After placing a Palo Alto public art program on the budgetary chopping block earlier this year, the City Council had a change of heart on Monday and agreed that the city cannot afford to lose the whimsy and creativity that it brings to local streets and buildings.
The "percent-for-art" program, which requires public and private projects to dedicate 1% of their budgets to art, has been a fixture in Palo Alto in one form or another since 2005. Its impact can be seen all over the city, from the silver owls guarding the Mitchell Park Library entrance to the bright fish swimming on the crosswalk on Louis Road and Fielding Drive to the wheeled bench known as the "Welcome Wagon" in front of the new fire station at Rinconada Park.
Initially limited to public projects, the program was expanded in 2014 to also include private developments. The following year, the city changed the rules yet again to allow projects to contribute funding into an art fund, rather than installation of the pieces.
In late May, however, the council was considering its most extreme revision yet: suspending the program while the city wrestles with the budgetary impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic recession. By a 4-3 vote, the council directed staff on May 26 to return with a proposal that would suspend it for two years as part of its strategy to balance the books at a time when the city was facing a projected deficit of $40 million.
On Monday, the council reversed course and unanimously agreed that the program should continue uninterrupted.
The past year has been, in many ways, exceptional for the program, which has received about $1 million in city funds largely because of two major infrastructure projects: a parking garage that is now nearing completion on Sherman Avenue and the new public safety building, which is slated to go up on a parking lot adjacent to the new garage. The art for the public safety building, a series of digital installations by artist Peter Wagner, accounted for about $700,000 in spending.
In typical years, the city spends between $30,000 and $50,000 for the public art program, according to a memo from the city's Public Arts Commission, which strongly recommended keeping the requirement in place. A suspension, the commission stated in a memo to the council, will require the program to lay off staff and "limit the ability of the program to respond to current events."
"It will reduce the development of art that draws on visitors to commercial corridors," the memo states. "It will reduce the opportunities for city residents and visitors to gather, at safe distance, and to celebrate our shared resilience and space."
Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who was a strong supporter of keeping the program in May, once again made the case for retaining funding for public art. She credited the city's public art program for injecting "whimsy and fun" into Palo Alto.
"All over town, we see art, we argue about it, we fight about it, we admire it and it's such a great conversation piece," Kniss said. "I can't imagine what we were thinking, that we thought about not continuing it."
Her colleagues generally agreed. Vice Mayor Tom DuBois, who in May supported suspending the program, said that the budget picture appears to have stabilized since last summer, when the city made deep budget cuts. Councilman Greg Tanaka, who had often derided the proposed art for the new public safety building, referring to it as "a fingerprint," was somewhat more skeptical and pointed to the city's recent budget cuts, which resulted in fewer firefighting positions, elimination of the city shuttle and a revision of the city's Cubberley Community Center lease, which reduced the city's contribution to the Palo Alto Unified School District.
"We're cutting to the bone on some of these things," Tanaka said.
Despite his misgivings, Tanaka joined the rest of the council in a unanimous vote to maintain the program, which has brought in about $1.68 million from private developers since 2014, according to city staff.
Mayor Adrian Fine and Councilwoman Alison Cormack, who opposed cuts to the program in May, reiterated their support for keeping it intact. Cormack pointed to the Black Lives Matter mural that the city commissioned from 16 artists in June, a project that she said "provoked some very difficult conversations and a lot of learning."
"None of that would have happened without the art. … That was actually a big deal for our community and it did exactly what it was supposed to do," Cormack said.
Fine said it's important that Palo Alto continue to "have a little bit of whimsy."
"This is what some of the art program brings to us," Fine said. "It's largely self-funding and it supports some real joy and education in Palo Alto."