Editor's Notebook: Master plan not artfully coming together

I was disappointed in the Los Altos City Council’s reaction to the Public Art Master Plan put before council members last November. Other than then-Mayor Mary Prochnow, it appears that the current council doesn’t see the value of public art.

Officially, the council opted to “receive” the plan as opposed to endorsing it, despite committing $50,000 a year earlier to implement it.

The plan, prepared by consultant Designing Local Ltd., was well done, overseen by members of the Public Arts Commission. It offered the city a wide range of options, from establishing a part-time staff position to oversee public art installations to forming a nonprofit organization with a mission to seek private funding for public art.

Council members took a skeptical, glass-half-empty approach to the plan. They took issue with funding a part-time position, claiming that it wasn’t a funding priority. Fair enough. But what exactly were their expectations when they committed to the plan?

Not coincidentally, I think, two members of the arts commission resigned last month. That’s an understandable reaction when the council wastes a year of your time and effort on a plan to nowhere.

Los Altos City Manager Chris Jordan is trying to corral council members and the remaining members of the Public Arts Commission for a meeting next month or in March to determine whether parts of the master plan can be salvaged. Council members were most interested in ideas that didn’t cost money, such as forming a nonprofit group – but even that requires “resources,” i.e., money, to get it up and running.

The council also had trouble with the idea of developers paying fees to install public art. Rather than study best practices in other cities, council members expressed concern that a proposed developer investment of 1 percent of the cost of a project for public art would drive them away. The proposal called for art elements, such as fountains, incorporated into projects, up to 1 percent of the project’s cost.

Consultant Amanda Golden told council members that public art fees did not prevent developers from building.

“In fact,” she said, “it encourages them to continue to develop in those cities (that have such fees) because people are paying more because of the art – we know that. We know the impact the investment in art makes in our cities.”

Some of the other cities cited by the consultant were too big, the council said, and thus not representative of Los Altos. This amounted to looking for reasons not to approve the plan. Emeryville, cited in the report, has a population of little more than 10,000. It has both a part-time position dedicated to public art and a developer fee program in place.

There’s been a lot of talk about boosting the vibrancy of downtown. A recent community survey the city commissioned revealed that most people polled were all for it. I believe that public art plays a role in enhancing that vibrancy. You can’t tell me the 2013 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s traveling exhibition around downtown, with its pop-up galleries and installations, didn’t stir a bit of excitement.

Among the many things that separate us from other animals on the planet is our need to go beyond just functioning. Our souls crave stimuli that inspire us for reasons that escape logic. That is where art and music come in.

Picture a downtown without any public art. Are we better off without it?

I think not. But if your answer is yes, I suggest attending an art appreciation class – our council members could certainly benefit from the experience.

Bruce Barton is editor-in-chief of the Town Crier.

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The Town Crier welcomes letters to the editor on current events pertinent to Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Mountain View. Write to us at 138 Main St., Los Altos 94022, Attn: Editor, or email editor Bruce Barton at bruceb@latc.com. Because editorial space is limited, please confine letters to no more than 200 words. Include a phone number for verification purposes. Anonymous letters will not be printed.

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