The most photographed bridge in the world wasn’t its usual self last night. At precisely nine o’clock in the evening, that honor was transferred to its functional sister bridge on the other side of the bay, courtesy of a thrilling work of art and some abundant largesse. Amidst a downpour of rain atop roiling bay waters, artist Leo Villareal touched the ‘enter’ key on his computer to activate The Bay Lights, a 1.8 mile-long installation of 25,000 white LED lights along the Bay Bridge. The computer-controlled bulbs glow and fade in ever-changing patterns, turning the Treasure Island-to-San Francisco portion of the bridge into a mesmerizing counterpoint to the natural and built environment it spans. The driving rain, blustery winds, and high chop of the water below made the first moments of illumination that much more dramatic. As patrons and the public huddled on Pier 14 under superfluous umbrellas for brief speeches from Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, Mayor Ed Lee and the artist himself, the mood was ebullient and celebratory. For a site-specific work of art, it was a sight indeed. This $8 million public art initiative has been privately funded by a coalition of very generous civic leaders who believed in Villareal’s vision, a confluence of technology and art; intense cooperation from Caltrans and the public agencies responsible for the Bay Bridge made the precarious installation of the lights a reality, facilitating lane closures at night for workers hanging from harnesses on the bridge. (Should you have a bit of change, $2 million remains to be raised for the piece, which is expected to bring $97 million in additional tourist revenue; www.thebaylights.org provides a myriad ways to contribute.)
The self-effacing artist had spent the evening surrounded by supporters from every phase of his artistic career. Guests were welcomed to a celebratory dinner and viewing parties at the Hotel Vitale by Joie de Vivre Hotels’ Founder Chip Conley, who serves with Villareal (and yours truly) on the Burning Man Project Board of Directors. Villareal’s first light sculpture was designed as a beacon on the desert playa; Burning Man Founders Larry Harvey and Marian Goodell and many of his Burning Man campmates from New York and Los Angeles were among the donors and celebrants. His soigné wife Yvonne Force Villareal, a fixture in the New York art circle, appeared with their son and daughter, adorable miniaturized doppelgangers, along with his proud father and aunt and cousins, all of whom he affectionately acknowledged in his dinnertime remarks. SFMOMA Board Chair Bob Fisher, whose Gap-headquarters office faces the installation, became an enthusiastic champion, joined by SFMOMA Museum Director Neal Benezra and a number of luminaries from the art universe, patrons from his other projects which include “Buckyball” in New York’s Madison Square, and “Multiverse,” in the National Gallery in Washington. This ambitious project was imagined by renaissance man Ben Davis, and brought to fruition with ace Producer Amy Critchett and fundraising from the multifaceted Dorka Keehn. The diverse group of dinner patrons included Lisa and John Pritzker, April and Paul Bucheit, Matt Mullenweg, Jean-Paul Conte, Lisa and Doug Goldman, Matthew and Jason Goldman, Helen Hilton Raiser, Marcela Panetta, Rob Weltman, Marcia and John Goldman, Marissa Mayer and Zachary Bogue, Alex Lloyd, Nion McEvoy, Jack Weedon, Linda and John Gruber, Sloan and Roger Barnett, Peter Hirshberg, and a host of enlightened, artistic lovers of art, community and our Bay.