News

Palo Alto to unveil huge 'light sculpture' Saturday

Funding outlook is murky for 35-foot-tall, LED-laden tree sculpture

A two-year grassroots effort led by a Palo Alto father and his two young children to bring a 35-foot-tall interactive light sculpture to the city will come to fruition this weekend when it is unveiled in City Hall's King Plaza on Saturday, Nov. 16.

The sculpture, called Aurora, is an enormous metal tree adorned with 4,200 handmade copper leaves that hang from 200 branches, all lit by 40,000 LED lights. Anyone with a web-enabled device, tablet or smartphone can log into a website that allows them to interact with the tree, controlling it via sliders that regulate elements such as color, brightness, sparkle and pulse.

The tree was originally designed for Burning Man, the annual art and music festival held in Nevada, by San Francisco artist Charles Gadeken. It will reside in King Plaza for a year.

Though in a sense, the project, which started as two elementary children gathering petition signatures from their classmates, is approaching the finish line with this weekend's unveiling, it's still tens of thousands of dollars short of the total funds needed.

"This is entirely grassroots funded," said Harry Hirschman, whose children Sam, 11, and Julia, 9, decided they wanted to bring Aurora to Palo Alto two years ago after seeing pictures of the sculpture their father took at Burning Man in 2011. "Nickels and dimes in a jar; (the kids have) collected money on the street; they've gone into board meetings for art foundations."

The project has raised only approximately $35,000 of a total $100,000 needed to cover installation costs and extensive redesign of the sculpture.

"A lot of people keep saying, 'Why do you need money if it's already made?'" Gadeken said. " One, there's a big difference between putting something on sidewalk for a year and staging it for a two-day festival. So trying to make things that are weatherproof and publicly safe has just been very expensive."

Other costs have arisen, including buying all new light bulbs, replacing all the electronic connectors with waterproof ones, redesigning the software that allows onlookers to interact with the tree, and renting a crane and other items necessary for installation of the piece, which will take place this week.

"It adds up really fast," Gadeken said. He has personally shouldered much of Aurora's financial burden, putting in $15,000 to install the piece, he said.

"Essentially, the artist is going into debt to finish the installation on schedule and to deliver everything that was envisioned," Hirschman said.

Though the City of Palo Alto expects that public art placed temporarily on city property be independently funded, the Public Art Commission occasionally decides to back a project, which it did with Aurora.

Commissioner Trish Collins, whose two children also eventually became involved with Aurora, said the commission got on board despite initial reservations because it was a community-driven project.

The commission approved the project last December, allocating $1,200 to pay for permit and insurance costs. It was expected that any remaining funds would be raised by Hirschman and Gadeken.

"The Commission approved the installation so that they could move forward with fundraising, and offered to offset the permit and insurance costs," Elise DeMarzo, public art manager for the city, wrote in an email. "Mr. Hirshman and Mr. Gadeken have decided to move forward with the installation before the completion of their fundraising – which is highly unusual."

The project recently launched a last-stretch Kickstarter campaign, aiming to raise another $35,000 by Tuesday, Nov. 26.

Two weeks out, the campaign has raised $4,711 from 71 backers. But because of the way the crowdsourced fundraising website works, if the project doesn't raise the full amount, it does not get any of the funds.

Beyond the Kickstarter campaign, the project will have to rely on private contributions.

If Aurora doesn't manage to raise the remaining funds, Gadeken is on the hook. He acknowledged that moving forward with the installation is a gamble, but said that "I do feel we'll be able to get that money back."

Collins said the city has enough funds in reserve for dismantling Aurora.

Sam, Julia and the other Palo Alto children who got on board with Aurora have become old hands at pitching their project to local companies and art foundations to bring in private funding. They also hosted a Maker Faire in May to raise money, during which participants created more than 200 copper leaves that will hang from the tree.

The Aurora children will also be at King Plaza this Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday after school, hosting leaf-making workshops.

"People can give $20 and make a leaf themselves, stamp their initials on it and we'll get it on the tree," Hirschman said. These people's names will also be listed on the Aurora website.

"It was presented to the art commission that it's going to be community driven," Collins said. "It's just going to take a lot of community members to donate what they feel comfortable donating and once they see it's a community driven project, they'll want to be a part of the community and project."

Aurora -- as a sustainable, interactive public art project brought to Palo Alto by a group of children -- "fits really well with the city's overall goals and objectives," Hirschman said.

Though at first glance, a life-size metal tree lit by 40,000 light bulbs, running for 365 days straight might seem wasteful, but the efficient LED bulbs will use less than half the energy of a typical house, Hirschman said.

At Saturday's event, the Palo Alto Utilities Department will be launching its LED rebate program. City residents should receive a coupon in the mail this week, which they can redeem on Saturday to get LED bulbs at a net cost 50 percent less than retail. After the Aurora event, residents can go to one of three participating retail stores to get their bulbs (while supplies last).

Aurora's installation also prompted the city to conserve water in King Plaza, replacing non-native plants in the planter where Aurora will stand with native grasses and a more water-efficient drip irrigation system.

The city also stepped in to enable interaction with the tree, outfitting King Plaza with wireless Internet access. The software driving this interactivity is open source, and Hirschman said he hopes to plan future hackathons during which local techies -- or children -- can redesign or add to the software.

"It's accessibility as well as interactivity," Hirschman said. "Make it so anybody with a finger and web access can be an artist, can draw (in) light and use Aurora as the canvas. Anybody that can program, you can be an artist too."

This aspect not only aligns with Palo Alto as the "cradle" of technology, but also the city's commitment to youth well-being, Hirschman said.

"They're walking the walk when they say they're interested in the youth in the community having a voice. And then when that voice walks up to them and says we'd like to do something they find a way to do it."

Hirschman said the project helped the kids involved become more confident and comfortable speaking to adults.

"I learned how to speak in front of people and how to be confident in myself," said Julia, who was 7 years old when the project first started.

Gadeken, who originally designed the sculpture with his 3-year-old daughter in mind ("the ultimate fairy tree," as he described it), said he's enjoyed working with the kids, teaching them how to work with metal to create the copper leaves that hang from the tree.

Sam Hirschman and friend Henry Gish, 12, said the part they most enjoyed was working in Gadeken's workshop.

"It's super empowering for these kids to take this from, 'I want to do something,' to 'look it's actually happening.'" Gadeken said.

The Nov. 16 event will begin at 3 p.m. at 250 Hamilton Ave., and the tree will be lit for the general public at approximately 5:30 p.m.

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 11, 2013 at 11:38 pm

This is a fantastic news for the city. The sculpture looks absolutely beautiful and purposeful from the pictures. It is a modern interpretation of an interactive art.

A couple of Christmas' ago, my family and I saw a neighborhood tree decorated and lit with tiny LED lights. The effects was magical at night. This one is going to be a super magical scene for the entire family.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Garden Gnome
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 12, 2013 at 11:17 am

"A lot of people keep saying, 'Why do you need money if it's already made?'" Gadeken said. " One, there's a big difference between putting something on sidewalk for a year and staging it for a two-day festival. So trying to make things that are weatherproof and publicly safe has just been very expensive."

So, is the sculpture "publicly safe"? And if not, why is it being set before the public?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Old Palo Alto
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 12, 2013 at 12:18 pm

A lot of money being spent on one man's dream ..... the money is desperately needed in other areas
in our City ....If Mr. Gadeken wants to pay for his wish himself - alright, otherwise lets put the
expense money to better use.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by High tech Christmas lights
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 12, 2013 at 1:13 pm

Harry Hirschman is an expert in corporate marketing. He has done an expert marketing job on the city.
I can't tell from the pictures whether it is beautiful or grotesque. If the inventor wants to donate his elaborate high-tech Christmas decoration to the city rather than put it on his own lawn, ok.
The city should not spend MY money to subsidize a private enterprise. [Portion removed.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 12, 2013 at 1:13 pm

They have plenty of work to do before Saturday afternoon. I plan to be there for first light! Quite a leap of faith on funding. I'll give somebody an A+ on marketing with all those kids in the kickstarter video. Looks like potentially the most popular public art Palo Alto may ever see. Doorstep of City Hall is a great place for it, and certainly a better use for 40,000 LEDs than a digital billboard on 101.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Interested resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 12, 2013 at 1:39 pm

This is a great project from start to finish - we may not all love Aurora but you gotta love kids being empowered to see a project through to the finish line. The City of Palo Alto has public art which is funded by developer fees - why not tap into that pocket and make the 101 Lytton developers pay us back for the inconvenience of losing one lane of Alma Street for their construction of that monster building? Seems like a good trade.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Stretch
a resident of another community
on Nov 12, 2013 at 1:56 pm

Aurora was beautiful at Burning Man, and it will look great in front of City Hall. The artist is raising the money for it, instead of having the City pay, so what could be better? That way, no one should be able to complain that the money would be better spent on something else. I wish I could be there on the 16th to see it light up.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by AlexDeLarge
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 12, 2013 at 2:03 pm

I saw this at the 'Burn, it was kool, I was kinda high doe...


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Sparty
a resident of another community
on Nov 12, 2013 at 4:05 pm

Alex De Large I saw clockwork before you were even born. Get over it. And yourself.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 12, 2013 at 4:14 pm

"is the sculpture "publicly safe"?"

Who cares. The Lytton Plaza Egg is full of toxic metals, but nobody gripes.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Artrules
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 12, 2013 at 5:08 pm

Thank you Charles and 'Aurora Kids'! This is an incredible piece that will delight all who view it and it has already fostered the kind of community and empowerment that we often hear of and seldom see. It takes an inspired artist and community to bring this to life and I hope that the support is there to make these type of projects feasible into the future


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Downtown Fan
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 12, 2013 at 6:27 pm

This is so great for downtown! Something as big and high-tech as Aurora is going to turn a lot of heads. The artist is taking all the financial risk b/c he's got faith that private citizens will step up... good for him! The city has a budget for public art already. Some of that should go towards Aurora. It fits PA in so many ways.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 12, 2013 at 6:56 pm

To each his or her own I guess, but whenever I see something like this in my yard I take a broom to it and sweep it away before baby bugs start crawling out of it! ;-)


 +   Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 17, 2013 at 8:39 am

Quite a zoo yesterday evening. The Aurora tree looks very nice and fits the plaza well. Looking forward to a news article and the opinions generated.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Marrol
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 17, 2013 at 10:37 pm

We should not be spending a single nickel of public funds on this or any other form of art until our city leaders and elected officials can offer a plan to pay for our sorely needed and vital infrastructure and public safety needs without another tax increase. It's called having some priorities and demonstrating the leadership to carry it out. This is just another example of misguided priorities and a waste of time and money.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 18, 2013 at 5:17 am

We should not be spending a single minute on celebration, recreation, or entertainment until we solve the problems of the universe. This is just another example of misguided priorities and a waste of time and money.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Marrol
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 18, 2013 at 8:05 am

No Musical, I'm not saying that we shouldn't spend on celebration, recreation, or entertainment. All I'm saying is that the city has no current financial plan or means of paying for our vital and essential infrastructure needs without the passage of another bond measure and tax increase. One of the primary reasons that we got into this financial mess is because they continue to spend on frivolous, non-essential projects and services. Pay the bills with the current budget, and then discuss what art projects the city wants to invest in. It's called logic and common sense.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Marrol
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 18, 2013 at 10:43 am

And I never suggested solving the problems of the universe. Extreme arguments such as that represent utter nonsense. What we do need to do is solve our budget problem which can better be accomplished through wise spending, reasonable cutbacks, and outsourcing select services.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of another community
on Nov 18, 2013 at 4:48 pm

Marrol, public art is not your personal priority. That's great. But it is a priority in this city and this city is better for it. You are entitled to your opinions, but they are necessarily what is right for everyone. There is no reason such a wealthy and educated community can't have healthy infrastructure and art.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Marrol
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 18, 2013 at 5:02 pm

Anon, of course I realize that public art is not any one citizen's personal property. I'm not certain what point you were trying to make with that comment, but getting back to the debate. You state that a wealthy and educated community like Palo Alto should have both a healthy infrastructure and public art. I agree, one would think so. However that is sadly not the case. Our city has been facing long running budget deficits. They admittedly have no feasible financial plan to fund our long overdue, critical civic needs that exit in the area of infrastructure and public safety without floating another bond measure and tax increase. One of the primary reasons we find ourselves in this financial mess is because of our frivolous spending on non-essential, feel good projects and services. So to respond to your rebuttal, what I believe addresses the greater good for our community is to have our city leaders and elected officials pay for our essential needs through the existing budget, and when that's done, see what we have left to allocate to projects that represent a want and not a need.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 19, 2013 at 4:17 am

Agreed -- extreme arguments represent utter nonsense. I had hoped this thread would generate comments on artistic merit or appropriateness of the subject installation. I guess the jury is still out, or people who sit at their computer screens don't wander downtown much. Discussion of Palo Alto infrastructure and financial condition might have a wider audience under other news stories. This particular artwork appears mostly self funded, although the kickstarter campaign may come up short, currently at half its target amount with 6 days left. Looks like the city waived an arbitrary $1200 permit fee. Even if funded by some art-tax, it's debatable whether that would be money somehow taken away from general obligations.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of another community
on Nov 19, 2013 at 12:58 pm

Marrol dear, I said "priority" not property.

This piece is primarily privately funded. And what money the city did put in came from funds are allocated for this type of project not for infrastructure. It would be illegal to use them for something else. That would be like taking the library bond monies and using them to fix the gutter on your house.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Marrol
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 19, 2013 at 6:48 pm

I stand corrected Anon. Thank you for pointing that out. You do bring up an excellent point with your rain gutter analogy. Back it up just a bit. If a homeowner has leaking rain gutters or a roof, it would not be wise for them to allocate household budget money to buy a new piece of expensive art, especially if they don't have the money to fix the leaks. The piece of art may be desired, but it's not essential. Our city leaders and elected officials have essentially done the same thing with our city budget. They allocate and spend on non-essential projects and services while incapable of balancing the city budget and shelving our critical needs in infrastructure and public safety for decades. On top of that, after all of that irresponsible spending, they have the nerve to return to we tax payers and ask for more money to pay for needs that should have been budgeted and paid for years ago.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of another community
on Nov 20, 2013 at 2:08 pm

Well stated Marrol. I disagree with your basic premise as I see the funds as two different non connected buckets and you see a connection with them. I do however agree that there are basic structural needs that could be met better. They are not as neglected, in my opinion, as they are in yours. I happen to also believe that art is at least as important as some of the infrastructure needs, not all of them, but many of them.

So I guess we will just have to agree on some parts and disagree on others.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 26, 2013 at 10:29 am

Aurora's Kickstarter campaign successfully reached its $35K pledge goal by last night's deadline. I had my doubts going into the home-stretch. Fees will eat up almost 10% of the final amount, but I guess that's a modest cost for fundraising these days.


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