Serra sculpture commissioned for UCSF Mission Bay campus

A sculpture by world renowned artist Richard Serra has been commissioned for the main gateway to the UCSF Mission Bay campus as part of its public arts program.

Currently untitled, the sculpture is the fifth work scheduled for the new campus, which is evolving as a distinctive San Francisco environment for public art.

Considered one of the most influential artists of his generation, Serra, 64, is known for his massive steel sculptures in urban settings that puncture both physical and psychological space. He has created a striking piece for UCSF that consists of two rectangular steel plates nearly 50 feet high that will be installed vertically in a plaza serving as the main pedestrian entrance to the campus.

This will be Serra’s first work in a public space in San Francisco, where he was born and raised. The piece was designed specifically for the Mission Bay campus plaza, and installation is expected in 2005. San Francisco also is home to another large-scale Serra sculpture, titled “Charlie Brown,” installed in 1999 in the atrium of the Gap Inc. Building.

UCSF launched the public arts program at the new Mission Bay campus with the goal of creating a visually stimulating environment and a permanent legacy to the city.

“The sculpture by Richard Serra is the centerpiece of our program for public art at UCSF Mission Bay. We are proud to have this extraordinary work by a distinguished native son of San Francisco. It should play a major role in making our Mission Bay campus a memorable place to work and visit,” said UCSF Chancellor J. Michael Bishop.

As a San Francisco native, Serra said he was drawn to this project because he had spent a lot of time in the Mission Bay area. He made three trips to see the model of the new campus and visit the actual site, walking the plaza location before it was graded and connecting to the space as a flat plane where one can see great distances.

The steel plates of the sculpture are designed “to hold the vastness of the space, emphasizing its horizontality and holding space and volume between the two pieces,” he said.

The campus has pledged non-state funds for art at the Mission Bay campus equal to one percent of new construction costs, just as other major universities have done across the country. A portion of the funding for the Serra sculpture is coming from this percentage, with the balance advanced by the Chancellor from gifts made to UCSF and designated for art or other discretionary use. Because of its governance structure, UCSF is exempt from a San Francisco ordinance that requires two percent of construction costs for all public projects to be spent on art, but the campus has chosen to voluntarily honor this regulation at the mid-way point.

The public art program is guided by a team of experts appointed by Chancellor Bishop to serve on the Mission Bay Art Advisory Board.

Board member Neal Benezra, an Oakland native and director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), said he views the addition of a major new outdoor work by Serra for the campus as extraordinary in every way. “The artist was born, raised and educated in the Bay Area, and this represents a long overdue public homecoming for this great artist and his magnificent work. It is also a major achievement for UCSF, and sets the highest possible standard for public art on a university campus.”

The two massive plates of the Serra sculpture will be installed along the centerline of the plaza, a dramatic space about the size of a football field. The plates will be spaced equally at third points along the plaza, equidistant from each other and from the two streets that border the plaza. A public transportation stop will be adjacent to the plaza, providing a continuing flow of pedestrian traffic—a factor that Serra values when integrating public space with public art.

Each plate will tilt 18 inches, less than two degrees, one to the north and one to the south. Weighing 70 tons, each plate will be rolled from a single ingot of weatherproof steel. Each plate will measure 49-feet-2-inches high, 14-feet-9-inches wide, and 5-inches thick. Over several years, the steel surface will change from a red iron oxide to a dark violet brown color.

Serra noted that it often takes time for people to adjust to his sculptures as they move through a space, and he expects the same at Mission Bay. “Getting in on the ground floor as the campus develops is less jarring for the people who regularly will pass through the space,” he said. “The lean, weight, and axis of the sculpture are expected to provide a variety of emotions and context with each visit.”

A second major campus for research and teaching in the life sciences, UCSF Mission Bay is a 43-acre site at Third and Sixteenth Streets, south of the Giants SBC Park . Two buildings are occupied, with three others under construction and a fourth set for groundbreaking in the fall.

At full build-out in 15 years, the campus will have 20 structures—providing potential for public art at UCSF that is unprecedented, according to Assistant Chancellor Susan Montrose. The goal is to develop a continuing public art program that includes commissions, purchases, and eventually works on-loan for temporary exhibits, she said.

Board member Mary Livingstone Beebe, director of the Stuart Collection at UC San Diego, sees the program as a remarkable opportunity to integrate art into the fabric and life of the Mission Bay campus. “There has been exciting communication with a group of internationally and nationally recognized artists about a wide variety of works—from photographs and paintings to significant sculpture installations—in both exterior and interior spaces.  We all want this endeavor to produce significant and memorable additions to the campus that also are a real asset for the entire Bay Area.”

In addition to Benezra and Beebe, other members of the Art Advisory Board are its chairman, San Francisco art collector Steven H. Oliver, chair of the board of trustees of SFMOMA, and Sandra Ann Percival, executive director of the Public Art Development Trust in London.

This group advises the Chancellor and the Mission Bay Art Committee, which is composed of faculty, staff and students, and chaired by Sam Barondes, MD, UCSF professor of psychiatry.

For commissioned projects like the Serra, artists are identified by the Advisory Board and invited to visit the campus to select a site for submitting a proposal. The campus committee enthusiastically endorsed the Serra proposal and recommended its acceptance by the Chancellor.

The steel plates for the Serra sculpture will be shipped from a mill in France. The two plates will be welded to base plates of the same material in the Bay Area before installation.

Growing up in the Outer Sunset near Ocean Beach, Serra began his relationship with steel as a young man when he worked in steel mills to support himself during college. He attended UC-Berkeley and then transferred to UC-Santa Barbara, where he earned a BA in English literature in 1961. He went on to earn degrees at Yale, training as a painter.

In 1966, Serra made his first sculptures from non-traditional materials such as fiberglass and rubber. During the late 60s he continued to focus on sculpture and began working with steel.

Today, Serra has been the subject of more than 170 one-man exhibitions and his works are in public collections in Canada, Japan, and throughout the U.S. and Europe. He has received numerous honors, including the Gold Medal for Sculpture from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2002. He continues to produce large-scale steel structures for sites in the U.S. and Europe. He and his wife, Clara Weyergraf-Serra, live in New York City and in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

In addition to the Serra sculpture, other works included in the Mission Bay art program so far:

* Chandelier—A dramatic chandelier, consisting of five red and orange 34-foot-long pendants, was designed by internationally known California artist Jim Isermann. It was installed in spring 2003 in the atrium of UCSF Genentech Hall, which was the first building to open at Mission Bay in January 2003.

* Seating sculpture—Roy McMakin, a graduate of UC San Diego’s art department who created the furniture for the Museum of the Getty Center in 1998, has completed an extensive and varied array of sculptural seating elements that he will carefully place around the perimeter of the 3.2-acre green known as the Koret Quad. He has used assorted materials, including stone, wood, bronze and fiberglass, to fashion the furniture and other fixtures for the landscaped park-like area that is larger than San Francisco’s Union Square. Installation is planned for summer 2004.

* Sculptural figures—German sculptor Stephan Balkenhol, an internationally recognized artist whose work involves figurative elements in architectural contexts, often carved in wood at a large scale, will create a sculpture to enliven the 80-foot atrium space of the Campus Community Center, targeted for occupancy in January 2005. Balkenhol will carve a set of four figures, each facing a different direction, from the trunk of a single large tree. Representing the diversity at UCSF, the figures will stand 8-to 10-feet tall and will greet visitors to the four-story social and recreational campus community center, designed by award-winning architect Ricardo Legorreta.

* Geometric sphere—A 12-foot three-dimensional geometric sphere painted in iridescent metallic green is the work of Los Angeles-based artist Liz Larner. The sphere is expected to be installed in May 2004 in the atrium of the Genetics, Development and Behavioral Science Building, which was the second building to open at Mission Bay in February 2004.