A new nonprofit is now working to get thought-provoking art installed throughout the city of Menlo Park.

The nonprofit, called Menlo Park Public Art, was formally launched only weeks ago, and is led by Katharina Powers, owner of Art Ventures Gallery at 888 Santa Cruz Ave. in downtown Menlo Park.

At the Menlo Park City Council’s Oct. 15 meeting, Powers introduced the project and asked the council to put on its agenda a discussion about potentially installing an abstract sculpture in Fremont Park.

The council is scheduled to consider the proposal at its upcoming meeting on Nov. 5. According to a staff report, the initiative would be a pilot project and the Parks and Recreation Commission would be expected to weigh in on the proposal first before the matter is brought back to the City Council.

As its first project, the nonprofit is working with East Palo Alto-based sculptor Oleg Lobykin to set up a temporary installation of his 18-foot-tall “Talking Heads” sculpture, which was featured at Burning Man, an annual art festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, this year. Lobykin didn’t say how long he’d commit to having the art installation at Fremont Park, just that it would be for “some time.”

Councilwoman Catherine Carlton said that she was a fan of the sculpture and had climbed on it while she was at Burning Man in late August.

“It’s interesting timing, because I just spent last week at the Esalen Institute, with the CEO and art team for Burning Man talking about how art really folds into society,” she told Powers at the council meeting, offering to share insights from the experience about “how to best facilitate and activate art publicly.”

In an interview, Lobykin explained that he made the giant sculpture by first carving it by hand, then enlarging it, 3D scanning it, and then building another prototype of the sculpture. Eventually he built it in small pieces using stainless steel and sheet metal. The reflective surface enables viewers to see either themselves or their surroundings in distorted reflections.

Powers told The Almanac she’s working with City Manager Starla Jerome-Robinson to develop a contract between the artist and the city for placing public art, and is finding insurance for the sculpture.

The nonprofit has so far identified potential sites for art installations at Fremont Park; along Bayfront Expressway; on Sand Hill Road somewhere between the Rosewood Hotel and the Sharon Heights Golf & Country Club; at the west exit of Marsh Road where it intersects with U.S. 101; and at the Santa Cruz Avenue and El Camino Real intersection, near Café Borrone.

Its board is made up of Menlo Park residents: InMenlo co-founder and editor Linda Hubbard, architect Ana Williamson and photographer Mark Tuschman. Officers are Powers, the nonprofit’s CEO; Joan McLoughlin, secretary; and Liz Mayta, treasurer. Mayor Ray Mueller is listed as an adviser to the nonprofit.

Defining public art

At an event held at Art Ventures Gallery on Oct. 22, Powers hosted a discussion with the artist currently showing his work there, Ryan Carrington, to talk about some of his experiences with creating public art.

Carrington’s work focuses on the symbols of working-class America. He teaches sculpture at Santa Clara University, and before that he was a faculty member at San Jose State University.

He and colleague Steve Davis are the artists responsible for the 19 life-size sculptures of children playing that add whimsy and visual interest to the Guadalupe River Parkway trail in San Jose.

According to Carrington, the San Jose chapter of the Rotary Club commissioned the first five figures in 2012. Later, in 2016, an additional 14 figures were commissioned through a gift from the San Jose Water Company.

But public art can be about more than a statue in a park, Powers argued.

What principles should apply? As she sees it, art doesn’t have to be beautiful. You don’t have to like it. It should make you stop and think. It can be whimsical and kid-friendly; it doesn’t have to have to scream a serious, intellectual message. It can serve other purposes: creative bike racks, signs, interesting benches and filling empty flower boxes count too, and are among the nonprofit’s goals for smaller projects to enliven downtown.

One of the challenges is just how much leverage committees should get in deciding what constitutes public art. Powers said she’s hoping to establish a diverse group made up of locals to weigh in on each project, promoting public buy-in but not dictating creativity. By making the installations temporary, it’ll be OK if someone doesn’t like a piece; they won’t be stuck looking at it forever and may like the next one better, she argued.

“Good art is good art, whether you like it or not,” Carrington added.

As a teacher, he said, he often hears students say “I don’t get art” or, “I’m not an artist,” but he said that today, all people are consumers and make daily choices about aesthetics. Seeing a new group forming to promote art – however that’s defined – and hoping to “make space better” is an exciting thing, he said.

However, temporary installations can create their own challenges, he said. Commissioning art can be expensive, and making sure artists are fairly compensated should be an important consideration, he emphasized. A $40,000 art commission may sound like a lot, but by the time the artist spends six months to make it and a good third of the commission on materials and fabrication costs, it doesn’t leave much for the artist to live on, he explained, citing an example of a public art project done elsewhere in California.

How the project will be funded is another question.

In 2002, the city initiated a “1% for the arts” program for commercial projects over $1 million, but it was discontinued in 2004 after local business owners, including the owners of 7-Eleven and the Chevron station, opposed it. The entire Arts Commission resigned in protest and there hasn’t been another since.

A 1% carve-out for arts funding has enabled large-scale art projects, particularly at large-scale developments. As Carrington summed up: “One percent of a lot is … a lot.” For example, the public art at the San Francisco International Airport belongs to the collection of the San Francisco Arts Commission, which is funded, in part, by a 1%-for-the-arts program that requires developers to either contribute accepted art or pay into a public art trust fund at a value equal to 1% of project costs.

Without that, the nonprofit will have to figure out other funding sources.

Powers explained in an email to The Almanac that, “My job as the CEO of the nonprofit is to raise money, get donations and offer companies and citizens naming possibilities, plaques to put their name on to be part of public art. I would like to see all companies on Sand Hill Road participate.”

“In order to do this we have to educate people about the importance of public art, how it can ignite imagination, start a conversation and be a positive part for our community,” she continued. “Art expands what it is to be human.” 

Go to menloparkpublicart.org to see the full list of preferred locations for artwork and a growing list of artists interested in showing their work in Menlo Park.

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