Citing budget challenges, Palo Alto is preparing to shelve a long-standing policy that requires city projects to include public art components such as sculptures, murals and digital displays.
The "percent-for-art" policy, which the City Council adopted in 2013 and which it expanded in 2014 to cover a greater breadth of projects, requires the city to spend 1% of the budget for a capital project on public art. Initially reserved mostly for new buildings, the policy was revised in 2014 to also cover new parks, landscaping projects, bridges, walls, tunnels and streets.
The council also will consider suspending a 2013 law that requires private developments to abide by the percent-for-art policy.
The council directed staff by a 4-3 vote on May 26 to return with an ordinance that would suspend the art requirement for private developments for two years. Staff will also bring back a policy that would freeze the percent-for-art program for municipal projects for the same duration. Mayor Adrian Fine, Councilwoman Alison Cormack and Councilwoman Liz Kniss all dissented.
The council's decision was spurred by the city's projected budget deficit of about $40 million in fiscal year 2021. To balance the books, the council agreed on May 26 to tentatively approve a budget that cuts more than 70 full-time positions at City Hall and slashes spending on everything from park maintenance and libraries to art programs and city-run shuttles.
Over a series of budget hearings in May, many residents urged the council to spare some of the more popular community services, including art and teen programs, and to look for cost savings in some of the city's major capital projects. Some residents and council members pointed to the roughly $716,000 that the city has earmarked for art installations at the city's public safety building, the most ambitious project on the infrastructure list. Construction on the $115-million police headquarters at 350 Sherman Ave. is set to launch immediately after workers finish building the new parking garage at an adjacent lot at 250 Sherman Ave.
Councilman Greg Tanaka was among those who questioned the need for the new art. In the case of the police building, the art component consists of three installations created by the artist Peter Wegner, each of which reflects on a function of police operations. Among them is "Chance Impression," which consists of thousands of red thumbtacks that form the shape of a giant fingerprint.
"I think right now, during extraordinary times, when we're looking to lay people off, when we are looking to cut a lot of the services that our community values — to me it just seems to be the right move," Tanaka said, referring to the suspension of the public art program. "If you ask the community, 'Would you rather have a $750,000 fingerprint or fund the art center?' I think most community members would probably want to fund the art center.
The question is largely moot, given that the city had already commissioned the artwork and that Wegner had already completed it. Kou lamented the fact that the money was spent well before construction had begun on the public safety building.
"There is some concern that while we're in this emergency period, that money might have been something we could have used in order to address some of the problems we have," Kou said.
Vice Mayor Tom DuBois cited the budget crunch when he proposed freezing the program for two years and having a check-in in the middle of the next fiscal year.
"For city projects, this is potentially money we can use to do other things," DuBois said.
Other council members were less enthusiastic about reducing funding for the public-art program, which Kniss said is a "baked-in part of our culture."
Just about every major project that the city has pursued over the past decade has had a significant art component. These range in styles from "Arpeggio V," a jagged arch sculpture that was designed by Bruce Beasley for the recently rebuilt Mitchell Park library, and "Confluence," a bronze fountain sculpture by Michael Szabo that went up as part of a recent upgrade of the California Avenue streetscape, to Damon Belanger's "Go with the Flow" — a school of painted fish on a raised crosswalk at Louis Road and Fielding Avenue.
"I don't want us to get in the habit of being out of the habit," Kniss said. "I doubt that it will really be a major problem in the next couple of years, in any event."
Councilwoman Alison Cormack agreed with Kniss and suggested that if the city pauses the program, it may never restart it.
"If we get out of the habit it will be really hard to get back in," Cormack said. "There are many things that make us special. I think the public art around town is definitely one of them."