20 Light Art Destinationsin San Francisco That Will Brighten Your Instagram
The nights shine brighter in San Francisco thanks to our abundance of public, outdoor, and mostly free light art.
Nighttime is the right time to capture and share San Francisco’s extraordinary light art. To discover the many photogenic public light art installations featured as part of Illuminate SF's Festival of Light, take a mesmerizing journey to some of the city’s most interesting neighborhoods.
Experience these dramatic, eco-friendly light artworks, accessible by public transit and mostly admission free. From North Beach and the Embarcadero to the Bayview, Yerba Buena and Golden Gate Park—and even when flying in or out of SFO—you’ll find dazzling light artworks waiting to be enjoyed. Charge your cell phone and camera batteries; you will want photos! Then, be brilliant and share them using #illuminatesf.
The Wind Baffles at 5M
The Parks at 5M, 44 Mary St.
The designers at !melkNYC have created two spectacular vertical structures between 5M's two brand new high-rises, 415 Natoma and The George. Each part was cut by fully automatic CNC plasma cutters and shaped using a cold-forming technique more commonly used to build ships. In the evening, the structures are artfully illuminated from the outside. Though made from steel, they seem to float in the night sky!
Helical Trace at the LUMA Hotel
1000 Channel St.
LUMA Hotel has given the gift of light art to passersby on the corner of Third and Channel streets with Helical Trace. Local art hero Jim Campbell has created another beautiful, site-specific, dynamic light installation in the hotel's lobby that can be seen through floor-to-ceiling three-story windows. The prolific artist created this striking installation that looks different from every angle and uses the reflection of the windows to amplify its movement. The figures within climb an infinite stretch of waterfall.
LOVE OVER RULES
Annie Alley at Mission Street
This large-scale animated text-based neon artwork is the first permanent public artwork in the United States by artist Hank Willis Thomas. Though he is based in New York, Thomas has deep ties to San Francisco and its arts and culture scene. The light art installation is a tribute to the artist’s cousin, who was murdered in 2000. The blinking white neon installation shares his cousin’s last recorded message to Thomas. Each word gets a line, encouraging different reads: is it “LOVE OVER RULES” or “LOVE OVERRULES?”
Yud; PaRDes; Lamp of the Covenant
Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St.
When the Contemporary Jewish Museum was unveiled in 2005, the Yud was one of the most intriguing designs by architect Daniel Libeskind. (Inspired by the phrase “L’Chaim," meaning “To Life," Libeskind let the Hebrew letters that spell “Chai," “Chet," and “Yud" guide the form of the CJM building.) After dark, stand in the museum's entrance plaza to take in the dramatic warm light emanating from the Yud's 36 diamond-shaped windows. See the interior during museum operating hours with ticketed admission. Permanent.
PaRDeS is a light installation designed by Libeskind and embedded in the wall of the CJM Grand Lobby. Its stylized Hebrew letters translate as “orchard." The connotation is that the orchard can be found on the other side of the wall. The lobby is open to all during museum hours of operation. Permanent.
Lamp of the Covenant, by Dave Lane, is the first major artwork commissioned by the CJM. Suspended high over the heads of visitors in the museum’s soaring lobby space, which is open to all during museum hours of operation, the lamp is envisioned as a sign of wonder and the spiritual that is always just over our heads as we pursue our everyday lives. Permanent.
“monument" for V. Tatlin; untitled (in honor of Leo at the 30th anniversary of his gallery)
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), 151 Third St.
Visit SFMOMA’s Floor 5 to view the exhibition "Pop, Minimal, and Figurative Art: The Fisher Collection," including four major light art works currently on view.
"monument" for V. Tatlin, by Dan Flavin, is a stepped arrangement of cool white fluorescent light, one of 39 "monuments" to Vladimir Tatlin that he created between 1964 and 1990. The Russian artist's ambitious but unrealized project to unite art and technology was of particular interest to Flavin.
Untitled (in honor of Leo at the 30th anniversary of his gallery), by Dan Flavin, confirms his mastery at transforming spaces and creating rich environments with minimal materials. The grids of colored tubes fill the space with light that changes depending on where you are in relation to the fixtures. This is a magnificent piece that highlights an elegant, thought-provoking body of work, reminding viewers how far modest means can be taken.
Peace in the Middle East
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission Street
Taravat Talepasand's Peace in the Middle East has returned as a permanent installation in YBCA's Grand Lobby. Hung from the ceiling, this intricate neon artwork featuring the word "peace" in Farsi explores the cultural taboos that reflect on gender and political authority through Talepasand's lens as an Iranian-American woman.
The Bay Lights
San Francisco Bay Bridge West Span
"The Bay Lights," by Leo Villareal, transforms the San Francisco Bay Bridge with 25,000 white LED lights that dance along the western span in never-repeating patterns. First installed in 2013 for a period of two years, this shimmering canvas of light has been gifted to the people of California and is now a must-see tour de force that can be viewed every evening from dusk to dawn. Stroll the Embarcadero north of the Bay Bridge or position yourself on Pier 14 behind the Exploratorium for the best camera angles.
"Buckyball," also by Leo Villareal, is a towering 25-foot illuminated sculpture that enlivens the Exploratorium's public space on Pier 15 in both daylight and moonlight. Inspired by futurist and inventor Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome, the spherical soccer ball-like form features two nested geodesic spheres comprised of 4,500 LED nodes arranged in a series of pentagons and hexagons.
Day for Night
Crowning the top of the tallest building west of the Mississippi, "Day for Night" by prolific light artist Jim Campbell is a modern marvel. An assembly of 11,000 lights and video components allows "Day for Night" to display scenes captured around San Francisco. And unless it's a truly foggy night (of which we have a few), you can see "Day for Night" from almost anywhere in—and even beyond—the city.
Lucy in the Sky
Market Street Muni Station
The artwork by Erwin Redl for the Union Square/Market Street Station titled Lucy in the Sky is an illuminated installation comprised of hundreds of translucent 10 x 10-inch light panels, each containing an array of color LEDs. The light panels are suspended along the entire length of the concourse level corridor’s ceiling in a diamond-shaped pattern and are computer programmed to slowly change color and display simple patterns and animations.
90 Seventh St.
"Skygarden," by James Turrell, radiates a luminous, singular beacon from myriad vantage points within a three-story opening in the south facade of the San Francisco Federal Building. At night, stand across from the building on the south side of Mission Street at Ninth Street long enough to see the colors transform. Enter the courtyard below "Skygarden" for a more intimate glimpse of its band of light running up the façade.
"...and my room still rocks like a boat on the sea" (Caruso’s Dream)
55 Ninth St.
"... and my room still rocks like a boat on the sea" (Caruso’s Dream), by Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn, hangs precariously over the sidewalk at AVA 55 Ninth apartments and is impossible to miss. You can see and hear this installation of 13 glass-and-steel pianos inspired by the moment when opera star Enrico Caruso was awakened by the earthquake of 1906. By tuning into short-range broadcast 90.9 FM from 4 p.m. until 10 a.m., listeners within a block of the artwork may be serenaded by the Caruso recording that inspired the light visualization dancing through the pianos.
99 Grove St.
"W.F.T.," by Joseph Kosuth, covers the western facade of the historic Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Kosuth's installation presents the etymology, or "Word Family Tree", of "civic" and "auditorium", while reflecting on the significance of the Auditorium and the relationships those words have to cultural and social realities.
100 Larkin St.
"Constellation," by Nayland Blake, is inspired by the Beaux Arts tradition, with origins in the Bibliothèque Saint-Genevieve in Paris (a model for San Francisco’s former Main Library), on which authors' names were inscribed on the facade according to the location of their works inside. This impressive artwork is 54-feet high and can be viewed from inside the Main Library’s lobby on the lengthy vertical panel right behind the stairs.
Hope Will Never Be Silent; The Seed
Market & Castro streets
At the bustling center of the historic Castro neighborhood, you’ll find these two works that commemorate the LGBT community’s struggle for equal rights. "Hope Will Never Be Silent" immortalizes the words of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the history of California. "The Seed" is a collection of large LED dandelions that symbolize how a single wish blown away can inspire a movement.
Golden Gate Park
The Barbro Osher Sculpture Garden at the de Young Museum
"Three Gems," by James Turrell, is a sublime subterranean installation commissioned as a permanent fixture in the Babro Osher Sculpture Garden of the de Young Museum. Visit this illuminated underground space with its rooftop oculus through which visitors view the night sky. The garden is free to enter during museum hours, and "Three Gems" is featured as part of the Museum’s free docent tour (check with the Museum’s Visitor Information desk for details) with ticketed admission to the museum.
McCoppin Street at Valencia Street
"Handsignals," by Matthew Passmore, playfully re-imagines the pedestrian traffic signal, creating a meditation on community symbolism that references the well-understood vocabulary of theater marquees and signs prevalent in the Mission District to “advertise" a new public space. It’s located just one block south of Market Street at the gateway to the Mission neighborhood.
Language of the Birds
Broadway and Columbus Ave.
"Language of the Birds," by Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn, is a site-specific installation in which a flock of 23 illuminated solar-powered “books" mimic birds in motion. Pages and bindings appear as wings and LED lights create patterns. Passing under the “flock" on the north side of Broadway, pedestrians see words in various languages embedded on the plaza floor, which represent San Francisco’s American, Italian and Chinese communities that intersect in this neighborhood.
Pier 92, Third Street and Cargo Way
"Bayview Rise," by Laura Haddad and Tom Drugan, is a dazzling 187-foot illuminated mural reflecting the changing story of the historic Bayview neighborhood. From the Embarcadero, hop on the Muni T-Third line for a trip down Third Street through the heart of Dogpatch. Hop off at Bayview Gateway Park to see this multi-dimensional artwork on the side of a grain silo at the Port of San Francisco’s Pier 92. Return north for a stop in Dogpatch where you’ll find a hub of local makers, artists, designers, restaurants, wine bars and the Museum of Craft and Design.
San Francisco International Airport (SFO)
Wind Portal; Four Sculptural Light Reflectors; Light Beams for the Sky of a Transfer Corridor; Spirogyrate; Sky; Ceiling Flood
"Coding," by Johanna Grawunder, is an immersive installation of light, glass and steel. It transforms SFO's long-term parking garage elevator tower into a dynamic focal point, capitalizing on the structure's inherent architecture. The luminous ceilings and undercarriages become kinetic elements that amplify during elevator rides.
"Wind Portal," by Ned Kahn, consists of 200,000 stainless steel one-inch disks mounted on a lattice panel attached to the wall of the 55-foot circular staircase/escalator opening between the BART and AirTrain stations. The wind and the movement of the trains cause the disks to shimmer and to create a mesmerizing image of the wind. Pre-Security.
"Four Sculptural Light Reflectors," by James Carpenter, is inspired by the construction of the Wright brothers’ first airplane, and also recalls dirigibles or boats. The 180 x 30-foot sculpture's design is functional in that it diffuses direct sunlight from the skylights in the International Main Hall. Look up when walking through the Departures/Ticketing level. Pre-Security
"Light Beams for the Sky of a Transfer Corridor," by Vito Acconci, splays out sculptural beams of light from the recessed lighting in the ceiling above, traversing the length of the corridor on Level 2 and connecting the International Terminal to Terminal 3. Pre-Security.
"Spirogyrate," by Eric Staller, is an immersive and interactive installation composed of graphic spiral patterns and light that change and respond to people’s movement through the space. Accessible to ticketed passengers in Terminal 3, Boarding Area E only. Post-Security.
"Sky" is a collaborative installation by Franka Diehnelt and Claudia Reisenberger that explores perceptions of space. Each mirrored sphere's exterior reflects and distorts its surroundings, as subtle shifts in light and color create an optical effect in the interior of each sphere. Accessible to ticketed passengers in International Terminal, Boarding Area G only. Post-Security.
"Ceiling Flood," by Keith Sonnier, fully integrates with the airport's architectural lighting, so that travelers notice evenly spaced boxes of blue neon light on the left matched by evenly spaced boxes of red neon on the right as they move through the space. Accessible to ticketed passengers in Terminal 3, Boarding Area E only. Post-Security.