A few Caltrain patrons filtered through the downtown Palo Alto station on a recent Monday, one ordering a coffee from Caffe del Doge, some checking their phones. No one seemed to be looking up at the John McQuarrie mural depicting scenes from California history gracing the wall above, but the painting has been there since the early 1940s, providing a touch of art to the mid-morning commute.
It's one of the many murals, sculptures and other artworks amongst the stores, streets and offices around town. Sometimes they're in unexpected locations such as on a traffic median, storm-water pump station or parking-lot wall. Next door to the traditional train-station mural is a futuristic, color-changing LED installation at the bus depot. There's even a genuine Picasso piece on the seventh floor of City Hall.
Love it or hate it, in Palo Alto, art is all around.
Encountering art out in the urban landscape, such as on the wall of a CVS drugstore in Midtown, "keeps you smiling. If you see it with a child or with a visitor to your town then they'll remember that as an extra attraction," Terry Acebo Davis, a local artist and the current chair of the Palo Alto Public Art Commission, said.
In many cases, art pieces seen around town are part of Palo Alto's Art in Public Places program. The program, which currently boasts 326 works, started in 1975 and consists of pieces displayed on the exteriors of city-owned buildings, within city buildings, in open public areas or purchased with city funds. Approximately 70 pieces in the current collection are installed outdoors. The program is overseen by the Public Art Commission, a group appointed by the City Council.
The process of selecting and installing public art varies from piece to piece. In many cases, a business with room for and interest in art approaches the city and its art commission for assistance, and the city and business share the costs.
"For a business with a big, blank wall, a mural is really its best bet as an anti-graffiti measure," as well as for sprucing up the look of a building, said Elise DeMarzo, staff liaison to the Public Art Commission.
When a business decides it wants to create a joint venture with the city to house an artwork, or the city wants to place one in a park or plaza, the physical environment of the site is considered before the particular art piece is selected.
Because public art is often exposed to the elements and less protected than museum art, maintenance costs must be considered. The commission currently receives $25,000 annually, which includes maintenance costs.
Sometimes the city's Architectural Review Board is also involved in the planning and approval process.
"With anything that has a big visual impact on the area it's wise to go through city channels," DeMarzo said.
"Everyone has a definition of what they think art is. The challenge for us is that the art commission has to be the voice for the whole city," Acebo Davis said. Though some of the commission's choices have been controversial, she said public art is an essential part of municipal culture.
The San Francisquito Creek Stormwater Pump Station, decorated in 2009 with the water-themed installation "Streaming" by artist Ceevah Sobel, is an example of how art can spring up in surprising spots.
"Someone could get on their bike and go from art piece to art piece; what a great tour that would be," she said.
Acebo Davis, who said she'd eventually like to see public art installed in every city park, said aesthetic tastes change from one generation to the next and that future projects could consist of digital installations and projections rather than the more traditional murals and sculptures. Interactivity will be an important quality in public art of the future, too.
"If the public has something to say there are ways to make their voices heard. We listen; the news gets back to us," she said, adding that the commission is currently soliciting public input on the three finalists for the California Avenue fountain project.
The commissioners hear their share of criticism from members of the public who don't care for their artistic choices.
One such critic is resident Alexis Hamilton, who considered the city's collection while visiting the Papua New Guinea sculpture garden at Stanford University.
"Palo Alto takes its public art too seriously. It's so cerebral, and there's no fun to it, except for the sculpture outside of the children's museum. I really loved the sculpture 'Foreign Friends' from our sister city in Linkoping, Sweden, before it was vandalized and got rid of. It was so charming, wonderful and human, now all the art is so technological -- it lacks humanity," she said.
Acebo Davis said artists are aware that not every piece will please everyone and that what matters is that a piece spark interest and conversation.
"If it can make people talk, then it's good," she said.