For an exhibit in the lobby of San Jose City Hall, Robin Treen wrote about the beginnings of public art in the United States and in San Jose:

Twenty-five Years of Award-winning Public Art
By Robin Treen

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Italo Scanga’s 1988, Figure Holding the Sun, in front of the Museum of Art was one of San Jose’s early acquisitions.

As San Jose’s Public Art Program celebrates its 25th anniversary, the promises of a new century have captured our imaginations. The boundaries between art and technology have become porous, easily traversed, setting the stage for an intense exploration of new media including digital and informational technologies, and hi-tech processes. Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, and drawing on its richly diverse heritage, San Jose’s Public Art Program is well positioned to address the inevitable tensions between local and global outlooks, changing cultural values and new artistic idioms.

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The Camden Community Center incorporated many public artworks into its campus. Above: Michael Stutz’ Hand in Hand

Art created in common areas—the earliest form of public art—dates to the dawn of civilization, and serves many societal functions. In addition to recording and commemorating history and important events, public art fosters a sense of identity and social cohesiveness, expresses religious and cultural beliefs, and symbolically asserts both cultural and territorial dominance. Perhaps more significantly, art, in its many forms, is the manifestation of such unquantifiable compounds as imagination and inspiration, the most ethereal and mysterious of human endeavors. From Stonehenge to the Sphinx, from the Great Wall of China to the ancient Nazca Lines in Peru, from the statues on Easter Island to the Serpent Mounds in Ohio, ancient civilizations have left their mark on the earth as well as the consciousness of untold generations. We are moved and awed by the power of monument.

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East Los Streetscapers, Commemoration of the founding of the Pueblo de San Jose Guadalupe, in Gore Park

Those who work in the field of public art make a strong distinction between art in public places—art that is acquired and placed in the public realm—and public art. Unlike studio artists, whose work is the manifestation of a personal sense of exploration and expression, artists who create public art are faced with a profoundly different set of challenges. They must understand, synthesize and respond to community input, to the site where the art will be placed, and to project goals, all in a way that preserves artistic integrity and originality while engaging multiple audiences. In San Jose this is accomplished through well-defined, multi-step, cross-disciplinary, collaborative processes that involve artists, designers, architects, scientists, researchers and educators with the community.

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The ThomasFallon sculpture, initially controversial, followed the European model of celebrating a conquering hero on horseback. The work now stands in Pellier Park.

In America public art concepts arrived with the first settlers. They came primarily from Europe and followed their own customs: art works were academic in form, populated with heroic figures, and gave expression to idealized narratives and classical themes. The dawn of the 20th century, combined with the rise of a consumer class produced changes in American social structure. The roles of art and artist were debated in the context of affluence and an increasing sense of popular culture. In 1933, as part of the New Deal, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Public Works of Art Project. During its six-month life, the federally funded program employed nearly four thousand artists. While federal buildings and other public institutions were the immediate beneficiaries of the program, its lasting legacy was the precedent that was set for the government to play a greatly expanded role in the creation of art and community, as well as the concept of a public realm.

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Seen in front of the Federal Building is Ruth Asawa’s Japanese American Internment Memorial.

In 1959, Philadelphia passed the nation’s first so-called percent-for-art legislation, creating a funding structure for their public art program that was based on the overall budgets for the city’s construction and development projects. The idea caught on and Philadelphia’s legislation served as a model that most contemporary public art programs continue to follow in some form. Today, well over three hundred such programs exist across the country, often augmented by public-private partnerships. In 1984, San Jose passed its own municipal ordinance, one that today provides two percent for art in City capital improvement projects, and one percent for art in eligible private development.

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Jun Kaneko’s ceramic stele, Convergence, stand in the Paseo de San Antonio

Since its inception, San Jose’s public art collection has grown to include over two hundred pieces in eighty-five locations. Several, such as Convergence (on the Paseo de San Antonio) and Recolecciones, The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library Public Art Collection, have won international recognition. The City’s Public Art Program, widely considered a leader in the field, manages the collection. As it evolved, the program passed through several political and stylistic phases, learning some hard lessons. The result is a strong, independent program, defined by an eclectic, collective vision. Its unique process for developing projects relies on the voices of the community as well as those of arts professionals.

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Ray King’s Spectral Cloud at the Almaden Community Center and Library

Early commissions focused on the downtown core, with more recent works integrated into the larger community through placement in parks, libraries and community centers. The Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport Public Art Master Plan lays the foundation for significant and exciting investments in the new airport as the signature portal to Silicon Valley. Building on the City’s history of innovation, coupled with an extravagant cultural diversity, the plan establishes the framework for dynamic creativity to continue flourishing.

We demand much of public art. Recent trends place a high value on works that are relevant to everyday life. Yet the work must endure, and carry the weight of memory even as the surrounding environment evolves and changes. Public art must relate to time and place, speak to volume and materiality even if the work itself is temporary or eventually becomes immaterial. Think of the fleeting but indelible body of work created by Cristo and Jeanne Claude. Such works don’t always find easy acceptance, and often stir controversy. Some are an acquired taste, slowly enriching the community, polishing it with the fine subtle patina bestowed by time. Others become iconic, place-makers, and cultural symbols.

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Anna Valentina Murch and Doug Hollis created Waterscape for the plaza on Santa Clara Street in front of City Hall.

Art is produced and valued, in some form, by every culture on earth. It speaks to the human experience, both to our need to express ourselves, and our yearning to be touched by the expressions of others. As much an emotional experience as it is an intellectual exercise, artistic expression is as dependent on the perceptions of the viewer as on the intent of the maker. Perhaps one of the most fundamental ways we come to know ourselves, and each other is through art. Unlike a mirror, it is not about reflection as much as it is about perception, both from within and without. Even as our demands and expectations of public art find new outlets, we will continue to seek work that is invested with universal themes and layers of meaning, art that will change with time as well as the viewer’s shifting perspectives.

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