptive building owner.
The site approval effort took longer than anticipated, but more dramatic was the project’s ultimate outcome. McGee completed and installed the four panels by May 1998. Their installation was celebrated with a party with the neighbors surrounding the building. A few days later, one of the panels was stolen. McGee re-painted and replaced it and reinforced the bolts on the entire piece. In November 1999, the entire project was stolen. San Francisco Chronicle reporter Eric Brazil claimed “For sheer heft and volume, the great South of Market mural theft is a candidate for The Guinness Book of World Records.” ArtWeek commented in its January 2000 issue, “The robbery is an unfortunate example of a public artwork falling into private hands. McGee’s popularity, coupled with the high prices that his pieces command, has supporters worried that the stolen mural might be intended for sale in the art market.” It has not been recovered.
At the time of undertaking this project, Barry McGee had produced a large body of temporary and ephemeral work in spray enamel. He also had been part of several gallery exhibitions (at Center for the Arts at Yerba Buena Gardens and the San Jose Museum of Art in Northern California; Museu Lasar Segall in São Paulo, Brazil; and other venues) in which he attempted to “‘bring stimuli from the outside in,’ constantly recreating and reinventing the ‘eternal wall,’ using spray enamel, mixed media, and found objects.” He also had spent seven months in São Paulo Brazil, working with young street artists through a grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund/Arts International. Upon his return, he collaborated with the 509 Cultural Center’s teens and homeless residents on a temporary wall in the Sixth Street Corridor of the South of Market in San Francisco.
The 509 Cultural Center is a Tenderloin/Sixth Street-based arts and cultural organization, which seeks to enrich and empower the cultural lives of the ethnically diverse, predominantly low-income residents of its neighborhood. It produces public art projects, gallery exhibitions, performances by new and emerging artists, and an apprenticeship training program. It also serves as a drug and alcohol free space for meetings, workshops, rehearsals, recitals, and discussions.