Editor’s note: The original article was updated following the meeting of the Public Art Commission on June 16:
The Public Art Commission voted unanimously Thursday night to begin the process of removing the Midtown Poetry Wall from Palo Alto’s permanent public art collection.
The Poetry Wall, a series of six painted murals at 2605 Middlefield Road in Midtown Palo Alto, is in need of repairs, and city staff had recommended that the wall be “disposed of,” meaning the murals would be repaired as temporary works of art but could eventually be destroyed.
The commission also approved, as part of Commissioner Ben Miyaji’s motion, that the staff propose an “Option C” in addition to two proposals for temporary repairs to the wall. This option would consider a dialogue with the community to possibly replace the Poetry Wall with another temporary art installation.
The committee’s vote to initiate the divestiture process triggers the statutory deadline in which staff must give the public and stakeholders 90 days to be notified and submit comments. In October, the commission will discuss and vote on whether to officially remove the murals from the city’s collection and designate them as temporary art. Repairs would begin to refurbish the murals.
Depending on the method of repair, the murals could last another two to 10 years, giving the community time to discuss what they want to see on the site if they want a different mural, said Elise DeMarzo, director of the public art program.
The staff were alerted by the building owner that the murals were damaged and they wanted to see them refurbished or have something else put in their place. The owner remains committed to allowing the wall to feature an art exhibit, DeMarzo said.
Staff claimed in a report that the murals should be disposed of as long-term maintenance is impossible.
The total cost to repair the poetry mural would be $23,120 to $28,530, according to the staff report.
“Given the underlying challenges of the site and the findings presented in state of the art conservation specialist reports, the continued impact of a high degree of ultraviolet exposure and the ongoing expense to maintain the mural in the future, staff will recommend that commissioners initiate the disposal procedures outlined in the City’s Artwork Disposal Policy prior to restoring the murals as works. temporary art,” they wrote.
Residents said the poetry wall is the only one of its kind in the city and one of the few works of art in the Midtown commercial area, and they want it to be preserved.
“Midtown always seems to be the poor son-in-law of the city in terms of funding,” said Annette Glanckopf, a longtime Midtown Residents Association leader who opposes alienation. She noted the city’s investments in numerous murals and artwork located in areas such as California Avenue.
“We don’t have a poetry wall anywhere in the city. Midtown is an eclectic neighborhood. It’s a unique piece of art, and the concept was unique. It’s very easy to paint on it if not more official,” Glanckopf said. .
The six murals on the Poetry Wall each consist of a short poem stencilled onto a different background painted on the south-facing exterior wall of the Walgreens building at the Midtown Mall. In 2002, the Public Art Commission and the Midtown Residents Association formed an art committee with local poet Elizabeth Biller Chapman and launched a community poetry contest for people residing, working, or attending school in Palo Alto and Stanford.
Ron LeBlanc, Amelia Saliba Long, Elizabeth Ray Mittmann, Liz Cowie, Sharon Olson and Janice Dabney were the six finalists chosen from more than 100 applicants to have their poems, which are 30 words or less and pay tribute to the community, highlighted. on the wall. First-place runner-up LeBlanc took home $250 and second-place winners received $100 each.
The initial project was intended as a temporary exhibition of the five second-place poems, which were to be printed on vinyl and exhibited for six months. LeBlanc’s first-place poem was to be painted as a mural afterwards, according to the staff report.
But the vinyl panels proved too expensive, with offers ranging between $13,000 and $15,000. The commission decided to paint the six poem murals directly onto the 120-by-6-foot wall in 2003, according to the staff report.
In 2010, however, the murals appeared to be in generally poor condition with large areas of paint discoloration, bleaching, and discoloration, according to the staff report. The city hired a contractor to repaint the murals for $10,135 in 2012.
The restorations, however, did not last.
In 2021, the city hired Preservation Arts, a fine art conservation specialist based in the Bay Area, to appraise the murals. The consultant discovered that the paint and the latex coating of the wall paints act as a polymeric “film”, preventing the evaporation of water in the wall, which caused water damage. The murals also suffered extensive damage from UV rays.
“Extensive conservation treatment would be required to stabilize and restore the murals, however, the treatment cannot prevent future cracking, blistering and loss of paint in new areas, and problems are likely to be persistent,” said noted the evaluation of Preservation Arts.
The water problem must be fixed in the wall before the conservation treatment is carried out, otherwise it is likely that the murals will need maintenance every few years to repair new damaged areas, according to the assessment. .
The stabilization, cleaning and visual repair of the murals cost between $12,635 and $13,650.
The commissioners held a special meeting on November 4, during which they studied the state of the arts preservation report, reviewed the funds committed for the maintenance of the poetry murals between 2003 and 2021 and took into consideration of public comments. Staff said the city spent $19,465 on the project, starting with cash prizes to poets and for all repairs and appraisals.
In their report, City staff concluded that the only appropriate way to proceed with repairing the murals would be to completely remove them and stabilize/prime the wall at an estimated cost of $10,580. The city would then have two options: completely replicate the Poetry Wall by repainting the murals (cost estimate: $14,957-$17,950), with an expected life cycle of 7-10 years; or reproduce the murals on adhesive aluminum at an estimated cost of $12,540, with an expected life cycle of two to three years.
The staff would return to the commission to seek approval of funds for the reproduction of the poetry murals as temporary works of art. Funds from the Art in Public Places Capital Improvement Plan would be used to recreate the murals.
DeMarzo said if the murals remain in the city’s permanent art collection, the department could repair them with its fund, but that would use up most of the $30,000 maintenance budget they have for all. projects throughout the year.
“It’s really a question of accounting,” Commissioner Hsinya Shen noted of the difference between the use of funds from the capital improvement plan, which would not be taken from the maintenance budget.
The commission will return to the subject at its October meeting and could formally vote on the transfer proposal.