Locals and tourists alike have come to expect the array of twinkling lights illuminating the silhouette of the Bay Bridge's northern face as they walk along the Embarcadero or out on the piers. The piece is one of the largest light sculptures in the world, titled “Bay Lights,” in which 25,000 LEDs light up the 1.8-mile-long bridge’s 300 cables in a changing, abstract display, permanently installed there in 2016.
Artist Leo Villareal's massive installation, which was first unveiled a decade ago, requires a fair bit of maintenance, and it had originally been intended only to stay up for a few years. It previously had to be uninstalled three years after its installation in 2015 due to a long-planned Bay Bridge repainting project, and the group behind it, Illuminate, raised millions to get the lights put back up.
We were told at the time, in 2016, that the backers had funded a ten-year maintenance contract for the LEDs — another 10 to 12 years of life for the installation was said at the time to run around $12 million.
Unfortunately, the Chronicle’s Heather Knight reports this week that the project will again sunset on March 5, just seven years after its reinstallation. Some parts of the sculpture have been broken, and some whole stretches of LEDs have gone dark. And fixing and updating it will cost $11 million.
Columnist Heather Knight looks at how the famous light sculpture on the Bay Bridge is at a crossroads, much like San Francisco itself. https://t.co/P2TzA7A26n— San Francisco Chronicle (@sfchronicle) January 7, 2023
The founder of Illuminate, the nonprofit that spearheaded the first Bay Lights installation, Ben Davis, is working to raise the money, according to Knight. Davis wants 10 wealthy SF residents to pay one million apiece, and to raise the remaining one million in small donations. Davis told Knight that he wants philanthropists to "dig deeper" and support the arts rather than withhold funds from other causes.
Davis is promising that these big-ticket donors would receive special edition artwork, recognition on a waterfront plaque, and invitations to exclusive celebrations. Davis reportedly already has one $1-million pledge from Matt Mullenweg, the web developer who created WordPress.
Davis and Illuminate also like to tout that the lights have been a boon to the local economy — the organization's website touts that "A group of more than 20 independent analysts from leading firms such as McKinsey, Deloitte, Google, Facebook and city agencies unanimously agreed that The Bay Lights boosts the regional economy by more than $100m annually." But this would be hard to prove.
Illuminate says that the total sum would go to fixing the broken lights, keeping these lights on for an indeterminate number of years, and even putting up more lights on the other side of the same cables so that the sculpture will be visible not just from northern SF and Marin but also from the southern part of the city, as well as Oakland and Alameda.
“We’re working closely and safely with bridge officials to reimagine 'Bay Lights' on both sides of the cables,” Davis tells Knight.
Davis said that he’s already secured the needed specialty lighting from a family company called Musco Lighting. The new lights are weatherproof and can stand up to wind, rain, fog, car exhaust and other elements, and the new installation could be finished by Labor Day.
Fans of the lights and residents of the Embarcadero and Telegraph Hill will surely be sad to see the northern side of the bridge go suddenly dark. (Davis tells the Chronicle that the "hard-working, mostly overlooked" Bay Bridge became the "Cinderella bridge" thanks to this artwork, and that's fairly true.)
But another $11 million after just seven years? Chronicle art and architecture critic John King notably dismissed the Bay Lights in 2014 as "the visual equivalent of background music," and called for the piece to come down permanently. He was overruled by plenty of public opinion on the other side, and money was raised to reinstall the lights before. But given all the inclement weather and wind that the piece has to endure, how many times can something that was meant to be ephemeral be made "permanent"?
Despite the hefty price tag, Davis believes that the money can be raised. “We’re just going to do our best,” Davis tells the Chronicle.
Image via SF Gov.