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Sep 12, 2016

Presidio's Greatest Lists: Five Ways to Explore Art in the Presidio

Discover indoor galleries and outdoor art installations.


At the Presidio, art can be stumbled upon in unexpected places. The Presidio Trust partners with arts organizations like SFMOMA, YBCA, and the FOR-SITE Foundation to host works that surprise, delight, and invite you to see the Presidio – and the world – in a whole new way.

We’ve pulled together a list of five great ways to experience art in the Presidio. Whether you’re visiting a historic gun battery, a chapel on a hill, or a sudden clearing of trees in the forest, art is all around you waiting to be discovered.

Home Land Security

Nowhere is the Presidio military past more tangible than at the gun batteries along the park’s rugged western bluffs. Built to defend the post against outside forces, these long-abandoned structures are in service once again as the backdrop for a new exhibition by the FOR-SITE Foundation, Home Land Security. This provocative exhibition explores the concepts of border security, home, and belonging through work by 18 artists from around the world. It takes place within several batteries as well as at the Nike missile administrative building and a chapel, offering visitors a rare glimpse inside these historic structures. Free – on view through December 18, 2016 at the Presidio’s Fort Winfield Scott.

Photo Credit: Yin Xiuzhen, Weapon, 2003–7 (view from outside Battery Boutelle); used clothes and materials from everyday life; courtesy the artist and Beijing Commune; © Yin Xiuzhen; photo: Robert Divers Herrick

Learn how to visit the Home Land Security exhibition >>​

Fresco and Stained Glass at the Presidio Chapel

A little-known gem is the Works Progress Administration-era fresco at the Presidio Chapel. The 13- by 34-foot mural covers a wide stretch of Presidio history, from when the native Ohlone fished along the bayfront to the planning of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was completed in 1935 by a team of artists led by Diego Rivera’s protégé, Victor Mickhail Arnautoff – a Ukranian-born muralist who was also technical director of the Coit Tower murals.

Also of note are the sanctuary’s stained glass windows. Depicting the virtues of military character, they were created by Wilemina Ogterop, a prolific stained-glass artist who made the windows at St. Ignatius Church at USF, as well as thousands more around the United States and abroad. She was the first woman west of the Mississippi to be inducted into the stained-glass artist union.

The chapel is now the home of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio. A docent is on hand on Sundays from 11 am to 1:30 pm to provide stories related to the mural, including tales of an ill-fated romance, California wild fires, and the Army’s role in the Panama Canal. The chapel is also available for weddings and special events.

Photo Credit: Charity Vargas

Learn more about the Presidio Chapel >>​

The Art of the Book at Arion Press

If there was ever a doubt that a meticulously handcrafted book is a work of art, one need only step into Arion Press, which practices traditional bookmaking at the highest level, involving contemporary artists in the illustrations. Designated an “irreplaceable treasure” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, their workshop in rehabilitated laundry facility in the Presidio turns out art prints and limited-edition books – a delight to the senses thanks to traditional letterpress and hand-binding techniques. The books, lithographs, prints, and drawings they have produced are on view in the gallery, currently including work by Kara Walker, Raymond Pettibon (above), William Kentridge, Bruce Conner, and Enrique Chagoya, which is free and open weekdays and by appointment. ​

During weekly tours of the foundry and pressroom, visitors can watch as type is cast from hot metal, text is composed and transferred to fine paper with aid of 100-year-old machines, and the book pages are hand sewn and bound in cases. Thursday afternoon tours are $10 and require a reservation. Also, check their website and join their mailing list to learn about their evening lecture series and special events at Arion Press. 

Learn more about Arion Press >>​

The Tides Thoreau Center Galleries

One of the first tenants in the Presidio after it became a national park, Tides turned a cluster of former Army hospital buildings into a green haven for non-profits. More than 75 organizations working toward a sustainable future inhabit its 12-building campus. Even the walls provide a public service here, as rotating exhibits from the center’s two art galleries can be found in the light-filled halls, reflecting a focus on the environment and social justice.

The current exhibition, on display until September 23, 2016, honors the life and art of the late peace activist Sami Sunchild. Sunchild was the founder of the famous Red Victorian Bed and Breakfast on Haight Street and the Peaceful World Foundation, a current tenant of Tides Thoreau Center. The galleries are open to the public on weekdays from 9 am to 5 pm.

Learn more about the Thoreau Center Galleries >>​

Andy Goldsworthy’s Site-Specific Art

Even if you’re not seeking art, there’s a chance you’ll walk, drive, or dine near Andy Goldsworthy’s work on any given visit to the Presidio. The park is home to four installations by the renowned British artist – the largest collection on public view in North America. Goldsworthy created
Wood Line
Tree Fall
, and Earth Wall using trees felled during the park’s effort to replant the aging forest. 

See all four sites on a three-mile hike using the Goldsworthy in the Presidio brochure. Or join a docent-led tour held one Saturday per month. Note: Tree Fall is the only indoor installation and is open for viewing weekends from 10 am to 4 pm and weekdays by appointment.

Photo Credit: Charity Vargas

Learn more about Andy Goldsworthy in the Presidio >>

More Art in the Presidio