Proposed term limits irk Cubberley artists

City's plan to promote diversity, variety meets criticism from artists

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.


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 19, 2014 at 9:59 am

Maybe term limits will turn out to be a good thing, so we don't have to look at this bureaucratically chosen art for too long. Who is this administration to think they should chose the kind of art Palo Alto wants to see and contemporary artists want to make? There are several installation artists there now and at least two doing"new media" video stuff. It is a diverse and committed group now that were the best of who applied. Want more artists passing through, do your administrative job and utilize the jurying process. Or have you decided to hand-pick some new artists that reflect your tastes. Better keep the Palo Alto resident ratio the same.

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Posted by Grrrr
a resident of another community
on Feb 19, 2014 at 10:01 am

Yes lets create an artist zoo. I would love to visit and watch the antics of such creatures (every "Saturday and Sunday"). Perhaps we can get them to jump through hoops. All it takes is a small discount on studio space and we will have loads of them knocking on our door, waiting to be put on display, and giving freely of their time and genius. I hope the zoo keepers get pith helmets. They are so cool.

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Posted by Marc
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 19, 2014 at 10:34 am

Can I have subsidised work space for 20 years so I can be an artiste?

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Posted by Artist
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 19, 2014 at 10:57 am

To Marc, Yes you can...if you are good enough, can pay the $500/month it costs (barely subsidized)for a studio, you are willing to teach for the City, create lecture series and special projects and donate a work to the City--you too can be an "artiste." Oh, by the way, 80% of these people have Masters degrees, which you might also need, in art (although one was a mathematician, one a chemist and one a computer scientist first, so they have those degrees and unusual perspectives as well). Step up Marc, let's see what you have to say about our culture and society at this time and place. Artists hold the mirror up--though it is often unappreciated during its time; that's OK, because artistes commit their lives to continue making. These changes will only encourage an amazing group of people to branch out and be better; Palo Alto's (minus Marc)loss.

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Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 19, 2014 at 12:02 pm

> you are willing to teach for the City, create lecture series
> and special projects and donate a work to the City

What evidence can you provide that each of the artists that have been subsidized by the Utility ratepayers and the taxpayers have done any of these things--each year of their tenancy?

Where is the paper trail that documents these claims? Is there a web-site? Where are the pieces of art housed?

Oh, and does these obligations appear in each and every contract offered to the subsidized artists?

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Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Feb 19, 2014 at 12:52 pm

Hmmm is a registered user.

Wow - an amazing amount of art-hate from just a couple of posters. The fact that there's any art left in Sili Valley is amazing. It's a joy to be able to discuss art instead of apps, ask questions about inspiration and technique instead of VC funding and marketing, and see a result that isn't necessarily on a computer screen.

A reminder from Alfred North Whitehead- A general definition of civilization: a civilized society is exhibiting the five qualities of truth, beauty, adventure, art, peace.

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Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 19, 2014 at 1:55 pm

> an amazing amount of art-hate

Or possibly an amazing amount of hostility towards subsidy-abuse, which has been running rampant in this city for decades.

In the past, many of these so-called "artists" have not even been Palo Alto residents. Their claim that not being given a life time subsidy of over $1,000 a month would be "unfair" demonstrates just how unrealistic, and greedy, these people are.

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Posted by Please become informed
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 19, 2014 at 2:15 pm

As a resident who lives close to Cubberly I have often attended the open studio events that these artists participate in, and these good people are for REAL. If you have visited these studios, you would see that there is nothing deluxe about the rooms given to the artists. I don't know where the article gets the notion of "market rate" for this run down, drab facility. The article also does not mention the significant amount of volunteer work and teaching that these artists have provided to the city for art classes and events at the Art Center. I am NOT one of these artists, I just happen to appreciate their talent and what they do for the city.

Here are some links about these artists for anyone who wishes to be better informed.
Web Link
Web Link
Web Link (a program originated by one of the Cubberly artists on behalf on the City while the Arts Center was closed for renovations)

2 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 19, 2014 at 2:33 pm

> I don't know where the article gets the notion of "market rate"
> for this run down, drab facility.

Everything has a "market rate"--whether it is run down, drab, or whatever. The rates for these rentals has never been linked to market rates. There are any number of rentals just across San Antonio road that that could be compared for similarity of monthly rental, and amenities available to the occupants.

Thanks for the links. Noticeably absent, of course, is any sense of community participation in these events. Also missing is any sense of gratitude on the part of the occupants of these subsidized rental areas for the cost savings made available to them--which would likely be considerable given a multiple-year occupancy.

Time for a change!

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Posted by Artist
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 19, 2014 at 2:59 pm

Joe, all this information is public, but you might actually have to do some work to find it... go by City hall to see art hanging in the offices, go to one of the public meetings, call the Art Center to find out about the collection, go to one of the lecture series, take a class, participate in your community rather than sitting at home grousing on your computer about people who are deeply involved in their community. I rent an industrial space (much better for art than classrooms with asbestos tiles) and pay $1 a foot. Cubberley is barely subsidized and the City expects a lot in return. Plus these people show internationally and get the name of Palo Alto out in the world beyond the tech industry. These things obviously don't matter to you, but they fortunately matter to many. I'm glad our community has so much art--wish they weren't chasing away some treasures!

2 people like this
Posted by other data
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 19, 2014 at 6:27 pm

Another way to look at it is the cost to the city per square foot leased (since that is the cost to taxpayers rather than 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." It does not say how many square feet are in use and what is taxpayer cost per square foot to lease from PAUSD. Since there are many use types (gyms, classrooms, temp library)it will be inexact, and likely will not include overhead for the City employees who manage the leases and site. If $165K is accurate, maybe $3/year per resident is a good investment. I favor term limits since all subsidies are subject to abuse, due to the value to the subsidized, as in NYC rent control units. In our case an artist could sublet 1/3 of their scarce space "at market" to cover their whole subsidy. Long term limits are good. The previous City manager there ran a little fiefdom favoring entrenched users of all facilities, which creates a stale environment and no opportunities for new users, in my opinion.

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Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 19, 2014 at 7:30 pm

Please tell me that the art spaces are leased to Palo Alto residents - not non-residents.

If leased to non-residents...what are we doing here? Is this Children's Theater II?

I agree that there should be some sort of term limit - but first priority for all spaces should go to Palo Alto residents.

2 people like this
Posted by PAtron of the Arts
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 28, 2014 at 7:38 am

What makes Palo Alto special is the spectrum of the community and culture. It is not just a residence for high-tech workers. We have valued diversity, invested in public spaces, education, athletics and the arts.

What is maddening about this article and the current debate here is the assumption that if the city hasn't documented all of the contributions of the Cubberley Artists, that it must be zero; that being a professional artist requires no talent, effort or sacrifice; and that art itself is of less value than yet another tennis court.

Far from being dilettante freeloaders, these artists had created something special. Their reputations around the Bay Area as well as globally reflected well on Palo Alto. Beyond their work, they taught classes for the city, they produced lectures, and they developed community building projects. The fact that, through regime change in the city, there was an absence of support, bookkeeping and appreciation, doesn't mean that there wasn't an earnest effort by these artists to give back. This abrupt and ham-handed policy has so disrespected many of these artists' contributions that we are now seeing a flight from Cubberley of the very artists that were models of what the city hopes to have.

The current administration hopes to reboot the program and eventually, they may be able to create something stronger than what we had. However, we have severely wounded the program in the process, tarnishing artists unfairly and damaging Palo Alto's reputation among the art community. Artists are leaving the program in droves while the administrators create excuses about why it takes them so long to jury in new artists to vacant studios. Administrators have always had the power to put whomever they wanted into those studios. These term-limits are a way of dealing with a perception problem created to a large degree by their own incompetence in managing the program that they've been ignoring for years.

2 people like this
Posted by x
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jun 13, 2014 at 5:23 pm

How about a term limit of one year, to give a far greater number of artists a chance at some studio space? The idea that a few people can monopolize this space for 15+ years is ridiculous. Move on and give someone else a chance!

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

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