News

City may freeze 'percent-for-art' program to redirect funds elsewhere

City could temporarily drop public art requirement for new projects

Dennis Sugar and his dog cross Louis Road and Fielding Drive at the "Go with the Flow" crosswalk, a public art installation created as part of the Palo Alto's streetscape project in 2018. Weekly file photo by Adam Pardee.

Citing budget challenges, Palo Alto is preparing to shelve a long-standing policy that requires city projects to include public art components such as sculptures, murals and digital displays.

The "percent-for-art" policy, which the City Council adopted in 2013 and which it expanded in 2014 to cover a greater breadth of projects, requires the city to spend 1% of the budget for a capital project on public art. Initially reserved mostly for new buildings, the policy was revised in 2014 to also cover new parks, landscaping projects, bridges, walls, tunnels and streets.

The council also will consider suspending a 2013 law that requires private developments to abide by the percent-for-art policy.

The council directed staff by a 4-3 vote on May 26 to return with an ordinance that would suspend the art requirement for private developments for two years. Staff will also bring back a policy that would freeze the percent-for-art program for municipal projects for the same duration. Mayor Adrian Fine, Councilwoman Alison Cormack and Councilwoman Liz Kniss all dissented.

The council's decision was spurred by the city's projected budget deficit of about $40 million in fiscal year 2021. To balance the books, the council agreed on May 26 to tentatively approve a budget that cuts more than 70 full-time positions at City Hall and slashes spending on everything from park maintenance and libraries to art programs and city-run shuttles.

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Over a series of budget hearings in May, many residents urged the council to spare some of the more popular community services, including art and teen programs, and to look for cost savings in some of the city's major capital projects. Some residents and council members pointed to the roughly $716,000 that the city has earmarked for art installations at the city's public safety building, the most ambitious project on the infrastructure list. Construction on the $115-million police headquarters at 350 Sherman Ave. is set to launch immediately after workers finish building the new parking garage at an adjacent lot at 250 Sherman Ave.

"Chance Impressions" by Peter Wegner is one of three art works earmarked for the city's new public safety building. Image courtesy City of Palo Alto

Councilman Greg Tanaka was among those who questioned the need for the new art. In the case of the police building, the art component consists of three installations created by the artist Peter Wegner, each of which reflects on a function of police operations. Among them is "Chance Impression," which consists of thousands of red thumbtacks that form the shape of a giant fingerprint.

"I think right now, during extraordinary times, when we're looking to lay people off, when we are looking to cut a lot of the services that our community values — to me it just seems to be the right move," Tanaka said, referring to the suspension of the public art program. "If you ask the community, 'Would you rather have a $750,000 fingerprint or fund the art center?' I think most community members would probably want to fund the art center.

The question is largely moot, given that the city had already commissioned the artwork and that Wegner had already completed it. Kou lamented the fact that the money was spent well before construction had begun on the public safety building.

"There is some concern that while we're in this emergency period, that money might have been something we could have used in order to address some of the problems we have," Kou said.

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Vice Mayor Tom DuBois cited the budget crunch when he proposed freezing the program for two years and having a check-in in the middle of the next fiscal year.

"For city projects, this is potentially money we can use to do other things," DuBois said.

Other council members were less enthusiastic about reducing funding for the public-art program, which Kniss said is a "baked-in part of our culture."

"Cache Me If You Can," a 3D art installation outside of Palo Alto City Hall documents King Plaza over the course of one spring day. Photo by Sammy Dallal.

Just about every major project that the city has pursued over the past decade has had a significant art component. These range in styles from "Arpeggio V," a jagged arch sculpture that was designed by Bruce Beasley for the recently rebuilt Mitchell Park library, and "Confluence," a bronze fountain sculpture by Michael Szabo that went up as part of a recent upgrade of the California Avenue streetscape, to Damon Belanger's "Go with the Flow" — a school of painted fish on a raised crosswalk at Louis Road and Fielding Avenue.

"I don't want us to get in the habit of being out of the habit," Kniss said. "I doubt that it will really be a major problem in the next couple of years, in any event."

Councilwoman Alison Cormack agreed with Kniss and suggested that if the city pauses the program, it may never restart it.

"If we get out of the habit it will be really hard to get back in," Cormack said. "There are many things that make us special. I think the public art around town is definitely one of them."

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City may freeze 'percent-for-art' program to redirect funds elsewhere

City could temporarily drop public art requirement for new projects

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, Jun 3, 2020, 9:04 am

Citing budget challenges, Palo Alto is preparing to shelve a long-standing policy that requires city projects to include public art components such as sculptures, murals and digital displays.

The "percent-for-art" policy, which the City Council adopted in 2013 and which it expanded in 2014 to cover a greater breadth of projects, requires the city to spend 1% of the budget for a capital project on public art. Initially reserved mostly for new buildings, the policy was revised in 2014 to also cover new parks, landscaping projects, bridges, walls, tunnels and streets.

The council also will consider suspending a 2013 law that requires private developments to abide by the percent-for-art policy.

The council directed staff by a 4-3 vote on May 26 to return with an ordinance that would suspend the art requirement for private developments for two years. Staff will also bring back a policy that would freeze the percent-for-art program for municipal projects for the same duration. Mayor Adrian Fine, Councilwoman Alison Cormack and Councilwoman Liz Kniss all dissented.

The council's decision was spurred by the city's projected budget deficit of about $40 million in fiscal year 2021. To balance the books, the council agreed on May 26 to tentatively approve a budget that cuts more than 70 full-time positions at City Hall and slashes spending on everything from park maintenance and libraries to art programs and city-run shuttles.

Over a series of budget hearings in May, many residents urged the council to spare some of the more popular community services, including art and teen programs, and to look for cost savings in some of the city's major capital projects. Some residents and council members pointed to the roughly $716,000 that the city has earmarked for art installations at the city's public safety building, the most ambitious project on the infrastructure list. Construction on the $115-million police headquarters at 350 Sherman Ave. is set to launch immediately after workers finish building the new parking garage at an adjacent lot at 250 Sherman Ave.

Councilman Greg Tanaka was among those who questioned the need for the new art. In the case of the police building, the art component consists of three installations created by the artist Peter Wegner, each of which reflects on a function of police operations. Among them is "Chance Impression," which consists of thousands of red thumbtacks that form the shape of a giant fingerprint.

"I think right now, during extraordinary times, when we're looking to lay people off, when we are looking to cut a lot of the services that our community values — to me it just seems to be the right move," Tanaka said, referring to the suspension of the public art program. "If you ask the community, 'Would you rather have a $750,000 fingerprint or fund the art center?' I think most community members would probably want to fund the art center.

The question is largely moot, given that the city had already commissioned the artwork and that Wegner had already completed it. Kou lamented the fact that the money was spent well before construction had begun on the public safety building.

"There is some concern that while we're in this emergency period, that money might have been something we could have used in order to address some of the problems we have," Kou said.

Vice Mayor Tom DuBois cited the budget crunch when he proposed freezing the program for two years and having a check-in in the middle of the next fiscal year.

"For city projects, this is potentially money we can use to do other things," DuBois said.

Other council members were less enthusiastic about reducing funding for the public-art program, which Kniss said is a "baked-in part of our culture."

Just about every major project that the city has pursued over the past decade has had a significant art component. These range in styles from "Arpeggio V," a jagged arch sculpture that was designed by Bruce Beasley for the recently rebuilt Mitchell Park library, and "Confluence," a bronze fountain sculpture by Michael Szabo that went up as part of a recent upgrade of the California Avenue streetscape, to Damon Belanger's "Go with the Flow" — a school of painted fish on a raised crosswalk at Louis Road and Fielding Avenue.

"I don't want us to get in the habit of being out of the habit," Kniss said. "I doubt that it will really be a major problem in the next couple of years, in any event."

Councilwoman Alison Cormack agreed with Kniss and suggested that if the city pauses the program, it may never restart it.

"If we get out of the habit it will be really hard to get back in," Cormack said. "There are many things that make us special. I think the public art around town is definitely one of them."

Comments

Mark Weiss
Downtown North
on Jun 3, 2020 at 9:34 am
Mark Weiss, Downtown North
on Jun 3, 2020 at 9:34 am
Like this comment

That’s probably not legal.
Instead why don’t we require all citizens to wear masks over their eyes their ears and their mouth‘s and just live in a dark world and have the rich milk us for our vital organs and fluids like in the movie the matrix. Or soylent. Wait my argument is inconsistent we should ban movies American Taliban


Online Name
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 3, 2020 at 9:59 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 3, 2020 at 9:59 am
13 people like this

If Kniss and Cormack had wanted to save the art programs, they should have been open to cutting their big, costly "infrastructure" projects., any of which could have funded arts programs for decades. But Ms. Cormack moved to shut off all discussion of possible cuts like eliminating a new fire station.


Frank
Barron Park
on Jun 3, 2020 at 9:59 am
Frank, Barron Park
on Jun 3, 2020 at 9:59 am
15 people like this

Please redirect to public safety. Show some sense.


Mark Weiss
Downtown North
on Jun 3, 2020 at 10:53 am
Mark Weiss, Downtown North
on Jun 3, 2020 at 10:53 am
3 people like this

The Percent for Arts can be buffetted by PPP, private public partnerships. I ran for Council in 2009, 2012 and 2014 -- withdrew in 2018 when my mother was in hospice -- and still, as you can see, follow a number of issues fairly closely -- and I cut my teeth so to speak in that I was walking Cali Ave and ran into arts commissoner and friend Paula Z. Kirkeby z" l" and she introduced me to artist Bruce Beasley of Oakland, who like myself was a Dartmouth alum. I suggested that the Dartmouth alumni network could raise funds for Mr. Beasley's proposal. That never happened, because the project was switched instead to the new Mitchell Park library, but it lit a fire.
It's shameful we are cutting any programs. How many years did we give people like Facebook and Google and Palintir a free pass instead of taxing them? How many times did we let developers build baby build and not get much in the way of public benefit.
People who think our civilization wil survive with just 1's and 0's and nothing in between - -by the way, there's an infinity in between -- or that arts, literature and music are trivial are people basically willing to be slaves to autocrats and dictators.
Why don't we discuss taxing capital?
A "PPP" is our current world's compromise on these issues.
I'd actually prefer fewer art pieces in public here and more heart felt ones, but that's a fine-tuning of the system and not tossing it on the bonfire.


Mark Weiss
Downtown North
on Jun 3, 2020 at 11:48 am
Mark Weiss, Downtown North
on Jun 3, 2020 at 11:48 am
7 people like this

[Portion removed.]
Would you rather have a $750,000 fingerprint or fund the art center?'
That's like saying "Would you rather be bombed by Franco's fascist World War II bombers or volunteer at Addison -- ok, then you agree with me that we cannot afford a Picasso!"
I spoke at the council meeting last fall about Wegner's proposal - -and staff's still unexplained gutting of the project - -and Tanaka then totally misrepresented or was disingenuous about the issue. He reported a totally biased survey he did to falsely impugn the very popular Percent for Arts Program. And then I visited him in his office - which oddly is in a pantry behind the old Cubberley High cafeteria -- and he could not even sit still to hear me out. He taped it - -later editing some parts out - -and I taped it, I'll post a transcript.
I wish Robert Rauschenberg were here to erase DeKooning Greg Tanaka


Mark Weiss
Downtown North
on Jun 3, 2020 at 12:21 pm
Mark Weiss, Downtown North
on Jun 3, 2020 at 12:21 pm
Like this comment

Today's public arts program evolved from work done organically by Greg and Julie Brown dating back to 1975. They were students here and then teachers here and, as most people know, there are numerous works of theirs downtown. The Palo Alto History Association book has Greg on the cover - -painting a version of he and Julie as burglars -- and Greg spoke at that meeting.
He passed away in 2014 but would be totally appalled at Council's action.

And you cannot say "well, we love the images of aliens in baby carriages we want more of those, but we don't want abstracted versions of law enforcement concepts" either. We have to leave room for differences in taste.

Web Link

Part of the reason we are in these recurring budget messes, in my opinion, is that we have leadership who only use half their brain and truly do not grasp "left brain" thinking. We need arts in policy, arts in the schools, arts in public, arts in our hearts. How many council members still have a beating bleeding pumping or thumping ticker? (We should outlaw poetic thinking while we are at it -- metaphor free zone -- these times require only truth and the facts, mam!)


Mark Weiss
Downtown North
on Jun 3, 2020 at 12:22 pm
Mark Weiss, Downtown North
on Jun 3, 2020 at 12:22 pm
Like this comment

[Post removed.]


Mark Weiss
Downtown North
on Jun 3, 2020 at 12:23 pm
Mark Weiss, Downtown North
on Jun 3, 2020 at 12:23 pm
Like this comment

[Post removed.]


Rose
Mayfield
on Jun 3, 2020 at 12:25 pm
Rose, Mayfield
on Jun 3, 2020 at 12:25 pm
2 people like this

Putting the Public Art Program on hold doesn’t mean it won’t come back in a few years when our budget has recovered. The staff could be furloughed. The art is wonderful but it is not essential.
Putting the public safety building project and the new fire house on hold for a few years can help solve the budget problems. What isn’t a delay on those two expensive projects even under discussion?


Mark Weiss
Downtown North
on Jun 3, 2020 at 12:26 pm
Mark Weiss, Downtown North
on Jun 3, 2020 at 12:26 pm
Like this comment

[Post removed.]


Mark Weiss
Downtown North
on Jun 3, 2020 at 12:32 pm
Mark Weiss, Downtown North
on Jun 3, 2020 at 12:32 pm
3 people like this

If you are going to freeze the popular Percent for Art for two years, why don't we have a moratorium on building for two years too, which was in the Comp Plan for many years until the recent gutting of that document, our general plan?
And tax the billion dollar unicorns who graze on the public commons.


Mark Weiss
Downtown North
on Jun 3, 2020 at 12:40 pm
Mark Weiss, Downtown North
on Jun 3, 2020 at 12:40 pm
2 people like this

In my opinion, having worked in the arts for 26 years, and before that propaganda/advertising/pr and before that journalism, and having studied government at university, bad leaders fear art and fear anything that will inspire the citizens to think, or be creative; inherent in our democracy, even in Palo Alto is the idea that the voters are a bunch of sheep. So that's what I think when bureaucrats attack art.


Amy Christel
Midtown
on Jun 3, 2020 at 1:33 pm
Amy Christel, Midtown
on Jun 3, 2020 at 1:33 pm
19 people like this

I count myself as a supporter of the arts. However, Palo Alto seems to seek “status art” rather than look to it’s own local talent which would cost far less, (maybe nothing but the cost of hanging or installation) and not marry us to some art commission’s highbrow selections forever. Thumbtack finger prints by some “museum approved guy” who visited town for 2 days?? Really?

This is not the only art I have objected to over 45 yrs of living here. I find the majority of the selections in this city to be hideous. Painting the City Hall trees blue as a tribute to the beauty of trees? Creepy doll sculptures? Not a public benefit at all IMHO. I allow that others have the right to love them, but I suspect I am not alone. I find myself “explaining” our public art to visitors and it is embarrassing.

I favor an approach to public art spaces that is more homegrown, and which raises the profile of both new and accomplished, resident artists. Public spaces should be adorned with rotating artwork sourced from our own community—by talented PAUSD students, and amazing adult artists whose perspectives better reflect our history and environment than some commissioned work from an “art world famous artist”.

Why does Palo Alto always have to look snooty? Do we really need to impress someone? Sometimes less is more, and less expensive art = more funds toward amenities that actually get used. Maybe even toward truly affordable housing.


2 sense
Fairmeadow
on Jun 3, 2020 at 1:52 pm
2 sense, Fairmeadow
on Jun 3, 2020 at 1:52 pm
15 people like this

Please no more crazy biking ideas which make the roads less safe for bikers. Ross Road is a disaster. A postman said that it's unsafe, he and delivery drivers cannot see the bikers well. Take the funding away from the Safe Routes to School folks, they are not doing their jobs properly, we are less safe with their interference. Another example: they expect us to ride on East Bayshore Road where all the cars cut through to the Dumbarton Bridge (there are bike logos painted on the pavement). What?!

And the $10 million bike bridge that leads to Google? How many people will use it?


mjh
College Terrace
on Jun 3, 2020 at 2:24 pm
mjh, College Terrace
on Jun 3, 2020 at 2:24 pm
8 people like this

@2sense

"And the $10 million bike bridge that leads to Google? How many people will use it?"

A bit off topic, but for what it's worth but when the bike bridge budget was originally being discussed someone crunched the numbers and said it would work out to about $25 every time a person biked over it. Don't know whether that was over a set period or for the expected life of the bridge, but since then the budget has skyrocketed soif that number is correct it will have inflated along with the cost.


Resident
Old Palo Alto
on Jun 3, 2020 at 4:19 pm
Resident, Old Palo Alto
on Jun 3, 2020 at 4:19 pm
9 people like this

Too much art can make a city look trashy - there should be a limit.
Some of the existing art should be reassessed, and sold as scrap to a recycling company.
The money could be used towards the purchase of something new.
Try using the reasoning that some people do to keep their homes and closets uncluttered - don't buy anything new unless you need to replace it. It keeps the home and closet uncluttered so you don't end up being a pack rat.
The amount of money Palo Alto wastes on art is obscene.


John Guislin
Crescent Park
on Jun 3, 2020 at 7:40 pm
John Guislin, Crescent Park
on Jun 3, 2020 at 7:40 pm
5 people like this

We are in the midst of a pandemic, a severe economic recession and a long-siimering racial crisis that surely impacts all of us. But that is no excuse for Council Members to lose their ability for reasoned thought and expression. But apparently that is what happened to Council Members Kniss and Cormack who, when reason failed, could only make circuitous statements that ignore facts and defy comprehension.
The majority of our Council sought to be fiscally prudent and pause further spendig on public art. Kniss and Cormack spun a story about art being "baked-in to our culture" and worried about getting "out of the habit."
How we spend our tax revenues should not be based on habit but on carefully reviewed analyses of what the return will be to our city. Habit should not be our guiding principle.
Kniss further strained any remaining credibility by saying that she doubts there will be any lingering fiscal problem in the next couple of years. Does she ever read what accredited economists are forecasting?

These two council members are an embarrassment to Palo Alto and should resign from Council immediately.


Gus L.
Barron Park
on Jun 3, 2020 at 8:00 pm
Gus L., Barron Park
on Jun 3, 2020 at 8:00 pm
16 people like this

It would probably be a good idea to stop doing any projects that waste money, Like painting trees Blue...


musical
Palo Verde
on Jun 3, 2020 at 9:11 pm
musical, Palo Verde
on Jun 3, 2020 at 9:11 pm
2 people like this

Palo Alto taxpayers are a bottomless pit.


Sir Topham Hatt
Menlo Park
on Jun 3, 2020 at 10:47 pm
Sir Topham Hatt, Menlo Park
on Jun 3, 2020 at 10:47 pm
Like this comment

[Post removed.]


Resident
Midtown
on Jun 3, 2020 at 11:35 pm
Resident, Midtown
on Jun 3, 2020 at 11:35 pm
15 people like this

"Too much art can make a city look trashy"

The river rock, encrusted, couches, that were retrieved from the dump, comes to mind.

Oh yea, let's not forget the Giant, computer egg sculpture.

We actually paid for this crap?

Bring back the basics, for example; the mural at Country Sun or The Palo Alto Pedestrian Series, you know the one with the bank robbers scaling the wall of the bank.

Surely these projects can be privately funded for some of our local artists.


An Arts Adminstrator
Stanford
on Jun 4, 2020 at 5:11 pm
An Arts Adminstrator, Stanford
on Jun 4, 2020 at 5:11 pm
Like this comment

The Percent for Art program should be a way to allow artists, especially POC and members of indigenous tribes whose land was stolen from the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, to have their work shown publicly by the city. It should, but isn't. In light of the current debates, did we really need a $115-million police headquarters as well? Palo Alto can put the Percent for Art Program on hold, but they really need to hire a progressive administrator so that people don't get "plop art." Or that percentage can be redirected to social programs; it doesn't matter, but getting rid of a funding line is a lot easier than reinstating it. Putting this on hold for two years might be its death knell.


Mark Weiss
Downtown North
on Jun 5, 2020 at 10:32 am
Mark Weiss, Downtown North
on Jun 5, 2020 at 10:32 am
Like this comment

@An Arts Ad-
Former City Manager, having previously worked in Arizona, often wore a Navajo silver cuff. Likewise, I sometimes wear one. With that in common we did chat a bit about a localized version of Santa Fe's Indian Market here, as distinct from the Stanford Pow Wow.
I think the Palo Alto flat collection has a Fritz Scholder - I know that he printed here, at Smith-Anderson -- he's Native. We certainly have some great Oaxacan or indigenous Oaxacan works. The person who did the post-modern road elements installation at Greer Park, later moved to Santa Fe, not quite the same thing.
Short of affirmative action for certain types of artists - which some museums do do -- maybe there's a way to reach out to contemorary Native artists and alert them to the next call for proposals - which I guess is on hold for now.
By the way, certainly individuals can work with private property owners to bring more public art here. Not as Percent for Art but art for art's sake.
Slightly off topic, but there is a great George Floyd mural taped to the plywood in front of Apple store right now.
I tried to personally initiate having Barry McGee tag the CalTrain station here, and then have CalTrain not remove it. (Their property manager is or was a former Gunn teammate of mine, Brian Fitzpatrick)
i'm sort of weirdly flashing to the bit in the Monty Python movie that has the Roman guards catchng a grafitti vandal and having him correct his grammar.
I wish the Weekly would add some art stories to the mix - -they are mum on the topic for about six weeks now. Other than their photo contest, which barely qualifies.


A nice guy
Midtown
on Jun 5, 2020 at 12:46 pm
A nice guy, Midtown
on Jun 5, 2020 at 12:46 pm
2 people like this

$750,000 for a fingerprint? NEVER! Not even once!


Rebecca Eisenberg
Old Palo Alto
on Jun 5, 2020 at 1:46 pm
Rebecca Eisenberg, Old Palo Alto
on Jun 5, 2020 at 1:46 pm
4 people like this

Art is one of the fundamental foundations of a free and thinking society. It is a dire sign when government withholds supports for the arts.

Palo Alto is one of the wealthiest and most educated cities in the world. All of our budget problems stem from decades of city government refusal to require our wealthiest employers and landlords to pay not just their fair share -- but anything at all. With the city council continuing to add more and more office space projects - including even last night - which don't generate city revenue, at the expense of housing developments, which do -- our city leadership continues to dig us into an ever more deep hole.

There are so many solutions that don't require the abandonment of ART. The most obvious solution is to put the business tax back on the November ballot, and give it teeth! With the number of people who work in Palo Alto almost 4 times the number who live here, and tax burdens currently falling entirely on the residential 20%, it's no wonder that we lack the budget to maintain a healthy city.

Imagine if companies paid taxes by employee, as they do in most other cities of our type. Our budget theoretically could increase by 400%. Doesn't our city leadership want that? I assure you: I DO.


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