Palo Alto embraces new vision for public art

City's first Public Art Master Plan calls for wider distribution of sculptures, murals

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."


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25 people like this
Posted by jh
a resident of University South
on Aug 21, 2016 at 2:51 am

What's this thing about "Arts Councils" or Public Arts Commissions. They are bureaucracies, that's what. When I walk down a street or catch a bus, or navigate with my cane, I don't want to be, oh I don't know, "impacted" or baffled or surprised by an "eclectic gallery of artistic surprises". I think the world in general is pretty much impactful, as it is, these days. People want something to soothe their soul and their eyeballs. The regular ole blue sky, flora and fauna, for example. However, I'm seeing less and less of those things these days, replaced by more and more stuff everywhere. Those owls in front of the library look like a cartoon. If I were an owl, I'd be pretty upset about that. A library is supposed to be a dignified experience, btw. At least, that was once the case. What ever happened to real live pigeons, anyway. Enough already. Just plant the seeds of native wildflowers everywhere. If you can actually play a musical instrument, head on down to the nearest "blight spot" and play a little Chopin. A blight spot can represent the passage of time, history, a poetic meditation on the credence of life.

16 people like this
Posted by Bette
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 21, 2016 at 4:00 pm

I believe the above commentator makes and excellent point. Further, it is not mutually exclusive with the Art Council plans.

Recent research has shown that healing images from nature are able to calm down a physiological stress response. He or she, is sharing important wisdom.

It might be most worthwhile for he or she to bring that perspective to the art council.

The City of Half Moon Bay recently added several murals with natural scenery of the area along with large ceramic pots filled with shapes made from succulents. Both are lovely.

I might guess the art council might be open to enabling natural murals including native wild flowers on alley walls. Each individual is unique and some, as myself, though also delighted by humor filled works, would love to see something to think about. Such as quotes about compassion by great thinkers.

As for natural soothing images, local photographer Joel Simon has nature images that are truly magnificent. His work featuring Three Canoes,for example, would make a phenomenal waterscape in a dreary alley. Much of his work is local such as Stanford, Foothils Park, etc.

People in Palo Alto are highly stressed. The costs of living here, financial, airplane and auto pollution, over crowding, traffic and more create severe difficulties on multiple levels including psychological, spiritual and physical are great.

The Palo Alto Council for the Arts is in the best position to mediate that duress.

Thank you to the first commentator for pointing a most important and valuable direction.

14 people like this
Posted by Eddie o
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 21, 2016 at 5:14 pm

agree the Owls are rediculous
the globes at the newel st library take way from the majestic redwoods
everybody's looking for Pokemon anyway - save your money

17 people like this
Posted by Impact Fees
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 21, 2016 at 7:05 pm

The City continues to show how tone deaf it is, a week after one of its Planning Commissioners get national press for her excoriating resignation letter. 1% of construction costs might not sound significant, but for a new apartment complex or townhome community, that means that the developer must pay an additional $3,000 - $5,000 per dwelling unit, and who do you think ends up paying the price? Ask yourself, would you be willing to donate that much money to the City's art program? If not, why is it fair to make anyone else pay it?

23 people like this
Posted by Dan
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 22, 2016 at 10:32 am

My feeling is that the entire "public art" process in Palo Alto, doesn't represent the public. It represents the thoughts and ideas of a few abstract modern artists. When you have to be told what the meaning of a piece of art is, then it is a failure. The best example of this is the huge conglomeration of rusting boxes, sticks and balls in front of the soccer park at Page Mill and El Camino. What do they have to do with soccer? Wouldn't a sculpture of kids playing soccer be a better fit? Owls in front of the library? At least I can tell that they're owls, but what's the purpose? I guess "whimsical" is the key word now, but it should also be meaningful to the people who see it everyday, not just the artist.

13 people like this
Posted by Art Lover (but infrastructure appreciator, too)
a resident of Menlo Park
on Aug 22, 2016 at 10:49 am

Art Lover (but infrastructure appreciator, too) is a registered user.

Some people find comfort in art as well as nature, myself included. There is a lot of criticism about some of the pieces of Palo Alto sculpture. I want to share one piece that I have always loved. Just like nature can be soothing, I find the understated undulation of "Cube Construction" in Jerry Bowden Park to be a joy. Web Link

Nature is wonderful. Art can be, too. There is also a certain tranquility in having streets repaired and basic infrastructure working.

6 people like this
Posted by sunshine
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 22, 2016 at 11:31 am

I suggest rotating the art around the city to different venues. As an example, it is time for Go Mama to move to Lytton Plaza or some other venue away from California Ave.
You allowed people to desecrate the good sculpture, Friends, How about getting rid of Go Mama. We could also remove that giant wood swirl on California Ave that looks like a giant screw standing on its head. If you were to put the art inside on new buildings and certain city buildings the pieces could be more varied.
If it is still there, the Iran Maiden outside the Newell library is excellent and one of the most appropriate pieces in the city as is was done by an artist who lived in Palo Alto.

4 people like this
Posted by Public art lover
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 22, 2016 at 11:46 am

I never liked the art in front of the Newell library. It seemed like a missed opportunity for something really special to be placed there, after Newell was refurbished.

I will look at it again, with the idea of trying to find some value in it. Maybe it's me that is missing something with that one.

That piece is still not what I'd consider excellent. I'd like to know what the criteria for public art excellence is.

"Sunshine", can you describe what you like about the Newell piece? Please will someone draw up a list of what makes "excellence" for public art lovers? That would be helpful.

11 people like this
Posted by jh
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 22, 2016 at 2:26 pm

jh is a registered user.

Los Altos has really great public art, and there was (is) a beautiful temporary sculpture exhibit along Main Street. Firmly fixed into the sidewalk. Temporary installations give artists a way to reach people that would otherwise be completely unaware of them and a great way to support these artists. Never met anyone who didn't really dislike Go Mama, but I love the wooden "unicorn" horn!

5 people like this
Posted by slinger
a resident of Addison School
on Aug 22, 2016 at 3:58 pm

Trees would be better than most of the art we ended up with

5 people like this
Posted by JSF
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Aug 22, 2016 at 8:42 pm

Very few artists actually participated in the focus groups. What gives?

Public Art commission has no business managing a large collection and an even larger budget.

They have insufficient storage and lack the skill and experience to know "good art from bad".

Todays "bad art" that the commission chooses to deaccession was yesterday's special selection and remains hugely popular.

The Palo Alto Art Center would be a much better administrator, curator, and collection manager.

6 people like this
Posted by Wyseguy
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 22, 2016 at 9:49 pm

my god the owls!
help me - every time I see them I want some Wise Potato Chips!!!!

4 people like this
Posted by cute owls
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 22, 2016 at 10:31 pm

I like the Mitchell Library owls.
I think they serve the dual purpose of being a car safety barrier for the entry plaza and cafe. As such, I'm very glad they decided to put in something whimsical and charming rather than utilitarian metal or concrete columns.

2 people like this
Posted by Bette
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 23, 2016 at 1:54 pm

Response to Dan:

Hello Dan,

Your comment about the meaning of the works is important.

However, I think the more pressing question is what is the meaning evoked for each individual--as well as the intent of the artist to communicate through the sculpture.

For each viewer, a different personal meaning may emerge. Individuals have feelings, thoughts and other images evoked for a works of art.

For example-one viewer of the owls has thoughts and feelings of Wyse Potato Chips. I, however-am delighted by the creativity-as others report as well. Another may think of abused birds on factory farms and become depressed.

I personally love the art works, but feel that there is an imbalance wherein
the peace of natural images and and pointers to the divine through more spiritual representations are underrepresented but greatly needed in the newer Palo Alto.

2 people like this
Posted by Megan
a resident of another community
on Aug 26, 2016 at 11:08 am

Hi there,

I live in Redwood City and have contributed to several public art projects in the city of Redwood City over the past year. These projects include painting utility boxes and a large mural that is part of a new mural corridor - a corridor that displays 5 different murals painted by local artists, which was selected to brighten up a once dull and trash filled part of the city. I am an artist who lives here in the peninsula, I paint sets for various theater companies including the PA childrens theater. I also worked on a large project at Gunn High School where we worked with our "stakeholders" (the Gunn students) to repaint the entire campus. I can tell you that in my experience and my artistic dreams, paint and color go a long way and definitely improve community vitality while also adding identity and character.

I am really happy to see cities like Redwood City and Palo Alto taking an interest in public art and offering opportunities for local artists. In this extremely tech saturated area, its nice to see movement and flow heading back into creative services. I have to admit I was concerned about whether or not I could stay living here given my personal choices to become an artist, but what truly make an effective community is encouraging people of all skill sets, backgrounds, and professions to participate in making the community a better, healthier, more culturally diverse place.

Art IS subjective, that is the point! Not everyone likes the same styles, not every single person is going to like the same murals or installations. This is true for food, restaurants, apps, you name it. Displaying a wide variety of ranging work not only provides opportunities for local artists to infuse the community with their work, but it also provides a stronger identity for the community. Its clear we dont want a stale community that is lack luster - and art is a wonderful way to make our communities welcome others and encourage creative people to move here!

Besides...if you truly want to enjoy more nature, its SO accessible via many of the amazing local parks and a pretty short drive to the Pacific Ocean. If you crave more than that, get involved in a community garden, plant more trees and flowers in your yard, or get involved in a public service that does landscaping! Both Palo Alto AND Redwood City have many thoughtful landscaped public ways and parks, I am truly surprised at comments here about how "a tree is better than public art."

Public art can serve as the voice for the community, creating a stronger identity which better represents the community, and ultimately uplifts the ideals that this area VALUES creativity!

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

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