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Art for All

Sheryl Nonnenberg | November 14, 2016 | Story News and Features

Public art—it is a subject that rarely evokes a neutral response. Whether you find that sculpture in the park aesthetically pleasing or think it is a waste of taxpayer’s money, art in public spaces is almost always provocative. And in spite of the controversy, more and more California cities are amassing public art collections.

It used to be that only large urban settings were home to publicly funded art works, but with the rise in money for art programs, even small towns are now getting into the act. While the Peninsula boasts a long list of cities that incorporate art into their master plans, if you have a day to spend visiting art installations, Palo Alto and the Stanford University campus offer an opportunity to see a wide range of museum-quality art, all within a 5-mile radius.

The City of Palo Alto has a long history of supporting the arts and has had a public art program in place since 1975, when a Public Art Commission was formed. Over the years, the program has transformed from a mainly ad hoc, volunteer-based support group to a staff of two full-time professionals. The city currently owns 344 works of art, valued at over $2 million. The majority of the collection consists of small-scale, two-dimensional art pieces that are installed in city-owned facilities. But there are also 44 sculptures and 38 murals sited around the city. A percentage of the money generated by all municipal projects goes toward funding art (there is a similar program affecting all private development), resulting in a sizeable budget for art acquisitions. In order to best utilize funds, the city recently approved its first Public Art Master Plan. According to Commission Vice Chair Ben Miyaji, “The Public Art Master Plan’s built-in flexibility will allow changes to be made to the direction of public art to reflect needs, changing economy and the community’s changing preferences in public art.” The consultants hired to write the new master plan found that residents wanted public art to be “varied, impactful and spread throughout the city,” the document notes.

Art can conveniently be found in clusters around Palo Alto, for example in Mitchell Park, along California Avenue and near the Palo Alto Art Center. On California Avenue, there is art on walls and street corners. Several murals are painted on the sides of buildings, including Mohamed Soumah’s bright and cheerful “Under the Sun,” which depicts a poppy-filled landscape. San Jose native Chris Johanson’s untitled mural on the Bishop Building is like a starburst of color and energy. At the same location, 341 California Ave., “Suspended Possibilities” by Joey Piziali—who grew up in Stanford—presents a geodesic form bordered by prisms of color that seem almost three-dimensional. David Huffman’s untitled piece depicting people in spacesuits engaging in a range of activities, from meditating to zip lining, rounds out the building’s triptych.

Further down the street, Fred Hunnicutt’s “Jungle Jane” appears to be a two-dimensional face within an aluminum grid. Upon closer inspection, the face becomes a three-dimensional portrait. At the end of the street, at California Avenue Plaza is Michael Szabo’s “Confluence,” a sculpture made of swaths of gently curved bronze that also serves as a fountain. Elise DeMarzo, Palo Alto’s public art program director, explains that this sculpture proved to be surprisingly controversial, mainly because it replaced a much-loved (but dilapidated) birdbath fountain that had been there for many years.

Mitchell Park is the location of a renovated library and community center and also the home to several new art acquisitions, as well as some venerable pieces. Visitors immediately encounter “Arpeggio V,” by East Bay artist Bruce Beasley. Beasley, who created the sculpture from one piece of granite, compares his artistic process to making music because “shapes alone don’t carry any emotional feeling, but their intersecting of each other talks to us emotionally,” he says. The blocks of granite form a construction that echoes the feeling of community generated by the buildings within the park.

Roger Stoller’s “Cloud Forest,” installed outside the library door, is a maze of stainless steel in an intricate, latticework pattern. A resident favorite is Brad Oldham’s “Whimsy and Wise,” five stainless steel owls that greet library patrons in their quest for knowledge. All three of these pieces are relatively new, but the park is also home to Hunnicutt’s cubist-like figure, “Push,” and Bruce Johnson’s “After the Fire.” The latter, made of gnarled wood burl, has been in the park so long and has been climbed upon by so many children that it is considered more as playground equipment than art.

On Newell Road, Gayle Wagner’s “Albuquerque,” a rust-colored study in geometric shapes that appears to morph as one’s perspective changes, has welcomed visitors to the Palo Alto Art Center since the mid-1980s. The art center has a small courtyard sculpture garden, where works by Nathan Oliveira, Peter Shire and Jerome Kirk can be found. Between the art center and the library, there is an installation of six sculptures that comprise Brilliance, installed in 2014. The stainless steel sculptures, which somewhat resemble bean bag chairs, are incised with text sourced from the community, in languages reflecting Palo Alto’s diversity, and all relate to the theme of growth. At night, the pieces are lit from within by LED lights that are touch-responsive and change colors. “The artwork required a large amount of community engagement and has received a lot of praise for how it has activated the space,” says DeMarzo.

Palo Alto’s City Hall is the site for “Conversation” by Susan Narduli. This interactive media piece features video screens that span the entire wall of the lobby. Visitors are encouraged to add their thoughts and opinions to the ever-changing stream of live content from the internet. Outside on King Plaza, there are temporary site-specific installations ranging from musical constructions to more traditional sculptures. Aaron Lee Benson is currently showing “The Running Wall,” a wood construction that weaves through the trees on the west side of the plaza, culminating in two large sculptural elements on the east side.

A perennial favorite in the downtown area are the Greg Brown murals. These trompe l’oeil depictions of regular folks doing humorous things are whimsical and a reminder of the days when University Avenue consisted of mom-and-pop stores, rather than high-tech showrooms. Six of Brown’s original nine murals remain, including the always popular “Roofhoppers” which depicts two masked burglars repelling down the exterior wall of a building at 300 Hamilton St.

Just a short drive from downtown Palo Alto is the Stanford University campus, where one can encounter works of art at practically every turn. The university is so proud of its collection that they have created an interactive website that can be viewed on a smartphone or tablet, so that locations and descriptive information about all 87 objects can be found at the touch of a finger. For those who prefer a printed map, those are available in the Cantor Arts Center. You can also reserve a spot on the outdoor sculpture walk, offered the first Sunday of the month. “The campus is alive with an extraordinary range and diversity of artworks, some collected over the course of Stanford’s history and some representing new interdisciplinary connections,” says Matthew Tiews, associate dean for the advancement of the arts.

The Cantor holds one of the largest collections of work by Auguste Rodin; 20 pieces can be seen in the adjacent Rodin Sculpture Garden. “The Gates of Hell” is breathtaking in size and detail, but the smaller pieces also impress with their emotive quality. Other works by Rodin, including “The Burghers of Calais,” have been placed in front of Memorial Church. Across the street from the Cantor, and in sharp contrast to the classical nature of Rodin’s work, is Andy Goldsworthy’s “Stone River,” a serpentine wall that seems to emerge from the Earth. The site-specific sculpture was created from 6,000 stones salvaged from buildings destroyed in the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes.

In front of the medical school, Mark di Suvero’s “Miwok” is a 29-foot totem-like steel structure that celebrates the indigenous people of California. Near the law school, Kenneth Snelson’s “Mozart,” constructed with metal tubes and steel cables, is a study of weight and balance and seems to defy gravity. Elsewhere on campus, other must-sees include “Reclining Figure” by Willem de Kooning, Henry Moore’s “Large Torso Arch” and Josef Albers’ “Stanford Wall.” An alumni favorite and university icon, “White Memorial Fountain” (familiarly known as “The Claw”) by Aristides Demetrios has been the site of countless student protests—and marriage proposals.

“California in general is very public-art-friendly,” observes DeMarzo. And for those of us lucky enough to call Silicon Valley home, opportunities abound to enjoy it.

Originally published in the November issue of Silicon Valley

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