Wacky, Homemade Cars Will Soon Roll Down the Hill in SF’s McLaren Park Again
It’s a sunny afternoon in McLaren Park in San Francisco’s Excelsior District. Throngs of people are gathered on either side of a roadway that snakes down a steep hill. As they watch, a person riding what looks like a giant black Converse sneaker whooshes past. Coming up close behind it, a cast-iron bathtub whizzes by on what could’ve been the frame of a lawn mower. Then another driver — this one clinging for dear life onto what looks like a torpedo — hurtles by, inches off the ground.
This was the first Artists’ Soapbox Derby held by the San Francisco Museum of Art — what we now know as SFMOMA — on May 18, 1975. It was a race for homemade cars. No engines! You just needed to be able to roll, steer and stop.
On April 10, SFMOMA is reviving its Soapbox Derby in McLaren Park. Homemade cars that can coast under the power of their own gravity will have their turn in the spotlight, careening down an 800-foot hill. It’s free and open to the public.
The Soapbox Derby is a revival of the 1975 event, which is now an institutional legend at SFMOMA. Then, as now, the country was in transition. The war in Vietnam had just ended and San Franciscans were looking for a bit of fun in their lives.
“It was playful. It was joyous,” said Amanda Pope, a professor of cinematic arts at the University of Southern California. “It wasn’t about advertising. It was just the artists getting out of their studios, doing something fun, a little outrageous, which is very much in the style of San Francisco.”
In the spring of 1975, Pope was living in San Francisco and got tipped off about the event by a friend with ties to the museum. She borrowed a camera and recruited her friend, Lisa Fruchtman, to help her with sound. (Fruchtman would go on to win an Oscar for editing “The Right Stuff” and was nominated again for her work on “The Godfather Part III.”) The footage they captured became Pope’s first documentary: “The Incredible San Francisco Artists’ Soapbox Derby.”
The first derby was the brainchild of late Bay Area artist Fletcher Benton. Benton wanted to bring local artists together to have fun and raise money for the museum at the same time. He hoped the museum would use any money raised to acquire more work from local artists.
“The Soapbox Derby started out as a whimsical statement that I made in the studio one day,” Benton told Pope’s documentary crew. “I said, ‘Why don’t we get the artists to build cars that would reflect their art or reflect their feelings or their fun? And we’d all get together and coast down the hill.'”
‘The flag is up on the first Artists’ Soapbox Derby’
Benton and his fellow planners got the go-ahead from the museum and started recruiting local artists to make cars and trophies for the derby. Artists got up to $100 per project to put toward expenses. Some of the more notable contributors who signed up included Ruth Asawa, Viola Frey and Carlos Villa.
In addition to artists, there were community icons like the late Florence “Flo” Allen. A legend among artists’ models in San Francisco, Allen was sketched by the likes of Diego Rivera and Mark Rothko. She was Derby Queen, with a car-themed headdress that looked like a mini-version of something from Beach Blanket Babylon.
Some of the cars were more direct in concept, like a giant No. 2 pencil from renowned ceramicist Richard Shaw. Pope interviewed him about his creation back in 1975.
“I was really nervous about the pencil impaling somebody, so we flipped coins [about who would drive],” Shaw said. “And we just tried to tell the people to get back so that they wouldn’t get wiped out.”
Other cars were more conceptual. There was a giant hand holding a pen by artist Jim Finnegan that Amanda Pope remembers as “The Mark of the Artist.”
“Ingenious. At a certain point, he release[d] ink from inside the hand,” she said.
An artist known as Meadow created “52 Vibrations” — a mishmash of sculpted anatomy that included a row of hands clutching working vibrators jutting out like spikes.
“There was definitely a dimension of eroticism in some of the designs of the cars. Just a celebration. I mean, you’re talking ’70s. It was, you know, feminism, women’s rights,” Pope said.
But the car that is probably the most recognizable from the event — and which continues to capture the imaginations of people who are only just learning about the 1975 race — is “Moulton’s Edible Special,” created by artist Dorcas Moulton. The whole frame of the car was made from real bread — even the hubcaps, which looked like giant English muffins.
“Fannie Farmer had a hot roll mix, and I figured rolls were appropriate, so I did that for the white bread. And then the black bread was a Russian rye or pumpernickel,” Moulton said. “It was a plywood and chicken-wire frame on top of four bicycle wheels. We had axles. We had a steering wheel somehow.”
She miraculously stayed upright all the way down the hill, despite pieces of bread flying in every direction. When she reached the finish line, eager admirers swarmed the bread car, prying off pieces of the frame — either as souvenirs or snacks.
“I made this little quip about, if you get stuck in a traffic jam, you can just, you know, break off a piece of the fender and have a snack while you’re stuck,” Moulton said. Legendary San Francisco columnist Herb Caen printed the remark along with an Associated Press photo that ran in newspapers around the country.
The sense of humor and ephemeral nature of Moulton’s Edible Special echoed one big idea put forward by the derby: that art didn’t need to be inside a museum — or even permanent — to be worthwhile.
“I guess I am a ‘lifestyle artist,’ working in whatever medium I was currently playing with, like bread or, now, [in] my garden here in El Sobrante,” Moulton said, “Not every artist wants to be in museums.”
So much more than cars
You didn’t have to make a car to participate in the Soapbox Derby. Some artists made trophies instead. Categories included: “Most Amorphous,” “Most Macabre,” “Most Biodegradable,” “Most Illusory” and “The Booby Prize.“
Moulton’s Edible Special won the “Most Endearing” prize, but Moulton didn’t remember what her trophy looked like or where it ended up. I had to break the news to her that, according to SFMOMA’s records, the world-renowned sculptor, Ruth Asawa, made it.
“Oh, dear. What have I done? A priceless Ruth Asawa slipped through my fingers!” Moulton moaned.
SFMOMA also confirmed it has no photographic record or description of the trophy, and even Asawa’s daughter, Aiko Cuneo, a working artist who still lives in the Bay Area, doesn’t have a recollection of it.
“I wish I could remember what the trophy looked like because I’m sure I saw it at some point,” she said. Cuneo was 25 when the first derby happened, and remembers it fondly.
“I had never been to McLaren Park before, so it was a great sort of field trip to go there. The location was so perfect because it had these really wide roadways that weren’t too steep,” she said.
Like Moulton, Cuneo appreciated that the derby was a chance to get away from the formality — even pretension — that often surrounds museums.
“The Soapbox Derby brought the museum outdoors and did make it so much more accessible to anybody. I thought it was so great that these artists could relive their childhood and be outrageous and uncensored and just have a lot of fun,” she said.
A changing museum
Back in 1975, the San Francisco Museum of Art had a new director named Henry Hopkins.
“He had a background as an educator, and so I think he really saw the value of community engagement,” said Tomoko Kanamitsu, the director of public engagement at SFMOMA today.
When Hopkins took the helm of the museum, it was much smaller and less distinguished. It originally took up just one floor of the War Memorial Veterans Building on Van Ness Avenue. But during Hopkins’s tenure, the stature of the museum would shift dramatically. It would become the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Hopkins would help chart its rise to international prominence.
Kanamitsu noted a shift in focus at the museum in the decades following the first Soapbox Derby that coincided with that period of growth for the museum. She said the ’70s were a unique, inward-looking time for the museum.
“I think that if I was to kind of project about what happened later, I think there was a lot of outward looking later on in the ’80s and ’90s and 2000s about being a museum at a world-class-museum scale,” Kanamitsu said. “And I think that has, in many ways, created a separation with the local art community.”
Within SFMOMA, Kanamitsu said, the derby is seen as a touchstone that encapsulates what a museum can be to its community. So reviving the event this year is a gesture of community recognition — and also a galvanizing force inside the museum.
“The pandemic has been so devastating, obviously to the whole world, but to arts institutions in particular. We suffered many layoffs,” Kanamitsu said. “Then there was the whole public reckoning around the censoring of Taylor Brandon, and as SFMOMA staff, we’ve had a hard time, and we really need something to kind of get us excited about why we do what we do and to kind of show that art isn’t just something that’s on the walls at the museum. Art is everywhere. And what better way to do that than to revive the 2022 Soapbox Derby?”