Microgrant competition lets the public pick the art

Event debuts in Palo Alto, combining dinner party with 'elevator pitches' by teams of creatives

A multimedia installation designed to showcase the faces, voices and stories of Cubberley Community Center was declared the winner of Cubberley Stock: a dinner party and micro-grant competition sponsored by the Palo Alto Public Art Program and hosted by artist/chef Lexa Walsh.

On March 24, around 60 people gathered in the Cubberley Art Lab to sup on Walsh's kale-and-bean soup, green salad and other refreshments, including dessert from nearby Rick's Rather Rich Ice Cream and tea and coffee from Peet's and Teaspoon. They also heard and voted on five-minute "elevator pitches" from six teams of artists, all of whom were competing for the chance to create a temporary public-art project to enliven the aging Cubberley facility. The winning artists received the proceeds from the sold-out event's admission fee ($15-$25 per person), plus matching funds from the city's art program.

"What makes a project fundable?" Walsh asked at the event. Is it the aesthetics? The social good? The feasibility?

Walsh, who served as the event's organizer and emcee in addition to chef, leads Oakland Stock, part of the international Sunday Soup network that's "supporting artists' projects one bowl of soup at a time."

The goal, Walsh said, is not only to fund an art project and have a good time doing it but also to consider the sometimes-nebulous issue of what leads to success in the art world.

"It's not just a nice thing to do to support artists. I'm transparent about having an open arts dialogue," she said.

Since she started Oakland Stock in 2012, "almost all of the projects that win have been socially conscious or curatorial projects," she noted. "It's rarely been a traditional, support-my-series-of-paintings sort of thing."

The Stock events strive to be eco-friendly and socially conscious as well, with Walsh sourcing her ingredients from local, organic and minority-owned farms whenever possible (and at Cubberley Stock, Palo Alto Public Art Program Coordinator Nadya Chuprina and program assistant Brittany Amante served the goodies in compostable dishes with real silverware.)

The Palo Alto event differed slightly from typical Oakland Stocks due to the Cubberley-specific proposals, the city's matching funds and the project's public nature.

Many of the March 24 proposals spoke to Cubberley's role as home to a wide variety of programs and activities as well as the need for more general awareness of and connection between its diverse users.

Trevor Tubelle, with the slogan, "The art is yours to make: Let's play!", proposed an interactive board game/drawing experience involving several card tables and chairs with custom game boards that would become filled with images drawn by the community over the course of the project. As a sample, he provided sticky notes and gave everyone 30 seconds to draw themselves engaged in one of the many activities hosted at Cubberley.

Gunn High School track coach and fitness trainer Michael Granville presented his idea for a day of free "artletic" events, combining sports and fitness with visual and performing arts, such as pairing Pilates with poetry and painting with pickleball. He was hoping, he said, to see "artletics" become a "new classic combo" in the mold of peanut butter and jelly.

Barbara Boissevain, a member of the city-sponsored Cubberley Studio Artist Program, suggested covering an exterior wall with large-scale prints from her continuing series of aerial photographs documenting the restoration of the South Bay salt ponds to their natural state. People are longing for positive environmental news in the region, she said, and seeing evidence could empower them to take action.

Elaine Jek proposed "Ariadne's Gift." Inspired by the Ancient Greek tale of Ariadne spinning a thread to lead Theseus out of the labyrinth, her project would involve the community helping to create a large, colorful cord decorated with meaningful objects connected to Cubberley. This cord would help connect the labyrinthine areas of the facility, where each room, she said, "is like its own little world." She brought a prototype that included feathers from birds at the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo (currently stationed at Cubberley) and silk ballet-slipper ribbons from Dance Connection.

Stanford University student Shirin Towfiq and Oakland artist Maggie Lawson drew cheers when they mentioned that they'd use part of the winning funds to pay themselves a stipend.

"You all value artistic labor," Lawson told the crowd, thanking them for supporting working artists. Their proposal, "My Family is Here Too," would bring together archival family photos and stories in a series of "intimate installations" at Cubberley, with the slogan, "Bring your personal life to work."

After a general secret-ballot vote, followed by a runoff against Jek, Martha Sakellariou and Jennifer Lee's "The Cubberley Project" was declared the victor.

Lee and Sakellariou envision an audio-visual installation that will share some of the "hidden" stories happening at Cubberley, which they called a "great source of human energy" within an anonymous-feeling facility. Not the tech-driven, "young, male billionaire" success stories the mainstream connects with Silicon Valley but the regular folks from all backgrounds who use Cubberley to play, work, teach and learn. Example slides showed courtyard displays of large photos and text along with headphones, so passersby can listen to people in their own voices and words.

"We will find and tell the stories of the people who offer their passion, skill, time and culture to serve the local community," Sakellariou told the Weekly.

Sakellariou's most recent installations used private Palo Alto homes as site-specific, interactive art spaces.

"The approach to 'The Cubberley Project' will be very similar but of a much bigger scale," she said. It would also, like Cubberley Stock, open with a great party. In addition to paying for materials, she and Lee added, they'd also use the funding for refreshments.

Before voting, attendees debated which proposals seemed most feasible, which weren't fleshed out enough and which best suited the site. Palo Alto Public Art Director Elise DeMarzo, who reached out to Walsh to bring the project to the Peninsula, expressed appreciation for the successful turnout as part of an effort "to make sure the arts stay central at Cubberley."

Sakellariou and Lee beamed at the evening's end, as Walsh handed them $1,680 in cash. "Our promise for a party is real!" Sakellariou said.

Winning is a great joy and honor, she later told the Weekly. "We are looking forward to collaborate with the people of Cubberley and City of Palo Alto to bring it to life."

The next Oakland Stock event will be held March 31. For more information, go to oaklandstock.tumblr.com.

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