The San Francisco Arts Commission’s objective is to activate and enliven the Polk Street and west facing Hayes Street façades of the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium with a significant, museum-caliber artwork of the highest aesthetic quality for permanent display. This project is the first public art project to be funded through the auspices of the Public Art Trust with a contribution made by The Emerald Fund, the developers who are constructing two residential properties across from the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. A national call for artists was issued in October 2014, after which a public selection panel chose three artists to participate in an interview process: James Carpenter, Ned Kahn, and Joseph Kosuth. The selection panel reconvened in June 2015 to conduct the interviews and selected Joseph Kosuth on the basis of his interview, past work, and preliminary ideas about the kind of project he envisioned. The Arts Commission contracted with the artist and he was invited to develop a unique proposal for the building.


Joseph Kosuth’s work investigates the production, relationship, and role of language and meaning through art. A pioneer of Conceptual Art, Kosuth creates text-based artworks which define and re-define through a variety of scale, mediums, and forms. His recent public artworks involve large scale neon light installations on the exterior of buildings and employ a broad palette of languages and type face. Kosuth’s works range from objects to text to collages to neon fabrications.

For the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium project, Kosuth has designed a large scale light installation which spans the Polk Street and west facing Hayes Street façades of the building. This installation will be fabricated from neon lights. This will be the first public art commission by Joseph Kosuth in the United States, although he has created many permanent installations throughout Europe.

W.F.T. (San Francisco) 2016

by Joseph Kosuth


Architecture is the most psychological of the arts; the approach to work and frames your response to the kinds of meanings you find in it. the appropriation of architecture as part of my work in general is because it is so formative of the dynamic which constructs the meaning of cultural production – in this case – the facade of a distinguished public building – a concert venue that has been re-purposed over the last century housing spectacles ranging from politics to sports to culture, in short a beloved and democratic arena used by the citizens of San Francisco. Our experience of art, whether on the facade of a former bunker, the Louvre, an ancient castle, a massive ex-industrial space, a new building by Frank Gehry, or on the facade of this auditorium, is formed by the differences in the social history of any building’s prior use (which is why that building takes the form it takes, and constructs the kind of ambient environment that it does) as well as the cultural meaning that goes with it. Either an artist takes that into account critically or these relations are formed for them uncritically. These issues, that is, the full context of art, seemed quite relevant to me as an artist already in the 1960s and determined the kind of work I made.

During the research phase of this project, it became quite evident that it would be a challenge to capture the encyclopedic nature of the uses of this important building from its inauguration in 1915 as part of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition to the present. The San Francisco Civic Center, where the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium is situated, near City Hall, the State Office Complex and the San Francisco Library has a shared history where politics and culture meet. The essence of this building and the historic plaza of which it is part is what I have tried to address in the public artwork I am proposing. The basis of this project is language itself. It is a work that is both a relection on its own construction as well as on the history and culture of its own location. The structure of this installation has two parts: the etymology of the workds ‘Civic’ and ‘Auditorium’ in white neon on the western facade. The work reflects the cultural and social history of the evolution of language itself, how the history of a word demonstrates its relationship to cultures and social realities quite distinct and disconnected. The word ‘Civic’ is intricately connected to the long history of civil rights activism that has taken place (and continues to take place) in the plaza – from Gay Rights to Black Lives Matter. The word ‘Auditorium’ on the other hand is more specific to the building itself, referring to the collective audience assembled by Bill Graham, who found a way, as a concert promoter to not only promote concerts but also community. It is only in the present when a word is used, as it is with a work of art being experienced, that all which comprises the present finds its location in the process of making meaning. Here, in this work, language becomes both an allegory and an actual result of all of which it would want to speak.