San Francisco: Arts for the City: Civic Art and Urban Change, 1932–2012, by Susan Wels (Heyday; 224 pages; $45)

Reviewed by Annie Powers

Murals, mosaics, sculptures, and street art— Susan Wels’ San Francisco: Arts for the City: Civic Art and Urban Change, 1932–2012 has it all. Lushly illustrated and deeply researched, Wels gives readers the story of the San Francisco Arts Commission from its creation in 1932 up to the present day. The commission was initially formed to to help put San Francisco on the map as a world-class city—to compete with (and maybe become a a little bit similar to?) the SoCal cultural capital, Los Angeles.

Wels then delves into a more familiar story about the city’s art scene, when, after World War II, San Francisco became a space for a racially, economically, and politically diverse movement to emerge and produce art that pushed the boundaries of mainstream western art. This movement continued into the 1970s and ’80s, Wels argues, but was taken out of concert halls and museums and into the streets, inspiring communities and neighborhoods to engage with art. Although an economic downturn that lasted until the early 1990s made it difficult to get funding and created restructuring, by the mid-1990s, arts were flourishing again and moving to new spaces—both in the city and online.

In many ways, Wels’ work is a history of an institution: the San Francisco Arts Commission and the way that it allowed artists to use public funds to push the boundaries of art. But what comes through best are the personalities of the artists that populate the pages, through their words, their lives, and, most importantly, their artwork. Arts for the City contains an enormous number of stunning photographs of paintings, murals, architecture, performance art, infrastructure, sculpture, mosaics, and much more. Readers interested in art in city spaces shouldn’t miss the stories Wels tells and the urban artworks she shows us.

Annie Powers is an assistant editor at Boom and a graduate student in history at UCLA. Images from Arts for the City courtesy of Heyday.

Author Event: “SF Art: Past and Present,”  Thursday, July 25, 2013, 6:00 PM, Mechanics’ Institute Library  57 Post Street, San Francisco. Susan Wels, author of San Francisco: Arts for the City, will give a history of the San Francisco Arts Commission. Tom DeCaigny, San Francisco Arts Commission Director of Cultural Affairs, will talk about current and future projects. 

Posted by Boom California

One Comment

  1. Thank you for the great review of our book! We’re glad you enjoyed it. – San Francisco Arts Commission

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