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July 21, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Sculpting a controversy Sculpting a controversy (July 21, 2004)

Dispute between art commission, director might go to City Council

by Bill D'Agostino

For the first time in the 27-year history of the city's Palo Alto Public Art Commission, a decision by the appointed officials might go before the City Council.

Earlier this year, the commission approved a surrealistic sculpture, known as "Rrrun," to be placed in a yet-to-be-determined Palo Alto location. But Arts and Culture Director Leon Kaplan, who is retiring at the end of the week, blocked the 5-foot tall artwork from going forward, saying he thought commissioners were too cozy with the creator. Commissioners argue they were trying to honor a major local artist.

"Rrrun," which is made out of a concrete-like material, depicts the bottom half of a person running on the top half of a car. "It's inspired by the time we spend in our cars and the personalities that cars take on," said artist Marta Thoma, who also created the "Go Mama" sculpture on California Avenue and a fence with electricity-related images located in front of an electrical substation on Alma.

Kaplan said the decision to shelve the artwork was based more on concerns about the approval process than the piece's artistic merits. Thoma served on the commission a few years ago and has already placed the two other pieces in Palo Alto.

Commissioners voted 6-1 last month to award Thoma $10,000 for "Rrrun," but no other artist had a chance to compete for the money, Kaplan pointed out. "It constituted at least the appearance of a conflict of interest."

"In my view, the relationship between Marta and the current public art commissioners that brought the project forward was too close," Kaplan said.

The City Council is authorized to referee disagreements between staff and the commission, but never before has it been needed, Kaplan said. It is unknown when the artwork's fate will go before the council.

Commissioner Gerald Brett said the group was simply trying to honor a local artist. Thoma grew up in Palo Alto, and now lives in Los Altos.

"You shouldn't be ungrateful for this major artist willing to sell pieces for that amount of money," Brett said. He also pointed out that artist Greg Brown has more than a dozen whimsical murals in the city's downtown, and the commission recently agreed to ask him to paint a new one in Midtown.

One commissioner, Ron Cooper, voted against the sculpture, reportedly saying he didn't favor it on artistic grounds, but was unavailable for comment by press time.

The artist also thinks the piece deserves approval.

"The money is so small it would be hard to afford a competitive process for it," said Thoma, who added she was not making any profit on the grant. "I'm just a local artist that actually has an international reputation -- to show my work is just to take advantage of someone who is nearby and talented."

This month, Thoma won a Silicon Valley Artist Fellowship and her work is currently being shown at the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara.

Kaplan's last day is Friday, after nearly a quarter century with the city. This is his second bitter controversy in the past few months.

"I wouldn't have written the script like that if it had been up to me," he said. "But it's part of my job. Being in the arts -- as I've understood it from the beginning -- is controversial."

Last month, the commission and Kaplan butted heads over Digital DNA, an egg-shaped sculpture planned for Lytton Plaza. The artwork was destroyed in a warehouse fire, and commissioners blamed Kaplan for not installing it prior to the blaze. The artist is currently rebuilding it.

On Wednesday, a less divisive artwork was scheduled to be installed at the newly replaced bridge over Adobe Creek, near El Camino Real. Created by Palo Alto artist Thai Bui, the stone sculptures depict yin-yang images.

Kaplan volunteered to drive the truck to the installation. "It's my last physical labor in Palo Alto," he joked.

Staff writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at

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