Affairs of the art
Publication Date: Wednesday Dec 21, 1994

Affairs of the art

As the definition of public art expands and changes, Palo Alto's Public Art Commission seeks more ways to involve the public

by Monica Hayde

There are two guaranteed ways to drive Mr. or Ms. Taxpayer into a rage. One: Raise their taxes. Two: Erect a piece of public art they can't stand.

Just ask the anti-Quetzalcoatl contingent down in San Jose. The recently unveiled tribute to an Aztec serpent-god has been dubbed everything from a pile of petrified dinosaur leftovers to the biggest waste of a half-million dollars since the Pentagon invested in toilet seats.

Sure, some people like the coiled snake sculpture in the Plaza de Cesar Chavez, but whether the aesthetic issue is I.M. Pei's pyramid entrances to the Louvre, an Aztec god or a couple of wood-carved "Foreign Friends," art in public places is an inherently volatile subject.

"No matter what, public art is going to be controversial," says Palo Alto Public Art Commission Chairwoman Sandy Eakins. "Art is about ideas--the visual expression of ideas--and the world's biggest controversies are, of course, about ideas. And aesthetically, not everyone is going to have the same tastes. That's a given."

The twice-beheaded, once-burned, spray-painted and otherwise vandalized "Foreign Friends" sculpture at Embarcadero Road and Waverley Street is one local reminder that the issue of public art, namely who decides what is art, has, over the years, been the subject of impassioned debates in Palo Alto.

At the same time, Palo Altan Greg Brown's whimsical downtown murals are a much-loved symbol of the city itself, and, paradoxically, even "Foreign Friends," having survived all it has since 1989 when it was given to Palo Alto, has become as much a part of Palo Alto's "personality" and identity as the downtown cafes.

Unless a large contingent of the general public particularly detests a certain work, though, art in public places is not something most people spend much time pondering, admits Susan Wexler, a Palo Alto artist and a member of the Public Art Commission for four years.

The city's art collection includes more than 200 murals, sculptures and two-dimensional works. Valued at approximately $500,000, the collection ranges from outdoor murals and sculptures in city parks, to paintings, tapestries and collages located throughout city buildings and on rotating display at the Palo Alto Cultural Center.

Some works, such as "Foreign Friends" were gifts; most were purchased from the artists, but often for rates far below market value. For example, the abstract sculpture "Skyhook Boca Raton," purchased in 1993 and located in the Cultural Center courtyard, cost the city just under $2,000, but the Peter Shire work has been appraised at $20,000.

Unfortunately, Wexler says, the members of the public--the collective owners of this half-million-dollar collection--seem only to pay it much attention when they dislike a particular work.

"It's not, I don't think, that nobody cares about art in public places or living in an aesthetically interesting, pleasing environment," she says. "It's just that people don't always realize how much their environment affects them. We're a very pragmatic country in many ways, and, yes, people do tend to discount the importance of the arts in the face of all of society's pressing problems. But I don't think it has to be an either-or situation . . . Sometimes, it's just a matter of making people aware of what art is and what it can mean to our society, to any civilized society."

To that end, Wexler, Eakins and the five other members of the Palo Alto Public Art Commission are attempting to do something the Public Art Commission has not traditionally been known for: actually involving the public in the decision processes.

Justifiably or not, Wexler admits that the Art Commission has, over the years, been considered by either the City Council or the general public to be "rather elitist"--an assemblage of art-snob types who put enigmatic sculptures in public places and expect everyone to appreciate the abstract juxtaposition of the organic and inorganic.

"On one hand, you had the Arts Commission thinking the City Council was not giving proper respect to artists," Wexler says. "But on the other side, there has been this image of the Art Commission as being sort of dogmatic in its approach--saying, 'We know what is best for you.' That's not the image we want to, or should, have anymore."

For most of the commission's existence, Palo Alto's Arts and Culture Director Leon Kaplan has worked closely with its members. The Public Art Commission, founded in 1975 as the Visual Arts Jury, operates with a budget of $15,000 a year from the city's Capital Improvements Fund.

Kaplan says that the present incarnation of the Public Art Commission (members are appointed by the City Council for three-year terms) is working steadily to involve the Palo Alto community in public art issues.

"The whole situation with the Foreign Friends made the Commission really realize that they are a public body and that they can't arrogantly make decisions about art," Kaplan says. "If they want projects to succeed, they need to involve and get the support of the community at large. And that's what they're doing now."

One example of public outreach was the recent solicitation of community input on the choice of four inspirational quotes to adorn a "hanging sculpture" to be installed in the lobby of the Palo Alto Civic Center early in 1995. More than 200 people responded with their suggestions, and the Art Commission's final decision included two quotes suggested by members of the public. (See accompanying story.)

At the same time that the city's Public Art Commission is working to change its image, the evolving definition of just what public art is is helping the commissioners forge new bonds of cooperation with city staff and the City Council, Wexler says. "Public art does not just mean a statue in front of a building anymore," she says. "Although (public art) does, of course, still include sculptures, murals and so forth, it's changing to include much more. It's becoming incorporated in all aspects of urban design."

These days, artists are just as likely to be dealing with whole urban environments as simply designing stand-alone sculptures.

In Brooklyn, public art is a fence designed to look like a wave, which surrounds a new sewage plant in a residential area. In Phoenix, it's a funky, Southwest-style overpass co-designed by an artist and an engineer.

In Palo Alto, "public art" is soon to be an artist-embellished fence surrounding the utilities sub-station on Alma Street, as well as three carved egrets placed strategically over the entrance to the newly remodeled building at 201 University Ave.

"The idea is that if you have to build a bridge, or a bench, even a manhole cover, why not try to make something beautiful as well as functional?" Wexler says. "I mean, imagine what could be done with an everyday manhole cover with relatively little cost. This is what modern public art is about. It's about our whole environment, and it's about cooperation between all aspects of city services and the private sector. It's a very exciting time."

Palo Alto has resisted following the trend of many cities nationwide and adopting "percent-for-art" legislation, in which developers are required to devote a certain percentage of construction costs--often 1 percent--to art elements. But many local developers and property owners are voluntarily deciding to include artists in the building or design process, says Micki Schneider, the City Council liaison to the Public Art Commission.

"It's really encouraging when developers come to the Art Commission asking for input," Schneider says. "That's what's starting to happen now. And it's all the more exciting because the city is not demanding them to do so, as are some other communities."

The egrets at 201 University Ave. are one of the first tangible results if this new era of cooperation.

Building owner Howard Crittenden, in cooperation with the Palo Alto Architecture firm Carrasco & Associates, commissioned Norwegian artist Guri Berg to design the three stainless steel egrets after it was learned that the building's egret mural, painted in 1979, would have to be destroyed as part of the earthquake retrofitting process.

"Howard was interested in saving the bird motif--in incorporating the image of birds into the new building--and this idea came up," says Linda Poncini, a principal architect at Carrasco & Associates. "It did add to the cost of the building, and it did take extra work. But the cooperation with the Art Commission, Leon Kaplan, the Architectural Review Board and everyone involved was really something. I think the end result is worth the extra efforts. It really adds something to the building and to the whole look of downtown."

Likewise, because of cooperation between the Art Commission and the Utilities Department, a wood slat fence that surrounds a utilities sub-station at Alma Street and Homer Avenue will be transformed from a utilitarian eyesore into a colorful conversation piece by Palo Alto artist Marta Thoma.

With a cost estimate that came to less than what the utilities department was budgeting to spend on a new fence, Thoma came up with a proposal to paint the fence blue and yellow and decorate it with drawings having to to with energy.

"So, instead of an ugly old fence, we're going to have something creative and unusual," Wexler says. "And everyone is happy."

Almost giddy over this new era of cooperation and understanding, the members of the art commission can't seem to say enough about "improved relations" and "better communication" with the city's powers that be. Gone are the days, Eakins says, when the Public Art Commission was left off lists of local government committees, or laughed off as a bunch of whiny artists complaining about not getting enough funding.

Judith Wasserman, who has been on the commission for two years, says relationships with city staff and council members are "improving daily."

"My goal has been to make as much noise as possible, to try to educate people with our slide show, but not to be obnoxious," Wasserman says. "And we're getting terrific response from the city staff as everyone learns more about what public art can be. As the definition of public art has broadened, so has the interest in it."

Eakins agrees: "I think we've all finally realized that to sit there and wrangle about taste and cost issues doesn't do much good," she says. "We'd rather spend our energies educating people about all the possibilities--financially responsible possibilities--that are available these days in the realm of public art."

And, of course, the hope is that from where there is interest and understanding, money will flow.

Since 1983, the Public Art Commission's annual budget has remained at $15,000, says Arts and Culture Director Kaplan. But he is optimistic that the next fiscal year will be a lucrative one for the Art Commission.

In fact, if staff budget recommendations are approved by the city manager and the Council, Kaplan says, the Art Commission can look forward to its budget for next year being doubled to $30,000 ($5,000 more for maintenance; $10,000 more for acquisition of works and installation costs).

"The commission has made their case that they are underfunded," Kaplan says. "I am optimistic that the budget recommendations will be approved." 

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