Editor's note: The original article has been updated following the Public Art Commission meeting on June 16:
The Public Art Commission voted unanimously on Thursday night to start the process to remove the Midtown Poetry Wall from Palo Alto's permanent public art collection.
The poetry wall, a series of six painted murals at 2605 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto's Midtown neighborhood, is in need of repair, and city staff had recommended the wall be "deaccessioned," which means the murals would be repaired as temporary artwork but could eventually be destroyed.
The commission also approved as part of the motion by Commissioner Ben Miyaji to have staff offer an "Option C" in addition to two proposals for temporarily repairing the wall. That option would look at dialogue with the community to potentially replace the Poetry Wall with another temporary art installation.
The commission's vote to initiate the deaccession process starts the legal clock by which staff must give the public and stakeholders 90 days to be notified and submit comments. In October, the commission will discuss and vote on whether to formally remove the murals from the city's collection and designate them as temporary art. Repairs would begin to refurbish the murals.
Depending on the method of repair, the murals could last another two to 10 years, giving the community time to discuss what they want to see at the site if they want a different mural, Elise DeMarzo, public art program director, said.
Staff was alerted by the building's owner that the murals were damaged and they wanted to see them refurbished or have something else put in their place. The property owner remains committed to allowing the wall to feature an art display, DeMarzo said.
Staff claimed in a report that the murals should be deaccessioned because maintenance is infeasible in the long term.
The total cost to repair the poetry wall mural would be $23,120 to $28,530, according to the staff report.
"Considering the underlying challenges with the site and findings presented in the condition reports by art conservation specialists, the ongoing impact of a high degree of ultraviolet exposure and considerable regular expenses to maintain the mural in the future, the staff will recommend that commissioners initiate deaccession proceedings as outlined in the City’s Deaccession of Artwork Policy prior to restoring the murals as a temporary artwork," they wrote.
Residents said the poetry wall is the only one of its kind in the city and is one of few pieces of artwork in the Midtown retail area, and they want it preserved.
"Midtown always seems to be the poor stepchild of the city in terms of funding," said Annette Glanckopf, a longtime Midtown Residents Association leader who opposes deaccession. She noted the city's investments in many murals and artworks located in areas such as California Avenue.
"We don't have a poetry wall anywhere in the city. Midtown is an eclectic neighborhood. This is a unique piece of art, and the concept was unique. It's very easy to paint over it if it's not official anymore," Glanckopf said.
The six murals on the poetry wall each consist of a short poem stenciled onto a different background painted on the south-facing exterior wall of the Walgreens building at Midtown Shopping center. In 2002, the Public Art Commission and the Midtown Residents Association formed an art committee with local poet Elizabeth Biller Chapman and launched a community poetry competition for people residing, working or attending school in Palo Alto and Stanford.
Ron LeBlanc, Amelia Saliba Long, Elizabeth Ray Mittmann, Liz Cowie, Sharon Olson and Janice Dabney were the six finalists chosen out of the more than 100 contestants to have their poems, which are 30 words or less and pay tribute to the community, put on the wall. First-place finalist LeBlanc won $250, and the second-place winners received $100 each.
The initial project was intended as a temporary display of the five second-place poems, which were to be printed on vinyl material and displayed for six months. LeBlanc's first-place poem was to be painted as a mural thereafter, according to the staff report.
But the vinyl panels were found to be too costly, with bids between $13,000 to $15,000. The commission decided to paint all six poem murals directly onto the 120-foot by 6-foot wall in 2003, according to the staff report.
By 2010, however, the murals appeared to be in poor overall condition with extensive areas of paint discoloration, blanching and fading, according to the staff report. The city hired a contractor to repaint the murals for $10,135 in 2012.
The restorations didn't last, however.
In 2021, the city hired Preservation Arts, a Bay Area-based fine art conservation specialist, to assess the murals. The consultant found the murals' latex paint and coating act as a polymer "film," preventing water evaporation in the wall, which caused water damage. The murals also had significant UV-light damage.
"An extensive conservation treatment would be required to stabilize and restore the murals, however, treatment cannot prevent future cracking, blistering, and paint loss in new areas, and issues are likely to be ongoing," the Preservation Arts assessment noted.
The water problem should be addressed in the wall before conservation treatment is carried out, otherwise it is likely the murals will need maintenance every few years to repair new areas of damage, according to the assessment.
Stabilizing, cleaning, and visually repairing the murals were estimated to cost $12,635 to $13,650.
The commissioners held a special meeting on Nov. 4, during which they studied the Preservation Arts condition report, reviewed funds committed to the maintenance of poetry wall murals between 2003 and 2021 and took into consideration public comments. Staff reported that the city has spent $19,465 on the project, commencing with the cash prizes to the poets and for all repairs and assessments.
In their report, city staff concluded that the only appropriate way to proceed with repairing the murals would be to completely remove them and stabilize/prime the wall at a cost estimate of $10,580. The city would then have two options: to completely reproduce the poetry wall by repainting the murals (cost estimates range: $14,957 to $17,950), with an expected life cycle of seven to 10 years; or reproduce the murals on adhesive aluminum at a cost estimate of $12,540, with an expected life cycle of two to three years.
Staff would return to the commission to request approval of funds for the reproduction of the poetry wall murals as temporary artwork. Funds from the Capital Improvement Plan Art in Public Places would be used to recreate the murals.
DeMarzo said if the murals remain in the city's collection of permanent art, the department could repair them through its fund, but doing so would use up most of the $30,000 maintenance budget they have for all projects during the entire year.
"It's really an accounting issue," Commissioner Hsinya Shen noted of the difference between using the Capital Improvement Plan funds, which wouldn't take from the maintenance budget.
The commission will return to the topic at its October meeting and could formally vote on the deaccession proposal.