SFAC Votes to Remove ‘Dragon Relief’ Over Broadway Tunnel

Patti Bowler, who died in 1992, designed Dragon Relief as one of the first commissions under the city’s Art Enrichment Ordinance, which sets aside a percentage of a building’s budget for public art. The 56-foot-long ribbon of metal was fabricated in Santa Rosa by Wade Lux and installed in 1970 on the Clarence Mayhew-designed health center. (KQED previously reported that Bowler’s husband, architect J. Carson Bowler, was once employed by Mayhew, who selected Bowler for the $27,500 project.)

As Visual Arts Committee member JD Beltran noted in the Nov. 15 meeting, the selection of Bowler, in consultation with seemingly no other stakeholders than the architect, is no longer the norm.

“In the six decades since this was created, our process as a commission has completely changed — for the better,” said Beltran. “We don’t even take a step forward until we actually consult with the community. And I think now that we do have those processes in place … since this is public art and it is community art, I think we should honor that process.”

In addition to questioning the relationship between Bowler’s artwork and the neighborhood served by the health center, letters and public comment touched on concerns for the safety and privacy of patients; a desire to honor Bowler’s original design; and potential distractions to drivers and pedestrians. Ultimately, no comments emerged as strongly in favor of relocating the sculpture to another part of the building.

Architectural rendering of glass-fronted building with red wrapping shape and Chinese characters on column
A view of the planned upgrades to the Chinatown Public Health Center, as seen from Mason Street. (San Francisco Public Works)

While the city may make an attempt to keep Dragon Relief in public view, large pieces of public artwork do not often reemerge from storage. According to their presentation at the meeting, the SFAC has removed 12 large-scale public artworks over the past 20 years — only one has been successfully relocated to another city property.

Placing an an artwork like Dragon Relief in storage, then, is not a decision to be taken lightly. In recent years, the SFAC has worked to build back public trust after the high-profile debacle of Lava Thomas’ rejected, then re-awarded Maya Angelou monument, when top-down decision making seemed to fly in the face of both public desires and the SFAC’s own commissioning processes.

SFAC staff members noted that the amount of community outreach done around Dragon Relief went beyond their usual approach, and was informed by their work with the Monuments and Memorials Advisory Committee, established in 2020 to reevaluate the city’s historical markers.

Seismic upgrades and a modernization of the health center are planned to begin in spring 2025 and last two years, pending voter approval of a bond measure on the November 2024 ballot. The SFAC will have a budget of $691,461 for new art enrichment in the building, which could include an exterior mosaic, interior murals and the purchase of two-dimensional work. The CCC will work with the SFAC to facilitate applications by monolingual artists like Yumei Hou, whose artwork in the Central Subway’s Chinatown station is based on her traditional cut paper pieces.

“Today, we can speak more holistically about what it means to have an artwork that is representative of the community, having something that represents their story, having something that actually excites and galvanizes the community to be a part of,” said CCC Deputy Director Hoi Leung at the Nov. 15 meeting. “The community really cares about art if they’re educated and empowered to think about art.”

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