Artwork to add disco flair to Harvey Milk SFO terminal

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday May 21, 2020
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Disco balls and neon quotes from Harvey Milk are planned for the underpass in front of the arrivals area outside Harvey Milk Terminal 1. Photo: Artist's rendering courtesy Andrea Bowers
Disco balls and neon quotes from Harvey Milk are planned for the underpass in front of the arrivals area outside Harvey Milk Terminal 1. Photo: Artist's rendering courtesy Andrea Bowers

It doesn't seem imaginable today, with travelers largely avoiding airports due to the novel coronavirus outbreak, but in a few years passengers departing flights through Harvey Milk Terminal 1 at San Francisco International Airport may not be in such a rush to leave the aviation facility. Instead, they may just want to have an impromptu curbside dance party.

Their desire to turn the sidewalk into a dance floor will be inspired by seeing a series of disco balls greeting them overhead surrounded by an elaborate neon artwork lighting up inspirational quotes from Milk, the first LGBT icon to have an airport terminal named in their honor.

"He is such an important part of San Francisco history. I was so excited to find out about this opportunity to apply for this public artwork at the Harvey Milk Terminal," artist Andrea Bowers told the Bay Area Reporter this week during a Zoom interview. "That was just an obvious, amazing subject matter for me. I wanted to focus on his life's work, and the joy and hope in his work."

Milk's winning a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in November 1977 marked the first time that an out gay candidate had won election to public office in both San Francisco and California. Tragically, he was assassinated 11 months into his first term the morning of November 27, 1978 along with then-mayor George Moscone.

In 2018, city officials agreed to name the under renovation Terminal 1 at SFO after Milk. The decision came five years after gay former Supervisor David Campos had initially floated a proposal to name the entire airport after the gay icon and then settled on one of the airport's four terminals.

Amid the protracted bureaucratic wrangling over the airport naming details, focus at one point turned to the public artwork planned as part of the $2.4 billion remodel of the Milk terminal set to be complete by 2023. District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen, a legislative aide to Campos who succeeded him in office, had pressed to see that at least some of the art was inspired by Milk.

There are now three Milk-related art installations planned for the terminal; the first debuted in April in the departures area. Located in what has been dubbed the Central Inglenook near the American Airlines check-in counters, it is a photographic exhibit created by the SFO Museum that traces Milk's life from his childhood in New York to his days as a pioneering political operative in San Francisco during the 1970s.

The city's arts commission is currently accepting submissions for a Milk-themed mural with a $200,000 budget to be installed in the terminal's pre-security arrivals level in spring 2022. It will surround a three-story atrium with escalators to the baggage claim area and ground transportation. The deadline for artists to submit proposals is June 1, and more than a dozen have already done so.

"We have received 14 responses to date and are expecting many more as we get closer to the close of the RFQ," Susan Pontious, director of public art for the city, told the B.A.R. "We will also be considering artists already in our pre-qualified pool of approximately 400 artists. (The pre-qualified pool is the result of a biannual call issued for artists to be considered for a variety of public art opportunities in the city with budgets under $500,000.)"

Inspired by Castro Theatre marquee

Bowers, whose neon artwork has lit up cities, museums, and galleries across the globe, won the $1.1 million commission for the Milk terminal's underpass lighting art project last August. She received the highest scores among three artists being considered by the selection panel, which included Milk's gay nephew Stuart Milk, who heads the foundation he and his family created to promote the legacy of his famous uncle.

"One of the biggest honors of my life is to work on this and make a work that is about Harvey," said Bowers, 55, a straight ally who lives in Los Angeles. "That it will have such visibility, I hope I can do it justice."

Bowers grew up in Ohio and recalls hearing on the news as a teenager about the deaths of Milk and Moscone.

"I remember the grief and hope from that time," said Bowers, adding that in her youth she was already involved in activism.

It has infused her art, which often focuses on political and social themes such as climate change, women's rights, and sexual assault. On a more personal level, Bowers told the B.A.R. that she also grapples with gender identity.

"I think I am always questioning my gender. It is forever fluid, especially as I get older," she said.

A frequent visitor to San Francisco, Bowers' terminal proposal was partly inspired by the neon facade of the Castro Theatre. In her research she found a photo of Milk standing on the sidewalk below the theater pointing up to the marquee.

It is part of the connective tissue in her artwork tying it back to the city's LGBT Castro district, where Milk operated his camera store at 575 Castro Street, ran for political office, and represented at City Hall. He was also a contemporary with the gay disco star Sylvester, who also called the Castro home and was featured in the biopic "Milk" during a birthday party scene serenading Milk.

She included the disco balls — so far 13 are to be installed outside the terminal — because they mirror not only the dance scene of the 1970s but also the political activism of that time, explained Bowers.

"In thinking about all of the gay clubs and theater sites back then they all had disco balls in them. They were not only being part of the culture coming together for the LGBTQ community but also sites of activism,' she said. "It just seemed to me kind of the Castro Theatre's neon lighting seems to be an icon of that history. Their programming historically has supported that community, and Harvey's office was in that neighborhood and was the neighborhood he represented."

Artist Andrea Bowers. Photo: Julie Sadowski  

Dramatic installation
Her installation should be attached to the underside of the canopy outside of the terminal's arrivals area in late 2022 or early 2023. Since being selected last summer, Bowers has spent much of the past nine months closely coordinating with the airport's design team and construction contractor on the schematics for her artwork so it fits into the designated space along with various signage, lighting, and other electrical elements airports are required to have in place.

"There is nothing more depressing sometimes than waiting at the arrivals section for someone to pick you up or to get a car. You feel kind of lost," said Bowers. "Also, this is your first glimpse of the city. I love the idea your first glimpse will be quotes from Harvey Milk surrounded by all this beautiful neon with disco balls."

Pontious said it will provide a "wonderful" introduction to the city for travelers.

"One of the things everyone loved about Andrea's proposal was besides the quotes from Harvey, which are serious and inspirational, her proposal also catches, we thought, the spirit of fun of Harvey Milk," she said.

Bowers is now beginning to pivot toward selecting the quotes of Milk's that she will incorporate into the work. The final design will need to go before the arts commission for final approval before the artwork is manufactured by Lite Brite Neon Studio, founded by Matt Dilling and located in Kingston, New York.

"It is still in the early stages of design, but the intent is for significant quotes from Harvey Milk to be displayed above the primary arrivals exits in Terminal 1 so that travelers will be welcomed by the artwork as they exit the baggage claim area," explained Pontious.

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