San Francisco

Neon symposium speaks to the art's past and future

A symposium this weekend at the Tenderloin Museum features neon experts and artists discussing their work and investigating the medium's history and future.

Randall Homan and Al Barna have been documenting and informing the public about the history of neon signs in San Francisco for years, but only recently embarked on an effort to develop a guidebook for neon restoration best practices.

Al Barna and Randall Homan (speaking) guiding a Chinatown tour. | Photo: SF Neon

It was during the outreach to develop that handbook, set to be completed this year, that they conceived the idea of gathering neon experts in one place to discuss their current work and thoughts on the future of the craft.

The first Neon Speaks symposium will be held largely at the Tenderloin Museum on Saturday, April 21, but includes other events in several city neighborhoods over the weekend.;

The idea for a symposium was sparked during a conversation with Todd Sanders, founder of the American Sign Museum, Barna told us.

Sanders noted that there were neon enthusiasts across the country working to restore and preserve signs, but no one is really working together, Barna said.

“He said, ‘we are all part of a national movement… but we don’t know it yet,'” according to Homan. Sanders also suggested the pair find a local history museum to host the symposium.

“We reached out to Katie [Conry] and there was no hesitation,” Barna said of the Tenderloin Museum’s executive director. The museum will host Saturday's speaker sessions and spotlight forum.

The symposium is supported in part through an SF Heritage grant, for which the Tenderloin Museum is serving as a financial sponsor.

In the Mission, the Roxie Theater will host a screening of "Neon,"  a documentary by Australian filmmaker Lawrence Johnston. A question and answer session will follow the screening, which explores the history of neon and how it remains the same through the years.

Photo: SF Neon/Facebook

Some of the speakers during the symposium currently have their work on display in She Bends at the Midway. The exhibit featuring the work of female-identifying neon artists opened will be on display until June 2.

Others are experts that have been working to preserve and rebuild neon across the country, including Swormstedt and others that have been helping draft the neon best practices guidebook.

Image of neon art by Shawna Peterson, displayed at She Bends. | Photo: The Midway Gallery/Facebook

If you miss the symposium this weekend, you can join one of Honan and Barna’s neon tours to learn about the lights in San Francisco neighborhoods including the Tenderloin, Chinatown, Downtown, and Cow Hollow.


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