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'Bay Lights' Organization Needs To Raise $4M To Keep Art Project Illuminated Over San Francisco Bay

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- The organization that created a nightly light show illuminating the Bay Bridge said Thursday it needs to raise $4 million by the end of the year to make the public art project permanent.

The lights are scheduled to be removed from the bridge in March 2015 so that Caltrans can perform maintenance on the cables, said Ben Davis, founder, president and CEO of Illuminate the Arts (ITA), a non-profit organization that formed with the sole purpose of creating the Bay Bridge light display.

After two years of fighting regulators uncertain of how to issue permits for a public art project of that magnitude and overcoming technical planning challenges, the lights flickered to life on March 5, 2013.

The public reaction was overwhelming, Davis said, and the constantly changing light display has since become known as "one of the leading public arts project in the world."

Davis said the organization raised more than $8 million to install the lights, designed by artist Leo Villareal, for what was intended to be a two-year project.

Caltrans initially offered a 10-year extension to the original contract at a cost of $12 million. The stipulation came with a Dec. 31 deadline to raise the funds, Davis said.

Over the summer, Davis said the ITA was able to negotiate with Caltrans to take stewardship of the project once the new lights are installed. The cost of the new agreement is $4 million, which Davis said is mostly to pay for the cost of people installing the lights each night.

Workers can only install the 25,000 lights between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. since that is the only time when a one-lane closure of the bridge would not disturb traffic, Davis said.

So far, Davis said they have raised over $300,000 of the $4 million they need.

"We like our chances," Davis said. "The prospects for the Bay Lights have never been brighter."

The lights are scheduled to be re-installed at the end of 2015, which Davis said would come just in time to shine for Superbowl 50 in 2016 at Levi Stadium.

The re-installation will also provide the organization an opportunity to replace the existing lights with improved LEDs that Davis said would be custom-made to withstand the harsh bay environment and "significantly improved" from the old ones.

The ITA had to replace "thousands" of lights during the first two years of the project because of the constant exposure to salt, wind, water,

and traffic vibrations, Davis said

There was no cost estimate associated with the light replacements because Davis said their light vendor replaced the lights for free.

That won't happen if Caltrans assumes stewardship of the bridge, Davis said, so it remains unclear how much the public agency will have to pay to maintain the lights.

The $4 million ITA is hoping to raise will only cover installation costs, which Davis said should be "significantly less" with the new, custom-made LED lights.

"That's the price of two years of learning," Davis said. "The new lights going in will have a very low maintenance requirement."

Caltrans currently maintains the necklace lights that ring the Bay Bridge. Those lights were installed in 1986 as a three-year project before Caltrans took them on permanently, Davis said.

Since the installation of the Bay Lights project, the ITA has grown to become a public arts non-profit and has continued to work in the Bay Area. Illuminate the Arts had $8.2 million in donations in fiscal year 2012 and $6 million in expenses, according to the website, GuideStar, which tracks non-profit finances.

Its most recent installation, "Let there be" can be seen on the side of the Zendesk building on Market Street. The display currently features photographs by a local artists projected onto the side of the building.

To learn more about the Bay Lights project and support the effort, visit

© Copyright 2014 by CBS San Francisco and Bay City News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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