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Update: Public Art Commission initiates process to remove Midtown Poetry Wall from art collection

Residents: Wall is 'unique piece of art' and should be maintained

The Palo Alto Public Art Commission is set to discuss the future of the city's Poetry Wall at its meeting on June 16, 2022. Courtesy Camera Club/city of Palo Alto.

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.

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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.

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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.

"Camino del Medio" by Sharon Olson, one of the poems featured on Palo Alto's Poetry wall. Courtesy Camera Club/city of Palo Alto.

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.

'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.'

-Annette Glanckopf, chair, Midtown Residents Association

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.

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Sue Dremann is a veteran journalist who joined the Palo Alto Weekly in 2001. She is a breaking news and general assignment reporter who also covers the regional environmental, health and crime beats. Read more >>

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Update: Public Art Commission initiates process to remove Midtown Poetry Wall from art collection

Residents: Wall is 'unique piece of art' and should be maintained

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Thu, Jun 16, 2022, 9:33 am
Updated: Fri, Jun 17, 2022, 5:23 pm

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.

Comments

Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 16, 2022 at 10:16 am
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jun 16, 2022 at 10:16 am

The artwork itself is delightful and adds character.

I think the bigger question has to be what is happening at Midtown anyway. The community garden is gone and we have had plenty of weeds and nothing else done until Baskin Robbins decided to use the space to enhance community feel. Now they have had pumpkin patches and photo opportunities and it is right beside this wall. It feels like useful community space with character and appeal. Replacing this artwork with a blank wall would be a step backwards.

So to the Weekly reporters, what are the plans for this part of Midtown? Can the artwork remain and can the old community garden space be kept for community usage? To me, it is the same discussion.

Or is this going to turn into another concrete jungle area with no amenities and no appeal?


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 16, 2022 at 10:17 am
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jun 16, 2022 at 10:17 am

PS I would add that Baskin Robbins have had several issues with vandalism with what they have tried to do to make this an amenable community space.


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 16, 2022 at 10:44 am
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Jun 16, 2022 at 10:44 am

So lets see here - the city art commission allowed BLM to paint the street in front of city hall which was of questionable taste. That was serious political art. But you are now objecting to the art work on the wall in the shopping center. What is the rationale that the city is working with? I think it is okay and it is not political. It is just fun. The city has wall art all over that is just fun.
Who are the people on the art commission? Who do they report to? I think we need accountability on the art commission.


TR
Registered user
Menlo Park
on Jun 16, 2022 at 10:53 am
TR, Menlo Park
Registered user
on Jun 16, 2022 at 10:53 am

Or maybe this space can simply be considered as transient art space like it was probably originally intended? Fix the wall and have people compete for the space every 3-5 years to keep it fresh.


Green Gables
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 16, 2022 at 11:58 am
Green Gables, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Jun 16, 2022 at 11:58 am

murals' latex paint and coating act as a polymer "film," preventing water evaporation in the wall, which caused water damage.

The responsible person/s did not know this about the paint and wall? Who's making decisions: kindergartners?


Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 16, 2022 at 11:59 am
Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Jun 16, 2022 at 11:59 am

TR - you live in Menlo Park - I assume that you do not walk that alley.
Note that up in Yellowstone the graffiti people were at work on a national park location. So now that has to be cleaned up. We have a lot of people who simply do not respect public locations.

I think we need to understand who specifically instigated this and what their beef is.

We are not going to do the nameless people hiding behind a city commission of nameless people who are busy managing the city with no input from the residents who live directly in that location.

While we are at it lets require a public vote for any further political "art".


Observer
Registered user
Greater Miranda
on Jun 16, 2022 at 1:35 pm
Observer, Greater Miranda
Registered user
on Jun 16, 2022 at 1:35 pm

Those with responsibility and a strong interest in this art installation should do two things:
1. Consult the Los Altos group that created the wonderful, durable wall of historical photos, text, etc. recently installed on the building at 200 Main Street. Their techniques should be relevant. See Web Link
2. Find out how Palo Alto has managed to maintain the Greg Brown murals in the University Ave. downtown area in terms of funding and durability. If there, why not in Midtown?
Palo Alto resident, formally of Midtown.


Mark Weiss
Registered user
Downtown North
on Jun 16, 2022 at 1:55 pm
Mark Weiss, Downtown North
Registered user
on Jun 16, 2022 at 1:55 pm

I would replace this work with a poetic and artistic tribute to Al Young, Palo Altan and informer poet laureate of the state of California


Midtown resident
Registered user
Midtown
on Jun 16, 2022 at 5:15 pm
Midtown resident, Midtown
Registered user
on Jun 16, 2022 at 5:15 pm

This seems to be a classic case of progressive distractedness. Yes, the poetry is nice to have. But meanwhile, the owners of that mall, who a few years ago when they bought it promised rent stability, are raising rents by 80% and Midtown is about to loose yet another round of useful businesses on that block. The cleaner is closing, the karate place is leaving, I worry about the cafe. Do we really have to drive to Sunnyvale or at least Mountain View for every errand now? Apparently there's no limit to the number of nailcare places with high margins or experimental foodie outfits that will fit themselves into zoning restrictions, but this doesn't serve us.


Elizabeth Lada
Registered user
Evergreen Park
on Jun 16, 2022 at 9:54 pm
Elizabeth Lada, Evergreen Park
Registered user
on Jun 16, 2022 at 9:54 pm

I painted the other mural in midtown which hangs on the wall of CVS 20 years ago and it is still in fine shape. It was not painted directly on the wall but on marine plywood, and installed (at my expense) using aluminum framing to protect the edges of the plywood and floated an inch from the wall to allow for air circulation. Perhaps that approach should be considered for this other mural. The $10,000 I was paid in 2002 is equal to about $16,000 now, which is considerably less than the $25,000-$28,000 cost the city estimates for stabilizing/priming and repainting the poetry wall - and they estimate it would only last 7-10 years, not 20. Unless I'm missing something, there seems to be some miscalculations here.


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