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Seats of Power: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Moving Bronze Art Chairs Across the Street 

Wednesday, Jun 5 2013

Primitivo Suarez-Wolfe is a talented artist. Maybe too talented: Anyone carelessly plopping down upon what appears to be a soft, inviting recliner on a sidewalk at Church and Duboce will receive an impromptu lesson on where his coccyx is.

The nine such bronze chairs sitting near the Muni stops since December compose Suarez-Wolfe's installation Domestic Seating. And while the plaque accompanying the public artwork describes it as being "inspired by the discarded furniture commonly seen on city sidewalks," this is selling the artist short. His several-hundred pound creations are, down to the unsightly indentations and overall Salvation Army décor, visually indistinguishable from the street furniture you may have put on skateboards and rolled to your college apartment.

There are two major distinctions, however: Derelict furniture is easily relocated and free, while Domestic Seating is bolted into the pavement and cost a great deal of city money. Suarez-Wolfe bristled at earlier media reports pegging the per-chair cost at a healthy $9,100. He has reason to: This calculation neglects to factor in that the artist didn't touch his contingency fund, coming in nearly $11,000 under budget. Once you do that math, the price tag shakes out to a svelter $7,992 per seat.

Alas, that sum is about to grow. Come June 11, workers will yank two of the chairs out of the sidewalk and transport them several yards to the other side of the street — at a cost of an additional $6,993 (which hikes the cost per chair to $8,769).

When you think about it, the notion of responding to aggrieved public transit-users' desires for seating by commissioning a handful of costly works of art designed to replicate discarded, free furniture neatly captures the essence of this city. As does the ensuing Byzantine, seven-month, multi-agency effort to uproot a pair of those chairs and deposit them a hop, skip, and a jump away.

"Why did the $8,769 bronze chair cross the road?" isn't a joke. But it is a case study in San Francisco government.

Speaking to the scads of city officials required to formulate and execute operations such as moving these chairs is a bit like perusing a wedding registry. Following the initial shock, it gradually seems perfectly logical that someone would require $75 worth of hand towels. And, when myriad city employees outline the myriad steps required to do — and undo — anything here, geological amounts of time and astronomical sums of money begin to feel perfectly logical as well. Always the wonder is that things don't cost more and take longer.

It didn't take long, however, for a troubling complaint to be registered with the city regarding the chairs. Back in December, disability advocate Bob Planthold warned the Mayor's Office on Disability that the two seats on Church next to the Safeway crowded an already crammed Muni boarding zone and presented an obstacle for those with poor vision and no reason to anticipate 400 pounds worth of bronze faux derelict furniture between them and the 22-Fillmore or J-Church.

Planthold's lament was disseminated by the Mayor's Office on Disability — which did not have any input into the placing and design of these chairs. A platoon of officials from the Department of Public Works, Arts Commission, and Municipal Transportation Agency was, two weeks later, on site. And Kevin Jensen, Public Works' expert on Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, nearly ended up a bit shorter that day.

"The bus mirrors, as they pass by, come out awfully close to a tall pedestrian standing by the curb (one came real close to missing Kevin's head while we were standing onsite)," noted an e-mail from Nick Elsner, a senior plan-checker with Public Works. In his communique, Elsner claimed the chairs complied with both the ADA and the Better Streets Plan — yet "we all agreed" that their current site, while meeting "minimal code compliance," was not satisfactory. (Your humble narrator asked Arts Commission spokeswoman Kate Patterson if the chairs were ADA compliant. She explained they were "not not ADA compliant" — which doesn't appear to not be the case.).

If pushing the chairs forward was an invitation to become a hood ornament, why not push them back along Safeway's wall? Well, that land is owned by Safeway. City officials' efforts to convince a private business to house large objects that were deemed possible lawsuit magnets went so well that Planthold was tapped to have a go at it. He did not fare better — the Safeway people apparently take the name of their store seriously. "Potential liability is one of the many reasons why I am not in support of having them move closer to our building," wrote Kimberley Beal, the grocery store's property manager. "Instead of moving the chairs closer to the curb, it seems like the easiest solution would be to have the chairs removed."

That depends on your definition of the word "easy."

On June 13, Domestic Seating will be named to the Americans' for the Arts list of top 50 public installations in the country. Two days earlier, the offending chairs will be relocated. All it took was work by dozens of employees across at least four departments, permitting issues, and Charter-mandated approval of resolutions generated by Arts Commission staff by both the Arts Commission and its Visual Arts Committee. Everyone involved in this process assures us that due diligence was undertaken and everything was done by the book. And here's the thing: That's undoubtedly true. This is how things are supposed to work.

Carla Johnson, the director of the Mayor's Office on Disability, tells us she looks forward to "talking more" — and earlier — with the Arts Commission, so future post-facto moves like this won't be necessary. Arts Commission officials, however, said that it's the DPW that oversees accessibility issues on Capital Improvement Projects — and that procedure won't change.

In other words, despite MOD's M.O., it's SOP on a CIP for DPW to OK ADA and BSP for AC — even after this SNAFU.

How exhausting. At least we all have a place to sit.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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