With lease negotiations over Cubberley Community Center approaching the finish line, Palo Alto officials are considering a new policy that could displace some of the artists whose studios have long occupied Cubberley.
The proposal, which the City Council's Policy and Services Committee discussed Tuesday night but did not adopt, would profoundly change the existing Cubberley Artist Studio Program, which currently provides rent subsidies to the 22 artists using studio space at the sprawling and dilapidated center. New guidelines proposed by staff include four-year terms for studio rentals; a limit of two consecutive terms; more shared studios and increased oversight by staff. The goal of the revisions is to serve more artists, add diversity and make the program more visible and economically viable, according to Rhyena Halpern, assistant director of the Community Services Department.
Though the committee shopped short Tuesday of adopting this provision, members asked staff to further refine the term-limits proposal and return in April for a fresh discussion.
The change to the artists program is one of many uncertainties that Cubberley is facing in the near future. The city currently leases most of the center from the school district under a 50-year agreement that is scheduled to expire at the end of the year. The council has been meeting in closed sessions for more than a year to discuss the lease negotiations. It is scheduled to have an open discussion and possibly take its first action on the new lease on Monday night.
The Cubberley Artist Studio Program was born in the 1989 and has served roughly 60 artists, about half of whom have been Palo Alto residents. Participants currently pay roughly a third of the market rate (residents pay about 82 cents per square foot for land whose value is estimated at $2 to $3 per square foot; non-residents pay 91 cents per square foot). The city's subsidy is valued at about $165,000 annually.
From city staff's perspective, that's money well spent. The city not only supports the arts community, but also reaps some of the benefits. In 2012, Cubberley artists contributed 15 art works to the city, valued at $25,000. Halpern called the program "very important" and said it both serves the artists well and demonstrates the city's commitment to the arts. Many artists, she said, have trouble affording studio space in Palo Alto and surrounding cities.
"The high cost of living forces artists out of the area, detracting from the quality of life in the region," she said.
Yet she and the committee agreed that the Cubberley program has plenty of room for improvement. Everyone acknowledged that it would benefit from more publicity, greater staff oversight and more diversity among artists.
It was to address the lattermost point that staff introduced the idea of term limits. A staff report notes that of the 22 artists currently in the program, five have been in the program for more than 15 years and six have been at Cubberley between 10 and 14 years. Under the current system, terms last for five years, with the possibility of renewal. Though there are no limits, an artist who wishes to renew has to undergo a review by a jury of art experts.
That, however, would change if the council adopts a staff proposal to reduce leases to four years and to limit the number of terms to two. Artists would then have to sit out at least eight years before re-applying. In the interim, they can be added to a waiting list and become eligible for studio space if there is a vacancy that isn't being filled with a new artist.
The idea behind term limits, Halpern said, is to widen the pool of artists who use Cubberley and encourage new artists to join the program. She stressed that the change is not meant to punish the artists who have been in the program since the 1990s.
"This is not designed at all to be punitive," Halpern said. "We really like the artists. We believe in them and their work.
"We just really want to spread the wealth of the program because we have scarce resources, not only in the city but in the Peninsula, for artists."
Some of the artists didn't see it this way. The jury system already ensures that the best artists, not just the incumbent ones, get Cubberley space, noted Ulla de Larios, an artist whose studio has been in Cubberley since 1994. Most artists who use Cubberley leave after about eight years anyway, she said. Some don't pass the jury test and get replaced by other artists; others leave as part of the the natural process of attrition.
"The rule change is redundant because the program has already shown to limit the average rental period to eight years or less," de Larios said.
Marguerite Fletcher, also a Cubberley veteran, likewise argued against term limits. Fletcher, whose paintings focus on landscapes and nature, thanked city officials for their substantial contributions toward maintaining Cubberley's artist community. While Councilman Larry Klein and Greg Schmid both argued that incumbent artists enjoy an advantage over newcomers, Fletcher disputed this point. Nothing is automatic, she said. There have been years where "almost the entire group of artists who've been up for jurying have been juried out," she said.
"It feels hurtful and debilitating because I don't think this is actually a fair treatment of the artists who've been there over the years," Fletcher said.
Linda Gass, an artist from Los Altos who specializes in land art and whose brightly colored quilts resemble overhead snapshots of environmentally significant sites, told the committee that term limits would indiscriminately remove from Cubberley veteran artists who enrich the center by serving as mentors for emerging artists.
"Term limits are a blunt tool; they throw out the good along with the under-performers," Gass said.
Of the three committee members present, Chair Gail Price was the only one to oppose term limits (Councilman Greg Scharff, the fourth committee member, was absent). The jury process, she said, is sufficient in ensuring a quality stable of artists in Cubberley.
"The jury process and attrition will serve to provide additional opportunities over time," Price said.
But she joined Klein and Schmid in voting to direct staff to make further adjustments. Klein stressed that the term limits should ensure that some studio space goes to emerging artists. He also opposed staff's proposal to allow incumbents to renew leases for two terms before instituting the limit. Waiting eight years for the new policy to kick in is too long, Klein said. Two to four years would be more reasonable, he said.
"I'm not in favor of throwing people out on to Middlefield Road in a short period of time," Klein said. "People need time to adjust, but I think eight years is way too much."
All three committee members agreed that the city should do more to publicize the Cubberley program, which staff hopes to expand and enliven in the coming years. In addition to traditional visual media such as painting, sculpture and print-making, staff hopes to bring in new forms such as installation art, digital art and "social practice art," which blurs the lines between creation of objects, political activism and audience participation. Schmid said the program would also benefit from more youth involvement and better outreach from staff to the community.
"I see it as critical that you do something to open a gallery, sell some paintings, have people go by on a Saturday or a Sunday and actually see what's going on," Schmid said.