California Artists Get 300 Tons of Bay Bridge Steel to Work With

Peter Stackpole, photo of the Bay Bridge during its construction (1936). Courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California Museum Technology Initiative for Educational Outreach.

The old Bay Bridge will get a second life at the hands of California artists, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. The committee overseeing the demolition of the old bridge has unanimously approved allotting up to $2.2 million for salvaging an expected 300 tons of steel to be used in artists’ projects.

The 10,000-foot-long eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge’s fate had been in question since construction began on a replacement in 2002. After the success of New York’s High Line, there was briefly talk of converting the old bridge into a park. Ultimately, the decision was made to remove the span, which had already suffered a partial collapse during the 1989 earthquake, due to safety concerns. Now, however, the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee has ruled that some of the steel will be cleansed of toxic paint, stockpiled, and ultimately refashioned into public art.

The program will be run by the Oakland Museum of California, who will review proposals, giving preference to projects that are inspired by the bridge’s history. (To coincide with last fall’s opening of the new section of the bridge, the museum presented “Peter Stackpole: Bridging the Bay,” a series of striking 1930s-era photographs taken by then-teenager Peter Stackpole during the original’s construction.)

“We really don’t know what will be proposed,” said Lori Fogarty, the museum’s executive director. “We know there’s a lot of interest from the community. We know there are a lot of artists who have worked with large-scale steel in the Bay Area. We’re really excited to see what kinds of projects might be available.” She expects the steel will appeal to public entities such as local parks and libraries as well as artists.

The program will let interested parties know which specific sections of the bridge are being salvaged, allowing them to tailor their proposals accordingly. “We’re going to pick pieces that evoked the visual literacy of the bridge,” said Fogarty.

Initially, the budget for the project was twice as large, but it was cut due to ongoing maintenance and repair issues connected to the new bridge. Nevertheless, local artists, many of whom have long been hoping for such a resolution, are pleased to see that a large amount of steel will finally be theirs for the taking.

“It was a long, hard four years,” said American Steel Studios founder Karen Cusolito, who had campaigned to have the bridge’s steel made available to artists. Her West Oakland artist community operates out of an old steel plant. “Though the numbers are less than what we asked for, I’m letting my breath out. And I’m excited to see what the Bay Area does with all this great, unique metal.”

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