The Millionaire’s Arts Club of San Francisco

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects me directly affects all indirectly.” — Martin Luther King, Jr

We need to reinvent our relationship with planet Earth. The future of all life on this planet, humans and our societies included, requires us to become effective stewards of the global commons — the climate, ice, land, ocean, freshwater, forests, soils, and rich diversity of life that regulate the state of the planet, and combine to create a unique and harmonious life-support system.” From a statement by a group of academics including 13 Nobel laureates issued on April 29, 2021 (as reported in the SF Chronicle)

There is a millionaire’s club at work in San Francisco, bringing corporate money and corporate influence into public spaces, grabbing public resources and exploiting what little remains of our green spaces and our night sky in the City. This millionaire’s club goes by the name of Illuminate and is, ostensibly, a non-profit arts organization. Its mission: “Illuminate rallies large groups of people together to create impossible works of public art that, through awe, free humanity’s better nature” (from the Illuminate website). What on earth does that even mean? There is so much wrong with Illuminate, on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to begin.

You do not create art by rallying large groups of people. Millionaires plus technocrats plus electric lights do not equal art. It is not possible to create “impossible” works of art. It’s not possible to create “impossible” anything. But it is clever, if deceptive: if you do make something that you had previously said was impossible, why then you must be a creative genius. Right from the start you get the impression that Illuminate is laughing at us; we can tell these fools anything if we dress it up in some new age jargon. David Hatfield, part of the three-member executive team, has the title, Chief of Opportunities.

Illuminate is a group mostly composed of elite white capitalists who hire contractors to put up electric lights in public spaces”

Illuminate’s Ten Principles include, “Live or die with integrity. Never compromise for corporate dollars, even if that means failing.” Are you kidding me? Is Iluminate like Doctors Without Borders whose members risk their lives to bring life-saving medicine to victims in conflict zones? Is it like Greenpeace whose members risk their lives and possible jail time defending whales and dolphins from slaughter? Is it like the tribes trying to stop the oil pipelines who are putting their lives on the line to save the planet from fossil fuels? No; Illuminate is a group mostly composed of elite white capitalists who hire contractors to put up electric lights in public spaces. I don’t think “dying with integrity” really enters into it, unless someone is accidentally electrocuted.

So, who are these guys, anyway? I have to ask, with all due respect, how are these people qualified to sit on the Board of a non-profit arts organization that’s taking in tens of millions of dollars and using its spending to influence City officials to favor its projects?

A quick look at some of the Illuminate Board members tells you that art is likely not their strong point:

John Combs, Founder/Principal RiverRock Real Estate Group; Jeff Jungsten, Jungsten Construction, President; Ken Maxey, Director of External Relations Comcast NBC Universal; Matt Mullenweg, Founder/CEO Automattic Inc.; Dickon Pinner (chair), Partner, McKinsey & Company; Patricia Wilson, CEO, P.S. Think Big, Inc.; Lisa Vogel, Director of Asset Management, Wareham Development.

Illuminate’s most prominent supporters are: The Lisa & John Pritzker Family Fund at $3 million plus and Tad and Dianne Taube at $2 million plus. “The Lisa and John Pritzker Family Fund seeks to improve the trajectories for young children in San Francisco, by investing in their health and learning” (from their website) so it’s a bit of a head scratcher why they would give so much to Illuminate. The Taubes give money to youth programs, pediatric cancer research and the San Francisco Opera, amongst others, so it’s also puzzling why they would donate so much to fund lighting projects that diminish children’s experience of the night sky and their ability to see the stars, moon and planets. Artificial light only obscures the celestial lights, which have always been humanity’s true source of awe and wonder.

More from Illuminate’s Ten Principles: “Be free to all. Create nothing that requires paid admission.” Shouldn’t be hard to do when all you do is put up lights in public places and you’re funded by donations. “Take worthy risks.Try difficult things and be transparent in sharing all lessons.” Again, are you kidding me? What risks is Illuminate taking? What lessons are they sharing?

It goes on: “Bring light to shadow. Pursue positive expressions that address real-world shortcomings.” “Be in it for others. Self-sacrifice toward the greater good.” Such noble sentiments! These people are veritable saints. “Always aim high. Seek to unite all people around higher values of love and equality.” And the way to do this is by putting electric light displays in our public spaces, causing untold amounts of wasted energy and light pollution?

Somehow, all this quixotic double-talk has also translated into putting lights in Golden Gate Park. Illuminate is lighting up the bandshell for the next two years with bright, colored lights. Also, they apparently plan to light up the Conservatory of Flowers indefinitely “…the dazzling light projection on the historic building’s exterior continues nightly into its third year.” (from the Illuminate website.)

“In ways we have long understood, in others we are just beginning to understand, night’s natural darkness has always been invaluable to our health and the health of the natural world, and every living creature suffers from its loss.” The End of Night by Paul Bogard

We need this? Perhaps Illuminate is thinking that the destitute and disenfranchised individuals who congregate on Market between 6th Street and Van Ness will be so mesmerized by the lights they’ll forget about their plight?”

Ben Davis, the CEO of Illuminate, asked if he could address a Zoom meeting of San Franciscans for Urban Nature, (I am a member) and we agreed. Once the meeting had begun, he announced that he had invited Dana King to join us and shortly afterwards handed his presentation over to her. He was looking to get our support for Illuminate’s latest project, putting an electric light installation across the facade of the bandshell. Dana King is the creator of Monumental Reckoning, a newly installed sculpture in the Music Concourse. A few weeks later he again asked to speak at our meeting and, after the meeting had begun, again announced that he had invited Dana King, and he let her do the talking.

It may be a somewhat underhanded way of doing business, but it is very effective. Who’s going to dare to oppose what a celebrity African American woman artist says? I guess that’s why Mr. Davis gets paid the big bucks. According to ProPublica in 2018 his compensation was $169,623. Total executive compensation was $249,056 (38.7% of total expenses); other salaries and wages were $202, 805 (31.5% of total expense). For 2019 Mr. Davis made a more modest $137,066.

So be aware, if Ben Davis asks to speak to your group, he will likely produce Dana King in his place once he arrives. He won’t tell you ahead of time.


“… light pollution poses a serious threat to nocturnal wildlife, having negative impacts on plant and animal physiology. … The rhythm of life is orchestrated by the diurnal patterns of light and dark, and disruption of these patterns impacts ecological dynamics.” Connie Walker, A Silent Cry for Dark Skies, The Universe in the Classroom.

Illuminate’s current big project is Lightrail — “Lightrail will be the world’s first subway-responsive light sculpture. Designed with more than 20,000 LED lights, it will run for two miles along San Francisco’s iconic Market Street, from Van Ness Avenue to The Embarcadero.“(Illuminate website). We need this? Perhaps Illuminate is thinking that the destitute and disenfranchised individuals who congregate on Market between 6th Street and Van Ness will be so mesmerized by the lights they’ll forget about their plight?

“Working with local artists George Zisiadis and Stefano Corazza, an extraordinary technical team, a range of city agencies, and the SF Board of Supervisors, Illuminate holds a major encroachment permit to install Lightrail, a two-mile-long piece of artwork that will run from One Market Street to Van Ness Avenue” (Illuminate website). May I point out that it is not artwork; it is light pollution and a wasteful use of energy we should be trying to conserve. It is ironic that as part of the same project, Illuminate “plans to retrofit the … streetlights–from the Ferry Building to the Rainbow Flag–with new energy-efficient LED bulbs that will cut energy use by “80%” Yes, exactly; we need to cut energy use and direct lights downward. But if this is going to cut energy use by 80%, why isn’t the City taking care of it? Why is our public space being co-opted by Illuminate who, otherwise, plans to produce only more light pollution using ever more energy? Dana King may be willing to lend her name and credibility to Illuminate, but the City should not cede rights to our public spaces to a non-profit “Arts” organization propagating ecologically damaging activities.

The stakes are very high and San Francisco is on the wrong path. Has no one at the Recreation and Parks Commission or the Mayor’s office heard of Greta Thunberg? I guess what Greta has to say is just an inconvenient truth. What would Greta think of Illuminate’s projects? Jason Mark, the editor-in-chief of Sierra, makes our situation very clear in his editorial, Writing the Future, “The twin threats of the climate crisis and the extinction emergency mean that the decisions we make today will reverberate on a geologic time scale.” What does Illuminate do to mitigate the climate crisis or the extinction emergency? Sad to say, thus far, they are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Illuminate can yet become a good steward of the Earth by turning it’s creativity, imagination and technical knowledge toward reducing the negative effects of artificial light in our public spaces.

“Artificial light at night disrupts a wide range of natural processes. Recent research has shown significant impacts of coastal lighting reducing foraging of intertidal invertebrates, disrupting marine food webs, suppressing movement of juvenile fishes, increasing predation on nesting seabirds…” Dr. Travis Longcore, Associate Adjunct Professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

Everything we do matters. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. It’s past time to recognize this.

Lives in San Francisco; graduate of SFSU.

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