Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - October 12, 2012

The center's next chapter

Palo Alto Art Center reopens with revamped spaces and new exhibitions

by Pierre Bienaime

After 18 months of renovation, the Palo Alto Art Center has reopened its doors to residents of Palo Alto and beyond. Center staff estimated that more than 2,000 people attended the Oct. 6 open house to see the expanded children's wing, larger glass-walled gallery shop, redesigned main gallery and other changes made in the $7.9 million center project.

Opening ceremonies, art activities and music and dance performances took place on Saturday, along with the opening of "Community Creates," a collection of nine exhibits by 10 artists at the center. Each of these invite and depend on community participation to thrive.

"Part of the interest in coordinating the exhibition is really to engage the public in an active way," center director Karen Kienzle said. "We asked 10 artists to work with community groups to create installation projects."

"Vertical Garden," for example, is a collection of ferns sprouting from white gallery walls, each of their leaves made from different fabrics. Some of the prints mimic a natural verdure, while others might more conventionally belong on a dress, a set of curtains or gift wrap. The overall effect is a doubled familiarity with the fern's shape as it appears in nature, and with its textures as they appear in daily life.

On opening day, visitors could meet "Vertical Garden" artist Paz de la Calzada and cut out their own fern leaves. Some of these will be added to the walls, though the Spanish artist says most of her exhibit's negative space will be preserved.

Also on display at the center is "Untitled (Monument for Palo Alto)" by Carlos Ramirez. Soft clay tiles adorn a wooden staircase-shaped structure fashioned after the Mesoamerican architecture of Ramirez's heritage. The tile designs — which are inspired by old-school video games — result from his collaboration with youth at the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula center in East Palo Alto. The tiles were then cast in the Palo Alto Art Center's ceramics studio a few rooms away from the gallery.

As opening day progressed, Ramirez continued to staple the underlying structure together as an assistant worked new tiles into the pattern.

"I see all of this as a collision of my own cultural heritage with the pop culture that I've grown up in, the 8-bit graphics of the '80s," Ramirez said. To drive the point home, the structure houses a Donkey Kong arcade cabinet, a video game dating back to 1981.

Visitors will have a chance to add leaves to the "Vertical Garden" periodically through Nov. 14. Also evolving is Ramirez's tile structure; as it dries and sheds a few fragments, these will be fired in the center's kiln and distributed to visitors as keepsakes.

In planning these exhibits, Kienzle's goal was to represent a broad range of media, she said. "We wanted painting, drawing, installation. ... We wanted to make sure we had something that represented ceramics since that's such an important program area for the art center."

The exhibits will stand until April, after which time they will return to their respective artists. In the future, the art center may invite traveling exhibitions to join other displays, as has happened in the past.

"It's quite amazing for an institution of our size. Usually it's much larger institutions that can do that. The last exhibition that the art center had that traveled was the Bruce Metcalf exhibition, which traveled to five venues in the U.S.," Kienzle said.

The building's renovations certainly seem to invite a range of shows. San Francisco architecture firm Mark Cavagnero Associates honored the original ranch-style design of the building while raising the ceilings up to its rafters to add light and space. Many of the original building's bricks were retained, and elsewhere many recycled elements contribute to its LEED Silver certification for green design.

Other changes include: new gallery lighting and climate-control systems, double-paned windows and new landscaping.

Funded by local donors as well as a public-private partnership between the city of Palo Alto and the Palo Alto Art Center Foundation, the renovations begin the next chapter of a building that first opened in 1953 as Palo Alto's City Hall.

The center employs 25 staff members, the equivalent of 12 to 13 full-time employees. Before closing for renovations, it had 70,000 visitors a year, Kienzle said. "We're interested in maintaining that and increasing it."

Some of the most dramatic changes are in the wing that is now devoted to children's activities, with a new dedicated entrance and twice as many classrooms. Floored with tiles of recycled cork and rubber, the children's wing and the adjacent studios provide space for nearly two dozen classes, workshops and drop-in programs for both children and adults.

The center's broad focus on students of all ages is embodied in the new logo, which was designed by artist Colleen Sullivan.

"It has some ambiguity to it, which I think is very much inherent in art," Kienzle said. "Some people immediately see a hand, some a tree. It could have been made by a child, or an adult. We're open to different interpretations."

Info: The Palo Alto Art Center is at 1313 Newell Road. Galleries are open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is free. For more about the exhibits, the center and its classes, go to http://cityofpaloalto.org/artcenter .

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