"If you build it, they will come" is an idea rarely applied to art, but it's a key part of the philosophy of Elevate Art Menlo Park, a new nonprofit looking to bring more public art — and with it, more visitors — to downtown Menlo Park.
The group aims to use public art to enliven the area and help create a more welcoming atmosphere, in part building on the growth of outdoor dining and other public spaces in downtown that was spurred by the pandemic.
The members of Elevate Art Menlo Park are hoping to entice visitors to come downtown and stay a while, rather than run an errand and quickly depart, according to Dana Hendrickson, who started Elevate Art Menlo Park last year and leads other community efforts to boost downtown Menlo Park. Hendrickson also writes a blog, "Creating a More Vibrant Menlo Park," featured at almanacnews.com.
"We want it to be an uplifting experience. You go down there and say, 'Things are different. They're changing.' I wanted to make the town more beautiful and people can get engaged by art. It gives them a reason to go," he said.
Elevate Art Menlo Park unveiled its first project in October, a mural placed on the Menlo Church Student Center, facing Santa Cruz Avenue. The piece, called "Under The Wide Sky We Gather," is a colorful, highly detailed work by Oakland-based artist Carrie Lederer.
Rather than painted directly on the wall, the mural was printed on a vinyl wrap for cost-effective and easy installation, according to Elevate Art Menlo Park Art Director Christine Duval, who said Lederer created the image itself through a process of layering and combining watercolor paintings and digital prints. The finished image was then printed onto vinyl to create the mural. The bright palette and abstract, almost otherworldly subject made it well-suited for a public art piece.
"This is totally what Carrie's work is about: different kinds of worlds and imagination, happy colors and light and discovery," Duval said.
For upcoming projects, the group will continue to focus on murals at present, she said.
In the next few weeks, Hendrickson said, the group will "officially" kick off with an announcement of its formation. But in a sense, "Under The Wide Sky We Gather'' is a bit of a soft opening for Elevate Art Menlo Park, to show what the group plans to accomplish.
"We really took it upon ourselves to do the first one. We had the artist and Menlo Church was super generous right away and excited about the idea. So we went full force and fast with it, because we understood that in order to ask money from other people, they need to see what we can do. So hopefully that's going to make people excited and wanting to contribute," Duval said.
Elevate Art Menlo Park follows a grassroots public art model, placing art created for the public on privately owned land, and relying on private donations to fund the work.
The model may be gaining a bit of traction on the Midpeninsula. Another organization, Arts Los Altos, formed in 2019, is following the same strategy to bring murals and sculptures to downtown Los Altos.
Hendrickson said that the members of Arts Los Altos have compared notes, shared ideas and "war stories" with the members of Elevate Art Menlo Park. Both groups are also members of Intersection for the Arts, a nonprofit that provides financial sponsorships and other resources for artists and the arts community.
The public art-private land model bypasses city channels to partner with businesses and property owners in placing the art, with the aim of avoiding the often lengthy planning and approval process that accompanies taxpayer-funded public art projects administered by cities.
"That's how I got interested in trying to take things in our (own) hands with, of course, the support of the community, and as much as we can with the city, but it seems to be the only way we could move forward," Duval said.
She was one of a number of community members to step forward last spring when Hendrickson put out a call in the "Creating a More Vibrant Menlo Park" blog, seeking volunteers to join an effort to, as Hendrickson described it, "help make downtown a stronger place."
The result of that call to action was the creation of Elevate Art Menlo Park, which has a team made up of Hendrickson, who handles marketing and strategy; Duval, who finds artists to work with and manages the mural projects: and Debbie Hall, who is the group's community liaison, working with local businesses and property owners to find potential partners to place murals.
"I just came to the conclusion that if you want to make change, you need to get residents engaged as volunteers. The city is very operational in its perspective and it does that stuff pretty well," Hendrickson said, noting that in his view, city leadership doesn't necessarily have the "bandwidth" for new programs outside of the essentials.
Hendrickson expressed hopes that the team may grow modestly as other projects arise. For instance, in addition to two murals that are in the works, he said that Elevate Art Menlo Park is exploring bringing pop-up art shows during the warmer months to the de facto community plaza that has been established on the 600 block of Santa Cruz Avenue — a plaza that the Menlo Park City Council this week decided to permit indefinitely.
Since the closure of that area to vehicle traffic, the block has hosted events such as the weekly Bon Marché European-inspired market and Sunday concerts by a local high school band.
"Using the plaza for small-scale, or small venue entertainment, and social things and relaxation, I think that has a whole lot of promise," Hendrickson said.
And though he noted that the architecture of downtown Menlo Park overall is not particularly distinctive, bringing more art to the area could raise its profile and make it more of a draw, especially as the city gains more residents with two large developments, Stanford's Middle Plaza and Springline, set to open.
"With music and fine art, we could really make it have an ambience that (inspires people to think) 'hey, this is fun to be here and I'm proud of this,'" he said.
For more information, visit elevateartmp.org.