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Cultivating Creativity

Sheryl Nonnenberg | March 23, 2017 | Story Galleries and Performance

Remaining viable for 45 years is a significant achievement for any business, but for a nonprofit like the Palo Alto Art Center, it is cause for a major celebration: The Sapphire Celebration will take place April 12 at Microsoft in Mountain View. The itinerary for the evening includes a conversation with IDEO founder David Kelley, a live auction and an awards ceremony. The event, which is sponsored by Microsoft, is open to the public (tickets: $245).

Although it has had to compete for both private and public funding—as well as for the attention of visitors who have a plethora of aesthetic opportunities from which to choose on the Peninsula and in San Francisco—the Art Center has enjoyed strong support from the public and the City of Palo Alto. For many years, the focus of the Art Center was as an exhibition space. With the opening of the renovated building in 2012, however, hands-on programming became a greater priority. Executive Director Karen Kienzle explains that this transformation occurred in response to community needs and also as a reflection of what is occurring within the museum field in general: a focus on community engagement. “Rather than being a special place for a more limited audience,” she says, “we are trying to serve greater numbers—to be relevant to more community members.”

In order to do this, the staff used Kelley’s book, Creative Confidence, as inspiration in designing programs and events in the newly remodeled building. “We love David’s book and its premise that we are all creative,” says Kienzle. “We just need to find ways to tap into that creativity.” Kelley, who co-founded Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (aka, the d. school), was therefore a natural choice to be the keynote speaker at the Sapphire Celebration. He was invited by Lisa Van Dusen, a former Art Center board member, who has known Kelley since the 1980s, when he was studying product design as a graduate student at Stanford.

In his book, Kelley recounts how often, as children, our natural creativity is dampened or even discouraged by a thoughtless remark from a teacher or parent. Often people who are in high-tech or science fields don’t believe they have artistic abilities. If those early obstacles can be overcome, according to Kelley, the results are dramatic. “I have seen people light up when they get a chance to express themselves creatively,” he says. “There is a moment when people make the flip, and once they can express themselves, there is a real catharsis.” He believes that actively engaging in the arts, such as in a painting or ceramics class, results in the creative confidence that allows a person to benefit both as an individual and in team situations. The Art Center, he maintains, is unique in that it offers people the opportunity to express themselves while working with others.

When asked why he was taking time from his busy schedule to partake in the anniversary gala, Kelley explains: “My religion is helping people with creative expression.” The event is also an opportunity to celebrate several key figures who have contributed to the growth and success of the Art Center over the years. The honorees are Signe Mayfield, who served as curator for over 20 years; Carolyn Tucher, who was a driving force in the Art Center’s capital campaign; and Jeannie Duisenberg, who founded Project Look, the school tour program that serves more than 5,000 children annually.

To further mark the Art Center’s milestone, a special exhibition, Spectral Hues: Artists + Color, guest curated by Sharon Bliss, will be on view in the galleries until April 9. While Spectral Hues refers specifically to the colors of the rainbow, the 20 artists invited to participate also address the relationship between light and color. Tamara Seal’s “Color Wheel” is a plywood and sand rendition of the familiar multihued teaching tool. Mitchell Johnson’s painting “Piaggio” presents overlapping rectangles that suggest an abstract landscape.

In addition to celebrating the past, the Art Center is looking ahead to a bright future. “From its inception,” notes Van Dusen, “the Art Center has been a place where people see art, make art and learn about art. That combination of viewing and making is highly unusual. The Art Center is uniquely poised to fulfill its promise as a creative hub of Palo Alto and surrounding communities.” 1313 Newell Road, Palo Alto

PAAC at 45: A Timeline

After numerous staff studies and community input, the City of Palo Alto authorizes the use of the former City Hall on Newell and Embarcadero roads as an arts center. The Palo Alto Cultural Center opens with an exhibition entitled Roots: Our Heritage From Many Cultures.

1973 The Palo Alto Cultural Center Guild (now the Art Center Foundation) is formed to support the Center through fundraising and advocacy.

1980 Project Look—an interactive program for school-age children—begins.

1993 The Palo Alto Clay & Glass Festival launches. Radius, a series of annual juried exhibitions, is initiated. The Gallery Shop, featuring the work of local artists, opens.

2001 Planning committees meet to develop a design for expanding the Art Center.

2011 The Art Center closes for renovations. During the closure, a grant-funded On the Road program allows for community outreach.

2012 The newly remodeled building (at a cost of $9.1 million) opens to the public. Updates include modernized gallery space, expanded classrooms and a new children’s wing. The building receives a LEED Silver certification for green design.

2016 In April, the Art Center begins a yearlong celebration of its 45th anniversary.

2017 The Art Center’s anniversary season concludes with Spectral Hues: Artists + Color, running through April 9, and the Sapphire Celebration April 12.

Originally published in the March/April issue of Silicon Valley

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