'Project Los Altos' moves on

Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
San Francisco residents Kate Haug and Ivan Uranga, with their son, make an artistic statement as they stroll over artist Jessica Stockholder’s “Cross Hatch” on State Street.

As blossoms emerge from buds, a colorful street painting at State and Fourth streets remains nearly unaltered by the change of seasons. The first project unveiled for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s “Project Los Altos,” Jessica Stockholder’s vibrant street painting will soon disappear as the community’s rendezvous with modern art comes to an end.

“The exhibit was another thing that brought the town together,” said Los Altos Hills resident Julia Leighton. “It took guts for SFMOMA to leap to little Los Altos to do this.”

After 114 days and more than 20,000 visitors, “Project Los Altos” bid farewell March 2. Just one day after closing, the giant inflatable question mark at Village Park was packed up and hauled away. By Thursday, SFMOMA representatives said the playful doors installed at Lincoln Park and the photo and video installations at four State Street storefronts would be disassembled and other sites returned to their original states.

“At a time when SFMOMA is undergoing a transformation, it was exciting to take a nontraditional exhibition approach by siting contemporary art within the fabric of Los Altos’ downtown, treasure-hunt style, where the works could either be sought out or just discovered,” said Janet Bishop, SFMOMA’s curator of painting and sculpture, who helped coordinate “Project Los Altos” and other installations for “SFMOMA on the Go,” the temporary exhibits traveling while the museum undergoes renovation.

Starting a dialogue

When the city of Los Altos, Passerelle Investment Co. and SFMOMA joined forces to produce the collaboration last year, Los Altos not only became the canvas for a giant creative experiment by SFMOMA, but also the palette from which commissioned artists derived inspiration for their work. Exemplifying one of the reasons modern art is difficult to define, the creative interpretations that materialized were as diverse in content as each of the six participating artists.

Some artists created work that reflected the technology and science that thrives in the region: Spencer Finch took inspiration from scientific innovators to create a colorful grid that showcased the range of human perception; Christian Jankowski highlighted tech-speak in a series of talks by community members; and Mike Mills merged Los Altos’ history and predictions for the future in his mixed-media installation.

Taking the prompt more literally, Stockholder translated the triangular shape of downtown streets into an abstract pavement painting, “Cross Hatch,” that protruded into the sidewalk. SFMOMA’s visitor supervisor Travis Warren, who was onsite for most of the exhibit, said the piece provoked a healthy mix of responses from guests, as well as a fair number of questions.

“It started dialogue on what is art, what is public art,” said Warren, adding that nine out of 10 people reacted positively to the piece. “This was a perfect example of why we are doing outreach.”

Other artists turned the tables, reflecting the culture of Los Altos. Katerina Sedá’s “Everything Is Perfect” project accentuated the competitive spirit she observed in Los Altos. In a bit of a juxtaposition, she invited visitors to submit “ordinary” records for the “Los Altos World Record Book.”

While early efforts to solicit community participation were challenging for Sedá, who advertised in the Town Crier, posted flyers to telephone poles and reached out to local schools, she recorded more than 250 entries by the deadline. A May 5 ceremony is scheduled to award certificates and copies of the “Los Altos World Record Book” to participants.

“Even as some have expressed that they may not fully understand or appreciate some of the works, in the same breath they have noted that contemporary art, while often challenging, is nevertheless a welcome new experience that stimulates dialogue and a new way of looking at downtown Los Altos,” said Brooke Ray Smith, Passerelle’s community development director.

National exposure

Los Altos experienced its 15 minutes of fame. From mentions in The Wall Street Journal and on the online Daily Beast to feature pieces by KTVU TV 2 and the San Francisco Chronicle, buzz abounded. “Project Los Altos” videos on the museum’s website generated more than 32,000 views.

“The positive community response and engagement have been the biggest benefits as far as the city of Los Altos is concerned,” said Erica Ray, the city’s public information coordinator. “The project also brought a lot of new visitors to town that would likely not have visited otherwise.”  

As streams of visitors trekked downtown for the exhibit, some businesses benefited. The Assistance League of Los Altos’ Costume Bank at 169 State St. experienced a notable uptick in visitors during the show. Designer and filmmaker Mills intentionally selected the Costume Bank to host his “Project Los Altos” creation in homage to the area’s historical transition.

“As a nonprofit business, it was huge … You could have never paid for this amount of publicity,” said Catherine Taylor, head of marketing for the Assistance League.

To accommodate visitors, the shop asked its all-volunteer staff to work additional hours. Taylor noted that the rewards far outweighed the inconveniences.

“We’ll miss Mike Mills, SFMOMA and the staff,” she said. “We spent a lot of time together sharing our lives – young and old.”

A community affair

The community supplemented the exhibit with a variety of creative initiatives. The Los Altos History Museum sponsored a juried exhibition, Linden Tree Books opened its doors to youth art programming, the Los Altos Library hosted lectures by SFMOMA docents and local businesses welcomed new visitors to town during First Fridays. The Town Crier got in on the act by collaborating with SFMOMA and encouraging readers’ creativity via a series of do-it-yourself prompts, “Let’s Do This!”

Passerelle invites local residents to weigh in on “Project Los Altos” by completing the Los Altos Visitors Survey at Local businesses can complete a survey at

SFMOMA Project Los Altos - Photos by Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier

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