Duct Tape and Dreams: The Wild History of SFMOMA’s Famous Soapbox Derby
Art can have many purposes—to be beautiful, to teach, to make us feel—but sometimes, art is just for fun. Such is the case for SFMOMA’s Soapbox Derby, a raucously creative race that sent dozens of artist-designed cars barreling through the streets of San Francisco in 1975, 1978, and again last April.
The idea originated with Bay Area sculptor Fletcher Benton (1931-2019) back in the 70s when he proposed that the museum commission a competition to make art fun and accessible to the public and to provide local artists with funding. SFMOMA agreed to the project, and more than 90 artists were tasked with designing racers and trophies. Rules stipulated that the cars “must coast, that they must not exceed the dimensions of six feet in width and seventeen feet in length, (and) that the vehicle contains an adequate steering and braking system.” Plus, the works should be cost-effective, and the museum offered $100 per car and $35 for trophies.
Thousands of viewers lined the 800-foot winding slope of McLaren Park’s Shelley Drive to watch artists like Ruth Asawa, Carlos Vila, and the collective known as Ant Farm compete. Racers were varied in subject matter and material and included vehicles shaped like bananas, sneakers, enormous hands, and a yellow No. 2 pencil, the latter of which was built by Richard Shaw, the winner in the “Fastest Looking” category of the legendary 1975 competition and the only alum in the 2022 revival.
Shaw features in “Duct Tape and Dreams,” a short documentary produced by SFMOMA and Stink Studios about last year’s event that follows artists as they construct their cars and sail down the hill. After studio visits and glimpses into the construction processes, race day is a riotous, high-energy event that sees a range of mishaps and successful descents for designs like Windy Chien’s rope dome (previously), a googly-eyed backhoe by Girl’s Garage and “Succulent Sally,” a car covered in native plants made by a team of the city’s gardeners.
Capturing the streets lined with spectators, the documentary is a reminder of what life was like before digital connection became ubiquitous and that art can be both playful and foster meaningful connection. “Art is not just in a white cube,” writes Tomoko Kanamitsu about the derby. “It can be a car made of bread that disintegrates halfway down a hill on Shelley Drive. Art can be anywhere and everywhere.”
SFMOMA hasn’t yet announced plans to host another iteration, but you can brush up on your derby history by watching “Duct Tape and Dreams” and diving into the photo archive in the meantime.
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