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January 28, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, January 28, 2005

Who really chooses the city's public art? Who really chooses the city's public art? (January 28, 2005)

Commission gets warning from city attorney about practice of allowing other groups join the commission

by Bill D'Agostino

When the Palo Alto Public Art Commission decides to install an artwork in the community, should anyone else get a vote?

Commissioners, who are appointed by the City Council, debated the topic at a Jan. 20 meeting and received a warning from a city attorney, due to a past practice of allowing outside groups -- including business and neighborhood associations -- to have equal say.

But Senior Assistant City Attorney Grant Kolling said the commission alone needs to have the final vote on a public artwork and can't be swayed by the desire of another stakeholder.

In the past, "one or more members of the commission probably have ascribed more power to these other groups, who they seek input from, than I think is warranted," Kolling said after the meeting.

For instance, in 2003, when the seven-member commission was choosing a work for public land in front of the California Avenue's Country Sun, it let members of three other groups temporarily "join" the commission. Those groups -- Country Sun, the city's Utilities Department and the California Avenue Area Development Association -- provided most of the funds for the project.

Eventually, the joint group, now with more than 20 people, decided on the $65,000 "Sun Flowers," a metallic, solar-powered sculpture.

Commission Chair Patrice Langevin and Vice Chair Gerald Brett admitted they felt a responsibility to other groups, especially if they donate funds.

"If they hypothetically put money towards a project, they're going to expect their vote to count equally," Langevin said.

The situation will likely arise more and more in future years due to decreasing city revenue, she noted.

During the commission's deliberation over which artists would get to paint a utility box last year, the commission changed its vote based on the advice of the Utilities Department, which was donating the funds for the project, Langevin recalled.

"With public art, the goal is to engage the community," Brett said. "We don't want to force our decision on a community, especially if the community has to live with the work and even more especially if the community is contributing."

"In a sense," Brett said later, "I feel a dual loyalty to the community stakeholders and to the Public Art Commission."

During the meeting, Commissioner Ron Cooper expressed a contrary viewpoint, one similar to the attorney's recommendation. He also said an outside group never swayed his vote.

"It's the public money and the public trust," added Linda Craighead, director of the Palo Alto Art Center and the city's liaison to the commission. "It's the commission's responsibility to really guard that."

Staff Writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at [email protected]

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