The lights on San Francisco’s Bay Bridge may soon go dark

Those glimmering lights that twinkle from the western span of the Bay Bridge might soon be shut off for good — unless the nonprofit behind them can raise $11 million.

The public art nonprofit Illuminate hopes to raise the money for repairs and upgrades to “Bay Lights,” which it unveiled in 2013, the San Francisco Chronicle first reported. (The Chronicle and SFGATE are both owned by Hearst but have separate newsrooms.)

Illuminate founder Ben Davis told SFGATE that the failure rate of the technology used in “Bay Lights” has spiked over the past year and that the chain of recent California storms has acted as a “great demonstration” of challenges to the installation.

“Heavy rains, high winds, salty air, lightning strikes, 24/7 vibration, car grime, expansion and contraction of cables — it’s about as tough of an environment for electronics as you can possibly find,” Davis said. “The current system is failing at a rate faster than we can cost-effectively maintain.”

Because of this, the light fixture is set to shut off on March 5, its 10th anniversary. But if Illuminate can raise $11 million — $10 million from 10 wealthy donors and $1 million in small donations, according to the Chronicle — “Bay Lights” will be back, and better than ever, by September.

The installation is currently made up of 25,000 LED lights that display moving patterns using a randomized algorithm created by artist Leo Villareal. If renovations and reconfigurations are completed, Davis said, “Bay Lights” will have twice the number of LEDs, which will also wrap around the south side of the bridge’s cables instead of just those to the north. The new lights will be manufactured by Iowa-based lighting firm Musco Lighting, which also made the stadium lights at Levi’s Stadium, Davis said.

“This will reimagine what it means to enter San Francisco at night, through a portal of public art,” Davis said. “All communities around the bay will have a view of the western span.”

Illuminate has already secured a $1 million commitment from Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of WordPress, and Davis said a few others have lined up since the Chronicle’s article was published. But he’s still approaching the fundraising efforts with “guarded optimism,” as the nonprofit will need to raise about $1 million per month by September for “Bay Lights” to make a comeback.

“We’re feeling increasingly confident because we know this is a beloved piece,” Davis said. “It’s not going to be a rational decision from businesses that make it happen; it’s going to be kind of an irrational decision from a philanthropist who understands the power of the gift in this moment and what it means to the city and the region, both now and over the course of the next decade.”

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