Fifteen years ago, Menlo Park's entire Arts Commission resigned in protest of a City Council decision, and the commission has been dormant ever since. Now, efforts are underway to launch a new nonprofit dedicated to public art in Menlo Park. The shift in the type of organization aimed at supporting public arts raises the question: Who pays for public art?
A meeting was held recently between Katharina Powers, who runs Art Ventures Gallery, Menlo Park Mayor Ray Mueller and several other artists in Menlo Park to talk through the idea of a nonprofit focused on public art in the city.
"This is a really, really big milestone for the city," Powers said, referring to the effort. "We are all happy it's finally starting."
According to Mueller, the idea is based on the model of Menlo Spark, an environmental nonprofit that works within Menlo Park to support and advise the city on what can be done to minimize negative environmental impacts in the community.
Nonprofits don't require dedicated city staff and can use private funds more easily than a city commission can, he noted.
The idea is that the nonprofit might develop and bring projects to the city, and could then individually work through whether and how to support such projects.
"I think this is the right model," Mueller said.
Other members of the fledgling group are local artists Susan Dunlap, who developed the rock art installation at the "Great Spirit Path" at Bedwell Bayfront Park; Oleg Lobykin, a sculptor who has completed work for Stanford and around the U.S.; and muralist Florence De Bretagne, who has painted a mural at Oak Knoll School and has an upcoming show in France.
The group will begin developing a mission statement and initiating the paperwork to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, according to Mueller, and could begin working with the council as soon as this month, Powers said.
Powers said she hopes the nonprofit can help meet what she sees as an absence of public art in the community. "It makes a big difference when you see a wall painted with meaningful artwork," she said. "It lifts up."
There are a number of places and types of public art the nonprofit could explore, Powers said. Fremont Park or alongside Sand Hill Road or Bayfront Expressway are areas she suggested, but she's open to hearing other ideas. In fact, she's putting out a request to the community for recommendations for where public art should go in the city. Send your ideas to her at email@example.com.
Murals or sculptures at schools can help inspire kids to create their own art or think differently. Sculptors could help design play structures for kids on public land, Powers said. There's also the need for funding to support the maintenance of public art, she added. The Great Spirit Path needs to be maintained as well.
The commission's demise
The question of who pays for public art has been a fraught one in Menlo Park's history. There was a short window, between 2002 and 2004, when the city required developers to pay. Then, in November 2004, the City Council voted 3-2 to end the arts law, which had required developers who build or renovate anything at a cost of over $1 million to use 1% of the project's construction costs for on-site public art. The entire Arts Commission resigned as a result of the council action.
In the two years the law was in effect, the law's loudest critics were small business owners John Conway, who owns Menlo Chevron, and Milton Borg, who owns the 7-Eleven building.
Former Menlo Park councilwoman Lee Duboc, who voted to repeal the law, explained to The Almanac that the city's finances at the time were in a different condition than they are now. The City Council was considering cutting staff, assessing a utility users tax and privatizing city services to save money, and it seemed there were more pressing demands for public dollars than public art, she explained.
"We ended it not because we're against public art," she said. Small business owners said the law was onerous to comply with, and the effort yielded results that were "just kind of hodgepodge," she said. "We didn't want to discourage small businesses from doing business in our city."
For years, some have asked that the city's Arts Commission be reactivated, but to no avail. Jim Lewis, president of the Menlo Park Historical Association, has periodically peppered the City Council's email inbox with requests to reinstate the commission, stating that many California cities have art commissions, including Palo Alto and Redwood City.
Generally, concerns have been raised that such an effort requires a significant time investment by city staff, and staff resources are needed elsewhere.
Duboc commented that even if a nonprofit runs the arts program, staff will likely still have to spend time reviewing proposals. "It's going to involve staff time, it just is," she said.
Betty and Ted Ullman, who helped to lead the transition of Atherton's Arts Commission to its current state as a foundation but are no longer on the foundation board, explained that there are pros and cons that come with supporting community arts through a foundation rather than as a public, local government-supported group.
Even when Atherton's arts efforts were run through a town commission, they were paid for by a private funding source, the trust of longtime Atherton resident Rita Corbett Evans, who deeded her home to the town for the purpose of creating a "creative design program," according to the foundation's website. Those funds are running low but have been a stable funding source for many years, the Ullmans explained.
On the positive side, Ted Ullman noted, by transitioning the organization to a foundation structure, it doesn't have to deal with the red tape that a public commission might. The foundation board doesn't have to follow strict meeting agendas though the downside of this is that meetings can quickly veer off-topic, he added.
On the negative side, he said, forming a foundation takes a lot of paperwork and an attorney and comes with annual financial reporting requirements.
While it's easy enough to find people to sit on boards, he said it's been a challenge to find people willing to volunteer and work hard to support the foundation, which doesn't have any paid staff members.
Betty Ullman, the foundation's founder, suggested that Menlo Park consider partnering with Atherton for its arts nonprofit.
"We don't need more organizations, we need more people in a more viable organization," Ted Ullman added.