Everything you need to know about San Francisco's largest, most recognized, and most impressive piece of light art, "The Bay Lights".

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October 11, 2019

What You Need to Know About the Bay Lights, the World's Largest Light Art Installation

What is The Bay Lights?

What if the San Francisco Bay Bridge were transformed into a breathtaking canvas of light? That was the seminal question that ultimately led to the creation of "The Bay Lights," a monumental 1.8 mile-wide tour de force by artist Leo Villareal. The idea of commissioning a work of art for installation on the bridge originated with Ben Davis, who founded the San Francisco-based nonprofit Illuminate (illuminate.org) as "The Bay Lights" presenting organization. This dazzling display of 25,000 individually programmed white LED lights shone nightly from dusk to dawn, beginning in March 2013. Originally installed as a temporary two-year installation, the artwork was dismantled to allow for bridge maintenance. Upon its February 2016 Grand Relighting, "The Bay Lights" is illuminated every evening from dusk to dawn, as a gift to the people of California thanks to Illuminate and the generosity of private donors.

Who is the artist?

"The Bay Lights" was designed and orchestrated by Leo Villareal, one of the world’s most prominent light artists and a pioneer in merging art, code and innovative technology in his light sculptures and architectural site-specific works. To many, "The Bay Lights" is the Bay Area’s iconic light sculpture. The artist has described it as “a digital campfire where people can come and gather around to view the Bay Bridge’s illuminated presence. It’s an opportunity to have a shared experience of a monumental contemporary artwork that happens to live on a bridge.” Villareal’s work is in the permanent collections of many museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Naoshima Contemporary Art Museum in Kagawa, Japan. 

Why should I see it now?

"The Bay Lights" is a can't-miss artwork of historic proportions. Any night of the week is the perfect night to contemplate its beauty from dusk to dawn. "The Bay Lights" may be more than just inspiring to look at; it may even be good for your health and wellbeing. Research is finding that experiences of awe and beauty — whether they arise from looking at a magnificent tree, taking in a glorious view, or listening to a transcendent piece of music — are associated with positive health benefits and can lead people to be more kind, altruistic and compassionate. In 2016, "The Bay Lights" provided an unprecedented opportunity for scientists Dacher Keltner, at the Berkeley Social Interaction Lab, UC Berkeley, and Paul Piff, at Social Cohesion Lab, UC Irvine, to extend this preliminary research by examining viewers’ experiences and the enduring benefits of a shared public art experience.

Did you know that this artwork is one of more than three dozen stunning public light art installations that transform San Francisco each night into a citywide gallery of light? Now, that’s awesome. (See them all at illuminatesf.com.)

Dedicate a Bay Light at sif.illuminate.org

Currently and until all 25,000 lights are claimed, Illuminate offers the opportunity for anyone to dedicate a light in "The Bay Lights" to honor a friend, family member, pet, special occasion, in memoriam, or simply as a way to connect to art history. With every tax-deductible $100 donation, the words and photo in each dedication will become a permanent fixture like "The Bay Lights", shining for years to come, and will support Illuminate in creating new and inspiring works of accessible public art.  

The Bay Lights by the Numbers

  • 1.8 miles: Length of "The Bay Lights" from end to end (approximately 26.4 football fields).
  • 12 inches: Space between individual LED lights in strand mounted on each cable.
  • 2 feet: Length of the shortest bridge cable.
  • 240 feet: Length of the longest bridge cable.
  • 500 feet: Height of the installation to the tallest point.
  • 100,000 feet: Length of cable for power, fiber and Cat 5 wires in the system.
  • 300: Number of vertical cables on the bridge that fitted with LED lights.
  • 728: Number of power and data boxes used in the light sculpture system.
  • 50 million: Estimated number of people dazzled by "The Bay Lights" during its initial two-year presence.
  • $8 million: Total cost of the initial project to make "The Bay Lights" a reality.
  • $1 million: Estimate of dollars "The Bay Lights" will add to the local economy over 10 years after re-installation.

"The Bay Lights" story is so powerful that it inspired an award-winning documentary called Impossible Light by Jeremy Ambers. 

For more information about light art events and exhibitions, please visit Illuminate SF. for listings.


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