News

Palo Alto drops plan to suspend 'percent-for-art' program

Council maintains requirement that city, developers devote 1% of construction budget to artwork

Wise and Whimsy, an art installation by artist Brad Oldham are featured at the entrance to the Mitchell Park Library and Community Center. Embarcadero Media file photo by Michelle Le.

After placing a Palo Alto public art program on the budgetary chopping block earlier this year, the City Council had a change of heart on Monday and agreed that the city cannot afford to lose the whimsy and creativity that it brings to local streets and buildings.

The "percent-for-art" program, which requires public and private projects to dedicate 1% of their budgets to art, has been a fixture in Palo Alto in one form or another since 2005. Its impact can be seen all over the city, from the silver owls guarding the Mitchell Park Library entrance to the bright fish swimming on the crosswalk on Louis Road and Fielding Drive to the wheeled bench known as the "Welcome Wagon" in front of the new fire station at Rinconada Park.

Initially limited to public projects, the program was expanded in 2014 to also include private developments. The following year, the city changed the rules yet again to allow projects to contribute funding into an art fund, rather than installation of the pieces.

In late May, however, the council was considering its most extreme revision yet: suspending the program while the city wrestles with the budgetary impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic recession. By a 4-3 vote, the council directed staff on May 26 to return with a proposal that would suspend it for two years as part of its strategy to balance the books at a time when the city was facing a projected deficit of $40 million.

On Monday, the council reversed course and unanimously agreed that the program should continue uninterrupted.

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The past year has been, in many ways, exceptional for the program, which has received about $1 million in city funds largely because of two major infrastructure projects: a parking garage that is now nearing completion on Sherman Avenue and the new public safety building, which is slated to go up on a parking lot adjacent to the new garage. The art for the public safety building, a series of digital installations by artist Peter Wagner, accounted for about $700,000 in spending.

In typical years, the city spends between $30,000 and $50,000 for the public art program, according to a memo from the city's Public Arts Commission, which strongly recommended keeping the requirement in place. A suspension, the commission stated in a memo to the council, will require the program to lay off staff and "limit the ability of the program to respond to current events."

Dennis Sugar and his dog cross Louis Road at the completed "Go With the Flow" installation by artist Damon Belanger. Embarcadero Media file photo by Adam Pardee.

"It will reduce the development of art that draws on visitors to commercial corridors," the memo states. "It will reduce the opportunities for city residents and visitors to gather, at safe distance, and to celebrate our shared resilience and space."

Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who was a strong supporter of keeping the program in May, once again made the case for retaining funding for public art. She credited the city's public art program for injecting "whimsy and fun" into Palo Alto.

"All over town, we see art, we argue about it, we fight about it, we admire it and it's such a great conversation piece," Kniss said. "I can't imagine what we were thinking, that we thought about not continuing it."

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Her colleagues generally agreed. Vice Mayor Tom DuBois, who in May supported suspending the program, said that the budget picture appears to have stabilized since last summer, when the city made deep budget cuts. Councilman Greg Tanaka, who had often derided the proposed art for the new public safety building, referring to it as "a fingerprint," was somewhat more skeptical and pointed to the city's recent budget cuts, which resulted in fewer firefighting positions, elimination of the city shuttle and a revision of the city's Cubberley Community Center lease, which reduced the city's contribution to the Palo Alto Unified School District.

"We're cutting to the bone on some of these things," Tanaka said.

Despite his misgivings, Tanaka joined the rest of the council in a unanimous vote to maintain the program, which has brought in about $1.68 million from private developers since 2014, according to city staff.

Artists and volunteers work on a Black Lives Matter mural on Hamilton Avenue in front of Palo Alto City Hall on June 30. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Mayor Adrian Fine and Councilwoman Alison Cormack, who opposed cuts to the program in May, reiterated their support for keeping it intact. Cormack pointed to the Black Lives Matter mural that the city commissioned from 16 artists in June, a project that she said "provoked some very difficult conversations and a lot of learning."

"None of that would have happened without the art. … That was actually a big deal for our community and it did exactly what it was supposed to do," Cormack said.

Fine said it's important that Palo Alto continue to "have a little bit of whimsy."

"This is what some of the art program brings to us," Fine said. "It's largely self-funding and it supports some real joy and education in Palo Alto."

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Palo Alto drops plan to suspend 'percent-for-art' program

Council maintains requirement that city, developers devote 1% of construction budget to artwork

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Tue, Oct 6, 2020, 2:16 pm

After placing a Palo Alto public art program on the budgetary chopping block earlier this year, the City Council had a change of heart on Monday and agreed that the city cannot afford to lose the whimsy and creativity that it brings to local streets and buildings.

The "percent-for-art" program, which requires public and private projects to dedicate 1% of their budgets to art, has been a fixture in Palo Alto in one form or another since 2005. Its impact can be seen all over the city, from the silver owls guarding the Mitchell Park Library entrance to the bright fish swimming on the crosswalk on Louis Road and Fielding Drive to the wheeled bench known as the "Welcome Wagon" in front of the new fire station at Rinconada Park.

Initially limited to public projects, the program was expanded in 2014 to also include private developments. The following year, the city changed the rules yet again to allow projects to contribute funding into an art fund, rather than installation of the pieces.

In late May, however, the council was considering its most extreme revision yet: suspending the program while the city wrestles with the budgetary impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic recession. By a 4-3 vote, the council directed staff on May 26 to return with a proposal that would suspend it for two years as part of its strategy to balance the books at a time when the city was facing a projected deficit of $40 million.

On Monday, the council reversed course and unanimously agreed that the program should continue uninterrupted.

The past year has been, in many ways, exceptional for the program, which has received about $1 million in city funds largely because of two major infrastructure projects: a parking garage that is now nearing completion on Sherman Avenue and the new public safety building, which is slated to go up on a parking lot adjacent to the new garage. The art for the public safety building, a series of digital installations by artist Peter Wagner, accounted for about $700,000 in spending.

In typical years, the city spends between $30,000 and $50,000 for the public art program, according to a memo from the city's Public Arts Commission, which strongly recommended keeping the requirement in place. A suspension, the commission stated in a memo to the council, will require the program to lay off staff and "limit the ability of the program to respond to current events."

"It will reduce the development of art that draws on visitors to commercial corridors," the memo states. "It will reduce the opportunities for city residents and visitors to gather, at safe distance, and to celebrate our shared resilience and space."

Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who was a strong supporter of keeping the program in May, once again made the case for retaining funding for public art. She credited the city's public art program for injecting "whimsy and fun" into Palo Alto.

"All over town, we see art, we argue about it, we fight about it, we admire it and it's such a great conversation piece," Kniss said. "I can't imagine what we were thinking, that we thought about not continuing it."

Her colleagues generally agreed. Vice Mayor Tom DuBois, who in May supported suspending the program, said that the budget picture appears to have stabilized since last summer, when the city made deep budget cuts. Councilman Greg Tanaka, who had often derided the proposed art for the new public safety building, referring to it as "a fingerprint," was somewhat more skeptical and pointed to the city's recent budget cuts, which resulted in fewer firefighting positions, elimination of the city shuttle and a revision of the city's Cubberley Community Center lease, which reduced the city's contribution to the Palo Alto Unified School District.

"We're cutting to the bone on some of these things," Tanaka said.

Despite his misgivings, Tanaka joined the rest of the council in a unanimous vote to maintain the program, which has brought in about $1.68 million from private developers since 2014, according to city staff.

Mayor Adrian Fine and Councilwoman Alison Cormack, who opposed cuts to the program in May, reiterated their support for keeping it intact. Cormack pointed to the Black Lives Matter mural that the city commissioned from 16 artists in June, a project that she said "provoked some very difficult conversations and a lot of learning."

"None of that would have happened without the art. … That was actually a big deal for our community and it did exactly what it was supposed to do," Cormack said.

Fine said it's important that Palo Alto continue to "have a little bit of whimsy."

"This is what some of the art program brings to us," Fine said. "It's largely self-funding and it supports some real joy and education in Palo Alto."

Comments

Marian Sofaer
Registered user
Professorville
on Oct 7, 2020 at 11:50 am
Marian Sofaer, Professorville
Registered user
on Oct 7, 2020 at 11:50 am
6 people like this

I suggest a local vote on whether to use the money from the 1% tax on developers for the next ten years on public art or on the school system, which received less money this year as reported by PaloaltoOnline. Let the residents decide that rather than Council Members.


theAlex
Registered user
South of Midtown
on Oct 7, 2020 at 2:03 pm
theAlex, South of Midtown
Registered user
on Oct 7, 2020 at 2:03 pm
2 people like this

That's some irony right there. Thinking that reducing the quality or quantity of public art could help education in any way.


Ugly Art?
Registered user
Downtown North
on Oct 7, 2020 at 4:12 pm
Ugly Art?, Downtown North
Registered user
on Oct 7, 2020 at 4:12 pm
11 people like this

I'd be OK with the art tax if it wasn't always ugly, ugly, ugly! The picture for this article of the owls is one of the very few art pieces that are functional, fun and lovely to look at. Mostly we get blobs, wires, strange masses and ???

How about making all future art recognizable or useful - animal statues, fountains, even planting and maintaining trees and flowers (which are more beautiful than the strange "creations" that we usually get). Or make the developers use the 1% to make the buildings not so bland and ugly.


Stepheny
Registered user
Midtown
on Oct 7, 2020 at 4:24 pm
Stepheny , Midtown
Registered user
on Oct 7, 2020 at 4:24 pm
4 people like this

Art should be part of Palo Alto. Agreed. That said, I've had enough of the BLMers and would like to see art for all of us. The BLM street mural should have the terrorist and cop killer Joanne Chesimard part removed. It is divisive and especially, in these times, we don't need any more divisiveness.


Mark Weiss
Registered user
Downtown North
on Oct 11, 2020 at 9:23 pm
Mark Weiss, Downtown North
Registered user
on Oct 11, 2020 at 9:23 pm
2 people like this

I’m a big supporter of the Percent For Art Program, for example the Bruce Beasley granite arch at the new Mitchell Park Community Center and the proposed Peter Wegner suite of works at the new proposed police station, but advised against expanding the program 10 years later to the private sector. I’d prefer fewer new buildings period.
I’d like to see a major park, five to 20 acres, at the new Ventura village.


Jeremy E.
Registered user
Midtown
on Oct 11, 2020 at 10:42 pm
Jeremy E., Midtown
Registered user
on Oct 11, 2020 at 10:42 pm
Like this comment

Has the council restored the $20,000 to broadcast council meetings on the radio? That would seem to be a far more important issue, since it involves public access to city governance.


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