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Kibosh Put on Picture Icons for Streetlight Poles, Again

After three former El Cerrito mayors and other residents sharply criticized proposed picture icons for San Pablo Avenue streetlight poles at a public hearing Thursday night, the Arts and Culture Commission reaffirmed its earlier rejection of the designs.

Thursday night at El Cerrito City Hall saw a resounding thumbs down, for the second time, for a proposal to mount the largest public art project in city history — large colorful images of people and objects on 50 streetlight poles the length of San Pablo Avenue.

Following a public hearing in which no member of the public spoke in favor of the idea, the Arts and Culture Commission reaffirmed its . The panel discussed whether to terminate the $100,000 contract with the two Berkeley artists commissioned to do the work, Jonathan Russell and Saori Ide, but opted to ask them to return in September with an alternative design for art on the streetlight poles.

The commission's action followed in which 10 people, including three former El Cerrito mayors, spoke, with no one calling for keeping the proposed images that were criticized as resembling clip art and not representative of El Cerrito. The city also received five written comments from citizens before the hearing, all critical of the designs.

The artists said their proposal had followed the guidance they received from the commission over several months, but that they would nevertheless be happy to return with a new approach in keeping with the commission's request for work that is "abstract" and made of copper or metal.

The rejected icons would have been steel plate, painted with boldly colored images, but several commissioners expressed dislike of the bold colors.

Sandi Potter, an artist and former mayor who was on the City Council when it approved the contract with Russell and Ide, said the designs developed by the artists did not fulfill the promise she saw in their proposal.

"The artistic vision never blossomed," she said. She suggested that the contract be terminated and that the city use the remaining $75,000 for a project by a different artist, possibly a mural on the or other art project. The artists have already received $25,000 for design work, and under the contract, that fee is theirs to keep and is also supposed to cover an alternative design if the first design is not approved by the commission.

Another former mayor, Letitia Moore, also urged termination of the contract.

"The images appear cookie-cutter and could be found anywhere in the United States," Moore said. She said also that the designs "don't reflect the community that we live in. The El Cerrito community is interesting, intelligent, warm, creative and quirky. We're deserving of something much more sophisticated and engaging, rather than characters on a stick."

Former Mayor Ken Berndt questioned the process and allocation of funds, and Ron Egherman, chair of the city's Environmental Quality Committee and a former art museum administrator, suggested that 50 small pieces would dilute the artistic significance that could be achieved by focusing on a much smaller number of works.

"When I saw the icons online, I was appalled," said Rosemary Young, an El Cerrito resident for two decades. "I've raised four children here and gone through many school workbooks with them, and the icons reminded me of all the illustrations in their school workbooks."

Others said the bold colors and simple pictures did not blend well with the earth tones and natural look of San Pablo Avenue's newly renovated streetscape.

Four of the five commissioners voiced similar criticisms of the work, in line with comments at their April meeting, when the panel voted 5-0 to ask the artists to come back with a different approach. That vote was , who cited attorney opinions saying the commission could act only after the artists made a formal presentation at a public hearing. The Thursday night hearing was meant to allow the commission to act properly.

Thomas Halasz was the lone commissioner to speak in favor of the proposed designs.

"I disagree with all of the comments from the public, which I believe are often very facile in their criticism," he said. "I think these icons do not need to blend into the environment — they would be invisible. ... I agree with the artists' concept that using these bold colors will make them stand out."

"People talk about how it doesn't seem — in their opinion — express the unique nature of El Cerrito," Halasz continued. "Tell me what that is. Is any town really that unique? And whose uniqueness is it supposed to represent?"

He said also that the designs had been refined by the artists following commission feedback and that he was "a bit dismayed" when the commission rejected the designs in April.

One of the artists, Russell, told the commission, "Those images are your ideas. We took them from you."

Commission Chair Joyce Hawley offered a different view of the commission's feedback, saying, "The commission at almost every meeting suggested to the artists that they change in some fashion or another, which was I think a sign of discontent with what we were seeing, ... and we'd see effectively the same icon a month later."

Commissioner Ed Franco acknowledged in retrospect that the commission could have communicated more forthrightly. "I think we have done a disservice to the artists." He cited the commission's "inability to articulate amongst ourselves what we were trying to achieve," and said the panel's dissatisfaction may not have been effectively conveyed. "Being too nice, we couldn't communicate that in a forceful enough matter to get our ideas across."

Following Thursday's public hearing, the commission voted 4-1, with the Halasz dissenting, to disapprove the proposed designs. Those voting in favor were Nancy Donovan and Paul Lupinsky, in addition to Franco and Hawley. The panel then voted 5-0 to ask the artists to develop an alternative along the following criteria:

Abstract
Copper or other metal
Sculptural
Integrated into the current streetscape
Uniquely stylistic

The criteria are almost the same as those approved by the commission in April.

"We are extremely flexible," Russell told the commission, adding that the new direction provided by the commission in April "opened up a whole new world for us."

"We quite liked the parameters that you listed," he said.

The panel Thursday asked the artists to return in September with life-size drawings of three samples of their new designs.

After the meeting, Patch asked the artists if they'd like to make a comment. Russell said, "We feel public art is always difficult, and it's hard to reach consensus on any project. ... We're very happy to accept the commission's decision and move forward in this new direction."

Larry Craighill July 15, 2011 at 01:42 PM
This should be interesting. A public art project few seem to find worthwhile (at least gaging by the comments so far on the Patch), but we're under contract, and we're now in the process of driving the costs higher still. From everything I've read, it appears that the artists will be within their rights to file a claim for extra work if we throw out this design. I think we need to take our lumps and cut our perceived losses. While the commission may find the new design more appropriate, those wishing we had put money into other needs will be all the more dissatisfied. The next time a plan for public or civic improvement is put forward I would hope all the opinions expressed here will be aired during the early stages of planning, and not after a contract has been agreed to, or worse, after a design has been developed and presented. For all the willingness to criticize and find fault I've noted in the public comments on the patch, I haven't seen any mention of participation during the development of this project by the majority of the critics. I do note the commission has tried to communicate it's concern, and acknowledges it could have been more direct in it's dissenting opinion. I'm grateful to live in a community that cares, but to have real effect, we need to be proactive, not reactive.
Paul D July 15, 2011 at 04:52 PM
Thomas Halasz..."I disagree with all of the comments from the public, which I believe are often very facile in their criticism," Ah yes, the public, the TAXPAYING public, so simplistic in their criticism, so unable to understand the convoluted depths and complexities of issues like the wise Mr Halasz. Like sticking things on lightpoles down the main street in town. Yes, very complex. Wasting taxpayer money on another scheme intended to be just one more bullet-point on some future resume isn't hard to grasp.
Larry Craighill July 15, 2011 at 06:52 PM
Paul, I think Mr. Halasz's comments seem less to question the judgement of the public, and more to point out that the artists have followed direction given them by the art commission. If Tax payers want to have a say, they need to do it during the deliberative process, not after it.

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