Palo Alto artwork some may find unpalatable

Newspaper RacksThere always seems to be this fear among Palo Alto’s leaders that if were not on the cutting edge of the latest city government trends, we’ve got to catch up.

Whether it’s electric cars or banning plastic bags, recycling food scraps or adding green bike lanes, Palo Alto can’t fall behind the hip cities in the U.S.

So here’s the new trend: forcing developers to add public art to any new buildings they put up. The art would have to be worth 1% of the building’s value.

Go-MamaA memo from City Manager Jim Keene to City Council points out that 48 California cities require public art from private developers. They include Sunnyvale, San Mateo, Alameda, Berkeley, Dublin, Emeryville, Livermore, Walnut Creek and San Francisco.

The unsaid implication is that Palo Alto has got to jump on the bandwagon. Who wants to be left in the dust by Sunnyvale!

The memo goes on to compare public art program’s in different cities with an eye toward what Palo Alto might do.

City wants control

Of course the city wants to approve whatever art a developer adds to a building.

The city has often forced developers to add art, and the result hasn’t always been good.  As evidence of that, above is a picture of a sculpture of a Greek goddess holding a washing machine over her head at the Sheridan Plaza outside of Caffe Riace.

Body of Urban MythWhen developer Harold Hohbach was trying to get approval of the 30-luxury apartment development at 200 Sheraton Ave. in 1997, the city required him to provide public art. Hohbach chose to statues of Greek warriors, each 10 feet tall.

The city’s Public Arts Commission said that wasn’t enough, and the board held a competition for an additional piece of work.

The winner was Brian Goggin, the sculptor who attracted national attention in the 1990s for his work called “Defenestration,” in which tables, chairs, couches and appliances would be popping up out of the dilapidated four-story building at sixth and Howard Street in San Francisco, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Goggin created the woman with a washing machine sculpture that is entitled “body of urban myth.” The panel of judges the city set up to approve the art loved it.

Everyone except for Hohbach, who voted against it. Even though it was his property, he couldn’t stop this odd sculpture from being added. And, to add insult to injury he had to pay $40,000 for it.

Bad choices

Digital EggThe city doesn’t do a good job picking art the public finds pleasing. Evidence of that includes the “Go Mama” sculpture on California Avenue and the 7 foot tall “Digital DNA” egg in Lytton Plaza at University Avenue and Emerson Street.

And these mistakes are long-lasting. These sculptures aren’t going anywhere – an eyesore for those who pass by them every day.

I have a couple of suggestions:

The city should replace public art every few years. This prevents a bad choice from becoming permanent. I’ll bet that the bad art on Cal Ave has reduced property values there.

The city should survey the community to find out what residents like, and then commission more of the art people prefer. After all, the city calls it “Public” art, so why not let the public have to say?

Don’t force developers to add art if the city is going to make the final decision about the artwork. The city doesn’t have a good track record in picking appealing public art. And don’t require a property owner to display a piece of art they personally dislike. That strikes me as a free speech violation.

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2 Replies to “Palo Alto artwork some may find unpalatable”

  1. You should do an update or sequel to this, now that we have expanded the Percent for Art program from public sector to all development.

    I ran for City Council in 2009 on an “arts platform” and would defend the Palo Alto Arts Commission projects but also told two 2013 Council members ex parte that I was suspect about the new Percent for Arts program and urged a “no” vote, and consider it a type of “stalking horse”. I would rather see less development and less art than more development and more art. The developers are using the arts program as a distraction from the real issues.

  2. The point about 200 Sheridan is that the developer traded the artwork for the rights to develop a larger and more valuable building. Further, the plaza is supposed to be a public plaza but has, in effect been annexed for exclusive use by his tenant, the restaurant.

    I agree with you that I would rather have much viewer projects and have the standards be much higher. The change, which you do report on — despite me posting above that you do not — probably makes things worse.

    Meanwhile, and not to confuse the issue even further — Hohbach did commission or permit and enact a completely private installation around the corner from 200 Sheridan, a monument to an electronics pioneer — completely bypassing the Arts Commission, if that appeals to your libertarian urgings.

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