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Feature story: Trying to get a league ahead

Pacific Art League launches major renovation of its historic building, reinvents itself for the future

Painter Mark Garner is just the type of Pacific Art League member whom many at the league would like to see more of.

He's an enthusiastic and prolific artist who has been painting every day of the two years he's been retired from selling real estate. Four of his "photo-realistic" watercolors were accepted into a league exhibition last fall, and two were in last month's show. Currently, his painting of the Palo Alto landmark Mac's Smoke Shop, vivid and detailed as a mosaic, hangs in the league's main gallery.

"Producing art is what I want to do," he said.

Garner is also focused on the present and the future of the art league, not its past. Though he has lived in Palo Alto almost 30 years, he was only dimly aware of the art league before he retired. He certainly wasn't very interested in the controversy five years ago over a plan to move out of the top two floors of the league's historic but seismically unsafe building in downtown Palo Alto. That plan, he said, "really wasn't on my radar."

The current plan is, prominently. Garner has read up on the project that will dramatically shape the prospects of the 90-year-old arts organization. Next year, the group is scheduled to break ground on a $4 million renovation and seismic retrofit. The building's size will increase by 5,000 square feet, growing by two-thirds. The revamped second floor will be leased in hopes of retiring the bank debt funding the bulk of the project.

"I think the building could use some improvements. It's dated. I hope it works out in their favor," Garner said. Overall, he's a fan of the art league, calling its staff and volunteers "very supportive of the art community, especially to a guy like me who is new."

It's an opinion the Pacific Art League (PAL) would like others to share -- many others. As the nonprofit gears up for the groundbreaking, executive director Richard Ambrose, board president Joy Chase and their cohorts are planning ahead to shape its future.

Ambrose and Chase say the league has come far since the heated days of 2007 and 2008, when plans to sell its building at 668 Ramona St. sparked an angry "Vote No" campaign by some members. (The plan was subsequently dropped.) The number of league members is up to 480, after bottoming out at 300 during the most contentious days, Ambrose said. In addition, the budget is nearly balanced after "multiple years of six-figure deficits," he added.

Many, too, agree that the atmosphere at the organization is worlds different. "PAL is back," painter and longtime member Gary Coleman wrote recently in an email. "Once again it is a friendly, supportive art institution."

But Ambrose, Chase and the others have big tasks yet to complete. They'll need to keep the organization vital while its exhibitions and classes are displaced by construction. In addition, the league's small staff hasn't focused as much on public relations as it could, and there is no development director, Ambrose said.

Looking ahead to the league's 100-year anniversary (it was founded in 1921), Ambrose hopes to increase membership to 1,000 by then. That will include crafting new enterprises to try to draw in the 20-something and 30-something crowd, who have not typically been represented.

"Our challenge, I think, is to sustain our membership not only during transition and return but beyond that," Chase said.

Ambrose summed it up: "We're pretty much in a transformative period."

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Built in 1926 as the Winsor Cabinet Shop, the current home of the Pacific Art League adds picturesque touches to the corner of Ramona Street and Forest Avenue.

Crowned by a castle tower with wooden strips dividing its windows into small diamonds, the three-story building is covered with off-white pebbledash stucco. Clay-tile awnings cover some of the windows on the second floor.

When the Palo Alto City Council added the building to its Historic Inventory in 1980, a staff report called it "a building of presence and strong visual interest ... that anchors the end of this commercial block and turns the corner gracefully." The State Historic Preservation Office has also declared the building eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, according to a city staff report.

In 1965, the Pacific Art League, formerly called the Palo Alto Art Club, bought the building and moved in, the staff report reads. The organization has been there ever since, drawing many members, students and artists to its exhibitions, classes and other events.

Many regulars are fond of the historic building, with its pretty balconies and airy Norton Gallery upstairs. According to the staff report, the "great majority" of the 7,606-square-foot structure retains its historical character and integrity, despite a few alterations over the years.

However, the building does not meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act; for example, it has stairs but no elevator, and doorways need to be widened to accommodate wheelchairs. And it's on the city's list of structures with seismic hazards, built from concrete and reinforced hollow-clay tile.

"Historic and seismic rehabilitation of the building" is not a small task, the staff report states.

So in 2007, the league came up with a plan to sell the Ramona property to a developer who would revamp the building. The league would keep the first floor for classroom and gallery space, with the top two floors sold as commercial condominiums.

"We'd love to stay here and do the renovations ourselves. But that's not practical given what our assets are right now," Stephanie Demos, the then-executive director of the league, said at the time.

The contentious plan sparked the "Vote No" campaign, and many staff and board members resigned. Chase's husband, architect Bill Bruner, was one of the people elected to the new board.

"The new board took over in order to stop the possible sale of the historic building on Ramona Street. It was diverse in its interests and reasons for being on the board and conflicts ensued, which took about a year to sort out," Chase said. Demos ultimately resigned.

Chase herself was appointed, then elected, to the board in 2008 and became board president in 2010.

"My guiding principle has been to make PAL 'a good place' for artists, members and the community. I think we are beginning to see this," Chase said. "We tried doing without an (executive director) for a while; board members put in long hours. But in late 2009 we decided we needed someone to manage PAL on a daily basis."

The board chose Ambrose, himself an artist who does large pencil drawings. His experience includes curating exhibits at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley and the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences in West Virginia.

Starting in 2010, a building steering group including Chase, Ambrose and other board members worked on the new construction project. It was approved by the Palo Alto City Council last year.

In March the art league signed a memorandum of understanding with Oliver & Company of Berkeley and Richmond to be the general contractor and project manager for the work.

Bruner, the league's architect of record, is architect on this project as well. Chase said that she and Bruner, who is still on the board, recused themselves "from voting on items that could possibly be to our advantage such as hiring the architect or even giving the final go on the project."

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The current plan for the old Ramona Street building is getting a much calmer reception than the star-crossed 2007 project. No members of the public spoke at the July 2011 council meeting on the plan, and the council approved it 9-0.

"Councilmember (Karen) Holman said the project was one of the nicest projects she had seen in a long time," the meeting's minutes read.

Under the plan, the building's space will increase by nearly 5,000 square feet, with an addition along the south side to augment studio, gallery and classroom areas. A new elevator and other changes will bring the building into ADA compliance, and the seismic upgrade will include adding steel columns.

The project does not have any new parking requirements; the nearby parking lots and the garage under neighboring City Hall are expected to accommodate league visitors, according to the council minutes.

The art league is paying some of the design costs from its cash reserve, but the bulk of the $4 million cost will be financed by a bank loan, Ambrose said. "We can't raise $4 million from donors, so we'll be leasing."

Leasing out space on the second and third floors, that is. The art league will keep its home on the expanded first floor, and the project also includes a new primary entrance on the building's Forest Avenue frontage for future tenants. The league has hired real-estate agents and is already getting some interest from prospective tenants, Ambrose said.

A flier from Cassidy Turley Commercial Real Estate Services is already advertising the new space at 229 Forest Ave. Listed attributes include "Prime downtown Palo Alto location" and "Board room with panoramic views."

Ambrose said the rental space could be used for technology, law or other kinds of offices. He speculated that the league could re-acquire the space down the road, if it were to need and want it.

"We're hoping we can retire the bank loan within 10 years," he said. In addition, the league is planning a Centennial Campaign to help pay down the mortgage.

While Ambrose wasn't at the league during the controversy, he seems certain that the new plan is a better one: "The proposal back then didn't have a solution" to provide the league with a new home.

Ambrose and others are also confident that the project will protect the building's historic attributes. Modifications to the building's exterior comply with the U.S. Secretary of the Interior's standards for rehabilitating historic structures, according to the staff report. They include repainting the building in its existing colors, adding a skylight and replacing windows and a door. The addition will incorporate existing architectural elements.

The city's Historic Resources Board also unanimously approved the project last year.

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The Pacific Art League expects to break ground on the project in early January, with construction lasting 10 to 12 months. It makes sense to start the work between academic quarters, so that fall art classes can conclude in the old space and new ones begin later offsite, Ambrose said.

At the moment, the question is where. Working with Cassidy Turley real-estate agents, the art league is looking for a place to hold classes and exhibitions while everyone is displaced by the construction. Ambrose estimates that it will take two months to prep the appropriate spaces; he hopes to find them by October.

The hope is to find a site or sites in Palo Alto or neighboring cities so that the classes in particular can continue as planned. Ambrose said it's possible that gallery spaces may be smaller during the construction. He's looking at other galleries, cafes, vacant storefronts and other locations.

"We will have to offer discounts and do continuous and effective marketing to inform our new and continuing students and patrons of our temporary location," Chase said.

Meanwhile, the league continues its quest to draw in new members. The organization is good at the classic after-school model of kids' art classes and evening courses for older adults, but it's less adept at reaching the ages in between, Ambrose said. So it's piloting and planning several new programs.

One is an Art-at-Work program, in which league artists bring art activities to workplaces, or the employees come to the league. In one case, Google called seeking an art-related team-building exercise, Ambrose said.

"I said: 'How about doing a mural? We could provide the location and materials.'"

So, about a month ago, the Pacific Art League and Google employees worked together to create an 8-foot mural on paper with flowers, images of Mount Shasta and other pictures.

The league is also trying to bring Silicon Valley workers in for brief classes in drawing or other subjects.

"It's just the tip of the iceberg," Ambrose said of the outreach efforts.

He is also interested in adding lunchtime brown-bag lectures for downtown-Palo Alto workers as well as gatherings for artists. More family events for parents with young children are also planned.

"I ran a Coffee, Art and Chocolate hour once a month for a couple of years midday, which attracted a small group of members and friends," Chase said. "We need to engage our members with more loyalty-rewarding programs and interesting events."

Offsite events in which the league already takes part include solo exhibitions in various Palo Alto venues. League members display their art at the Hotel California, St. Mark's Episcopal Church, the city's downtown library and other locations.

Currently, about 40 percent of the league's membership are artists, 40 percent art students and 20 percent others, Ambrose said. A membership costs $125 annually ($100 for seniors) and includes such benefits as discounts on classes and free admission to 500 North American museums.

Chase said many members came to the league as art viewers, or occasional artists, and graduated to exhibiting and selling their pieces.

As plans are made and the groundbreaking nears, summertime classes and exhibitions continue at the league. Petite paintings from the Santa Clara Valley Watercolor Society are on displaly in the Norton Gallery; classes on monotype and intaglio fill the upstairs print studio; and kids attend a summer camp focused on digital photography and clay sculpting.

Major changes and challenges are afoot, but several artists, like Coleman, sound optimistic about the future.

"I love the old building. I am in favor of the new direction," he said. "Becoming active at PAL puts an artist into contact with other artists to learn from their experiences. It also opens many opportunities to exhibit one's art through the gallery and the community-outreach programs. Additionally, it is a great place for artists at all levels to take small-sized classes with accomplished teachers."

Garner, for his part, just sounds thrilled to be active in the league and painting regularly after a long-in-the-works retirement.

"I've been frustrated for 25 years," he said. "I'm making up for lost time."

Information about the Pacific Art League can be found at pacificartleague.org and 650-321-3891.

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Robin Scholl
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 21, 2012 at 8:57 am

As an Instructor at the Pacific Art League for over twenty years and also a Board Member for four, I believe this is the best outcome we could have gotten. Considering the challenges we have faced over the past several years, this is the prize our small but devoted team of people have worked so hard for.
Most important is that we get to maintain ownership of our building.
It's the perfect time to go forward and continue to build a solid foundation for the Pacific Art League, both with our building and our Art School.
Thank you for a very enthusiastic article on our progress.

Robin Scholl


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Merry Benezra
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 22, 2012 at 1:07 pm

The reason the Art League struggles for working adult students is a no-brainer. There are generally no introductory courses offered at night.


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