The city's Public Art Commission committed an initial $25,000 on Thursday night to support bringing a new media art project to City Hall's lobby, which is scheduled for renovations beginning in January or February.
"I'm not concerned about doing a fabulous piece of art in City Hall, but at this point I have hesitancy on committing half of our budget to this one piece of art without further information that as a group, this is what we want to pledge half of our money toward," said Commission Chair Larisa Usich.
"Committing $25,000 is sort of like going to Vegas," echoed Commissioner Kathleen Kavanaugh.
Staff estimated that an interactive, technology-based project of this nature would cost $250,000, though projects with budgets as much as $850,000 were also cited. With $75,000 total, the commission now has to pitch the idea to other city departments and look for outside funding -- all by January or February.
"Time is of the essence," said Public Art Manager Elise DeMarzo, urging the commission to make what is not only a financial but also a symbolic commitment to show other departments that the commission supports the project. She stressed the importance of getting an artist on board early so the project is incorporated into the lobby rather than added as a last-minute afterthought.
A staff report states that the City Hall lobby, a "long dormant space," must be updated into an interactive community space that's more open to the public, engaging and exciting.
"New media allows for access to content anytime, anywhere, on any digital device, as well as promotes interactive feedback, participation, and community creation around the media content," the document states. "A truly interactive new media artwork can take many forms -- from streaming information about trending Twitter feeds in the area, allowing residents to contribute information digitally to the artwork, or reflecting back visual information gathered from the Community."
There's no consensus yet on the specifics of the project, but the commission has looked at various examples of new media installations -- a light sculpture that responds to the physical presence of people looking at it or a digital piece that captures details of onlookers, such as fingerprints, voice pattern, eye detail or even heart rate, and then displays them, creating a pattern that moves across a wall.
Commissioner Ben Miyaji said this could be the "stepping-off point" for Palo Alto to do more impactful public art projects of this nature.
However, the commission's council liaison, Karen Holman, said she's nervous about rushing into a project for City Hall in particular.
"I think there's a higher level of responsibility with this project than maybe any other project that you might be looking at for a period time just because it is City Hall," she said.
Holman added that a project for City Hall, "the public's ultimate space," also necessitates doing public outreach. The commission agreed, talking about the possibility of holding a public meeting.
"While I'm a supporter of public art, and I want to be sure to support public art, and I want to support this project, I'm not sure that we have the justification to know why $250,000 is the magic number," said Commissioner Kathleen Kavanaugh. "...do we know that any of those artists are going to want to do an installation here? Do we have any idea of the real cost of what it would be? There's just a lot of questions to do that."
DeMarzo said that all of these questions can be more concretely answered after committing funding. Staff will immediately put out a call for artists, ask them for budget estimates and more detailed plans and start meeting with other departments as early as next week to start raising the remaining funds.
"What happens if you don't raise the rest of that money?" Commissioner Ally Richter asked DeMarzo. "Or do you feel confident that were going to get the rest of the budget?"
"We feel pretty confident that we can raise an impactful budget to be able to do a new media piece," DeMarzo said. "If we don't raise enough funds to do it, then they're not committed."
Richter was the only commissioner who voted against approving the funds. Commissioner Amanda Ross was absent.
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