11 Light Art Destinations in San Francisco That Will Light Up Your Instagram
Nighttime is the right time to capture and share San Francisco’s extraordinary light art scene. To discover the many photogenic public light art installations featured in Illuminate SF, take a mesmerizing journey to some of the city’s most interesting neighborhoods. Experience these dramatic, eco-friendly light art works, 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 art works waiting to be enjoyed throughout San Francisco’s neighborhoods. Charge your cell phone and camera batteries – you’re going to want photos! Then, be brilliant—and share them using #illuminatesf.
Don’t miss the fifth annual Illuminate SF Festival of Light, happening from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. This year’s light art celebration includes free guided tours and light-centric neighborhood events presented by the San Francisco Travel Association in collaboration with local civic, arts and cultural partners. More brilliant ideas include buildings brimming with light, exhibits and special events at museums and galleries, and self-guided itineraries.
Market & Castro Streets
Hope Will Never Be Silent
At the bustling intersection at the center of the historic Castro neighborhood, you’ll find these two new 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 that is blown away can inspire a movement.
Annie Alley at Mission Street
LOVE OVER RULES
This large-scale animated text-based neon artwork is the first permanent public artwork in the United State 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.
Contemporary Jewish Museum (736 Mission St.)
Lamp of the Covenant
When the Contemporary Jewish Museum building 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 to be 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.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) (151 Third St.)
“monument” for V. Tatlin
untitled (in honor of Leo at the 30th anniversary of his gallery)
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.
Broadway and Columbus Ave.
Language of the Birds
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.
San Francisco Bay Bridge West Span
The Bay Lights
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 San Francisco Embarcadero north of the Bay Bridge or position yourself on Pier 14 behind the Exploratorium for the best camera angles.
After Dark: Glow at the Exploratorium
Buckyball, also by Leo Villareal, is a towering 25-foot illuminated sculpture that will enliven 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.
After Dark: Glow at the Exploratorium is Thursday, Dec. 7 from 6–10 p.m. This illuminating, fun event is not to be missed. Sip cocktails as you bask in ebullient lights and the mesmerizing gleam of special installations. Take a shine to illuminating films and exhibits. Show your sparkle with scintillating activities.
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, at 2569 Third St., the Museum of Craft and Design.
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.
55 Ninth St.
“…and my room still rocks like a boat on the sea” (Caruso’s Dream)
“… 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.
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 on the right behind the stairs.
525 Golden Gate Ave.
Firefly, by Ned Kahn, is located on the front of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission HQ building and dramatically reveals how wind moves through this nearly 12-story kinetic sculpture. At night, embedded magnets trigger tiny LED lights that are colored to resemble flickering fireflies.
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.
Patricia’s Green at Octavia and Hayes Streets
Trillian and Dodi
Trillian and Dodi, by HYBYCOZO (Yelena Filipchuk and Serge Beaulieu), is close by on the north side of Market Street in Patricia’s Green. The two visually stunning light-emitting geometrical sculptures are made of 12 to 20 steel panels each, with intricate laser-cut patterns lit from within by programmable, sound-responsive LED bulbs. The changing light coming through the steel is mesmerizing and captivating.
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. The artwork has just undergone an exquisite lighting restoration. Now is the time to visit this illuminated underground space with its rooftop oculus skyscape through which visitors view the 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.
San Francisco International Airport (SFO)
Four Sculptural Light Reflectors
Light Beams for the Sky of a Transfer Corridor
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.
San Francisco’s Civic Art Collection encompasses more than 3,500 objects, including historic monuments, murals, paintings, sculptures, installations and other media. The San Francisco Arts Commission oversees this rich and diverse collection, which helps distinguish the city as an important cultural destination. To learn more, visit www.sfartscommission.org.