The streets of Palo Alto offer passersby an eclectic gallery of artistic surprises, from the gleaming owls keeping sentry in front of the new Mitchell Park Library to Jungle Jane, an aluminum sculpture that resembles a giant face pushing through a metal sheet on California Avenue.
Not all are equally popular. Some, like Greg Brown's downtown murals, are universally praised for their whimsical sense of humor. Others, like the giant "Go Mama" sculpture of a doll with a child's face embedded in its stomach, are more complex and polarizing. But whatever the merits and flaws of individual pieces, Palo Alto officials agreed this week that public art is, on the whole, a treasured amenity that should be heavily supported and promoted.
To that end, the City Council on Monday approved the city's first Public Art Master Plan -- a document that staff and consultants have been working on since February 2015 and that establishes the city's art vision for the next decade. The master plan's adoption comes at a time of significant growth and transformation, with the council recently expanding the city's "Percent for Art" program, in which builders devote 1 percent of their construction costs on art, to include private developments and more municipal projects.
In putting together the plan, city staff and consultants Barbara Goldstein and Gail Goldman solicited input from residents through focus groups and at citywide events. Goldman said several major themes came out of these discussions. Residents wanted public art to be varied; they also wanted it to be spread throughout the city, including along popular walking routes.
“The thing we heard again and again was, first of all, that public art should be citywide -- that it shouldn't be located just in downtown but that it should be citywide and in unexpected places like alleys and platforms where people wait for the shuttle bus," Goldman said. “And that it should really look at a very broad variety of artistic media, whether it's art made with technology or art using traditional means."
The plan calls for a mix of major "impactful" works in major commercial areas and smaller pieces in unexpected areas. One recommendation, for example, calls for selecting four neighborhoods in different parts of the city for placement of temporary artworks in right-of-ways, on bulb-outs and on traffic circles. Another calls for commissioning murals in pedestrian areas, including Midtown and the Charleston Shopping Center near Cubberley Community Center. Yet another would select six key alleys in downtown and on California Avenue and engage artists individually to create temporary artwork.
Other recommendations are more long-term in scope, such as the proposal to hire an artist to be on the design team for new downtown garages and for the public safety building that the city plans to build near California Avenue. It also recommends commissioning artist-designed gateways at University Avenue and Alma and at University and Middlefield.
The council praised the new document and its many goals, with Greg Schmid saying that it's an "exciting time" for public art.
"With the new funding possibilities, it opens up a lot of doors. ... A master plan is a good way of putting that into process and procedures," Schmid said.
Karen Holman praised the document for encouraging more whimsical art in unexpected places. She said she is looking for art to create places where it is "impossible to be in a bad mood," and used the downtown murals as an example.
"Sometimes we just take ourselves too seriously and we need ways and places and occasions to lighten up and smile," Holman said.
While temporary art is a big theme of the new plan, Vice Mayor Greg Scharff urged staff to make sure that the city continues to improve and expand its permanent collection.
“I like the more impactful pieces that say something, almost on a generational basis," Scharff said.
Councilman Marc Berman called the plan "an awesome roadmap for the next 10 years" and praised staff and the Public Art Commission for setting the bar for public engagement. He also proposed that the city consider a more ambitious murals policy.
"I think that we can really leverage murals to turn some kind of blight spots in town into bright spots," Berman said.
Echoing his colleagues, Mayor Pat Burt said it's "really exciting to see the elevation of art in our community." The plan, he said, represents "a new era" for the city's rich tradition of public art.
"We're seeing real progress in its implementation and we see a plan and a future on the horizon," Burt told staff and consultants just before the unanimous vote. "It will be interesting to look back in 10 years and see the cumulative impacts of everything that you're all doing."