'Color of Palo Alto' artist pays commission surprise visit

Sam Yates says he'd like city to pay him the final $7,000 for his 2003-2008 art project

Samuel Yates, the creator of the "Color of Palo Alto" art project, paid a surprise visit Thursday night to the Public Art Commission meeting, where he presented his side of a conflict with the city over the use of a database of photos he took nearly a decade ago.

The city commissioned Yates in 2003 to find Palo Alto's single, distinctive "color" by photographing all of the land parcels in the city and blending the hues together to discover the "color of Palo Alto."

He also stitched the photos together to form a piece of temporary art to cover the wall of city hall.

A result of the project was a database 20,339 photos of 17,729 properties in Palo Alto, which Yates said he offered to the city as "a gift." He presented it to the city during a ceremony in 2008 so it could be integrated into the city's geographic-information system to be used by emergency responders and city planners.

He took it back immediately after the presentation ceremony to watermark the photos, attach global-positioning data to them and figure out their licensing. He told the Weekly that this retrieval had been arranged ahead of time and that the ceremony was meant to be symbolic.

More than four years later, Yates hasn't turned the database over to the city. He said his main concerns about delivering the database are the preservation of his art, ensuring it has a long-term place in the city's collection and receiving the full compensation to which he believes he's entitled.

Yates said his original contract for $10,000 was to take the pictures and create a piece of art. He said it stated that licensing of the photos by the City of Palo Alto for uses such as its global-information system or public library would be determined on a case-by-case basis. In essence, he said the contract did not include the database and that he was giving it to the city as a gift.

The project cost a total of about $75,000, more than half of which was paid for by a grant from Hewlett-Packard Co. Yates completed the project $7,000 under budget but didn't receive the remaining money.

He said he wasn't interested in pursuing the $7,000 but stressed that he had fulfilled his contract and that the money, which he said would be used solely for the next phase of the art, shouldn't be withheld by the city to get the database, which wasn't part of the original contract.

"I'd like to know if the city really means not to pay the remainder owed because I brought this free gift -- a bonus to the city," he said of the database.

He said the city's offer for licensing the photos required that he waive all rights for the photos.

A second contract for putting the mass of pictures onto the front of city hall and then later taking them down accounted for the remaining $65,000 of the total cost of the project.

He said it had been difficult to complete the several-year project on a budget of essentially $10,000, saying that he often had to sleep in his car, borrow an art commissioner's computer and office space to work on the project late at night and "many other adventures" during the production of "The Color of Palo Alto."

"I had to pay for it, and I'll be paying for it for the rest of my life – that was seven years that I didn't earn a salary," he said.

Yates, who to the commission he wanted "to return everyone back to the fun spirit of the project," said he would like to work with the city to make sure that it "preserved the integrity of the photos in reasonable way," suggesting as an example that they be used for the city's purposes but not cropped.

Since his comments before the commission were unscheduled and presented during a discussion of an unrelated issue, his speaking time was limited and the commission could not take any action.

Yates, who resides in Canada, told the Weekly in a Friday morning interview that he was in town to negotiate the licensing of the database next week and that he was very optimistic he and the city would come to an agreement.

The artist and city staff have been trying to reach an agreement over the past year over the licensing and the delivery of the database. In March 2012, the city attorney's office had sent Yates a letter requesting that he submit the database within 30 days. Yates did not meet this deadline, saying he still has concerns about use and licensing of the photos.


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Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 19, 2013 at 9:06 am

> Elise DeMarzo, staff liaison for the Public Art Commission, said
> the original contract from Yates was relatively general and that
> the fate of the database was not spelled out in it.

If the contract doesn't have a clearly defined list of deliverables--then why should the artist be expected to deliver what is not in the contract?

Why not post the contract on-line, and let's see who signed it.

Wonder if Google might provide the City the same photographs? If so-maybe it's time to say "adios" to this fellow, and get on with integrating the pictures into the City's GIS?

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Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 19, 2013 at 11:35 am

> maybe it's time to say "adios" to this fellow

Well, if he did nothing wrong and lived up to his obligations it hardly seems fair to just dump him. The truth of the contract should be decided and if this guy did nothing wrong and performed to his spec, then who or whatever caused all this problem should also be decided and if there was no problem with the artist's performance, why should the city just ignore it's own ineptness?

The City of Palo Alto needs to stop behaving in an arbitrary manner and start looking at how it comes off and the results of some of these bungles that point directly back at the city. Figure out where the problem lies and quit pointing the finger of blame or sweeping things under the rug - how else do things improve.

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Posted by FrankF
a resident of Ventura
on Apr 19, 2013 at 11:39 am

FrankF is a registered user.

Agreed - With Google's street view this "database" becomes more and more irrelevant. It is dated and never updated plus the holder of the database seems to be a pain to deal with.

Samuel Yates never asked my permission to photograph my home (nether did Google but that's besides my point) now Mr. Yates says the image of my home is his art and he must approve each and every use of it. I say it's my home, he didn't have my permission to use it. While I do not begrudge him use of it I have no sympathy for his argument that that image of my home is his exclusive property.

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Posted by KP
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 19, 2013 at 1:07 pm

@ FrankF - Well put. He didn't ask me either. So maybe the pic of my house is MY property.
Google is more up-to-date. Let him roll out and we can go to Google for our database!

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Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 19, 2013 at 3:22 pm

If the color of Palo Alto is green, then the color of the Weekly is yellow, in that its coverage of Sam Yates and his public art project has been pretty shoddy, especially its Feb. 19 report.

If we indeed withheld $7,000 due him, we should be ashamed.

That we can't force him to agree to our terms any faster in terms of the copyright of 22,000 pieces of his work, that's understandable.

I doubt that Google has a free product that does what this does. I presume the people at City Hall who feel this information has value know what they are talking about.

But let's keep in mind this is an art project, that has some value as data. If we had started with trying to come up with a data-base per se it probably would have cost us considerably more. A real estate photographer shooting all our houses, for instance, would probably cost more that a million dollars.

The staff report had errors of fact and cynical characterizations that were the nidus of this dispute. The two letters by members of the history associations likewise were wrong-headed and cynical; my understanding, for example, is that Steve Staiger of staff worked closely with Sam and does not agree with all the finger-pointing.

But that the Weekly is part of a professional field with standards, I find them culpable in their repeating of these arguably slanderous falsehoods, mostly in their previous reports.

For the record, Yates is a Berkeley grad from Sacramento and not a Canadian, as the reporter implies here. If he spoke to Yates at midnight or 1 a.m. last night, it is the first time he has done so, as I understand it, despite having written on this several times now. Sam's cell number was published in the original documents if anyone had tried to call.

And to the posters who did not give permission for Yates to shoot their houses, I would say , yes, if he or the City started selling prints of their lovely abodes they would be entitled to a share of the revenue stream, as would their architects, probably. You could also of course put up a fence for more privacy, neighbor.

Sam Yates spent hundreds of hours on this art project; I find it amazing that people can think about it for ten minutes, dismiss it, complain and not realize how they look. Certainly we are all entitled to our values and tastes, of course.

I recommend going to a PAPAC meeting, watching it on tv or the archive, applying for the PAPAC, and working to bring even better public art, or to assert your tastes and values against the the rest of us -- that's positive. That's civic engagement. That's democracy. But to merely read the Weekly's coverage and take (mostly anonymous) pot-shots is not adding much to our community.

But the most simple problem to fix in this instance is to ask the Weekly to do a better job.

Sam Yates thanks in his report hundreds of Palo Altans who supported and contributed to this art project; I presume most of them -- and other supporters like myself -- still believe in he and this project, despite the negativity, which is limited and largely unfounded.

I'd like to paint those bollards in front of the big computer store a different shade of grey or green, or label them in terms of the Yates nomenclature of COPA. There are lots of ways we can expand this project, in his spirit. If you think about it. And getting past this brouhaha.

I wrote further on this on my "Plastic Alto" blog, first in Dec. 2010 then more recently:
Web Link

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Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 19, 2013 at 6:12 pm

> If we had started with trying to come up with a data-base
> per se it probably would have cost us considerably more

Who says? Google has automated the process. They drive down the street and digital cameras take pictures. Anyone with a little technical savvy could do the same. This approach would reduce the time needed to take the pictures to a minimum--thereby reducing the costs to a minimum.

> I doubt that Google has a free product that does what this does.

Google StreetView is that product.

The issue is the contract. If there is one/more items that require a data base to be delivered, then he needs to deliver a data base. It not--then the City is demanding more than they contracted for.

So--let's see the contract. This is really a simple issue. Let's see the paperwork.

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Posted by Social Butterfly
a resident of Green Acres
on Apr 20, 2013 at 4:09 am

Those photos are Palo Alto's HISTORY~ so much of our town is now different due to tear downs and remodeling jobs. The photos need to be preserved ~

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 20, 2013 at 12:29 pm

A weird case. And it was a weird, unncessary project to begin with (started prior to when I moved to Palo Alto). In my opinion, should never have had time devoted to this, never mind any money.
Next thing, the someone on staff will give this guy a good reference (with the thought that the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing in bureaucracy). Time to cut it off - no more taxpayer money to either this guy or city staff time on the subject.

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Posted by About the contract
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Apr 20, 2013 at 4:43 pm

Which attorney wrote the contract?

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Posted by ART or GPS
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 20, 2013 at 8:04 pm

It seems like this is not an art project but an intellectual property project too without a good agreement for the artists residents and city. Including the residents that paid for a project to document their own homes. Not to private a project.

The Art served it's purpose at City Hall and the art was chill.
Let's wrap it up and go on. The City needs to disclose what the use of the project is art or documenting our homes for GPS?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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