Why Palo Alto Subsidizes Studio Rents for Priced Out Artists
Members of the public take a look at the artwork of Linda Gass at a recent Cubberley Artist Open Studios. (Photo: Courtesy of Linda Gass)
Barbara Goldstein is a good person to talk to if you want to get a perspective on Silicon Valley’s public art scene. Goldstein served as San Jose’s public art director from 2004 to 2013, and recently co-wrote Palo Alto’s public art plan.
With each passing year, Goldstein says, there are fewer places for working artists to operate in. "Any privately owned space is going to be extremely tenuous for an artist -- or for anything that serves the social good," Goldstein says. "Anything that does not bring in humongous amount of revenue is going to be threatened by a rising real estate market."
The median home value in Palo Alto is roughly $2.5 million dollars. The longer the tech boom continues, the more condo complexes and high-end office buildings will crowd out the funky, older places where artists tend to work.
Some artists are lucky enough to own a home with a spare bedroom or a garage to work in. But community doesn’t come easy in a suburban environment like Silicon Valley. Many artists say they feel culturally isolated -- not just from each other, but also from their customers and curators.
That's where the campus of Ellwood P. Cubberley High School in Palo Alto comes in. Cubberley hasn't served as a high school since 1979. Today, the building is a bustling multi-purpose community center offering all sorts of programs.
The facility offers line dancing classes, Chinese language classes, day care, senior care, and more. "We have 10 performing arts groups that have space here where they teach," says Rhyena Halpern, who oversees arts and science programs for the City of Palo Alto. "We have Cubberley Theatre, where they perform."
Cubberley is also home to 24 subsidized artist studios. The city charges a third of the market rate for an old building in Palo Alto -- less than a dollar a square foot.
Artists do all kinds of work at the city-owned studios, including woodcut prints, digital paintings, photography, video, performance, book-making, and sculpture. Residencies typically last four years.
Halpern says a panel of experts selects artists for the program. "We have different standards of selection that rely on your history of exhibition, your contribution to the field, and the quality of your artwork."
Of course, a couple dozen studios won't change overall real estate trends in a city where top-of-the-line commercial office space rents for just under $100 a square foot. But Cubberley does make a big difference to the lives of individual artists, like Palo Alto abstract expressionist painter Sahba Shere.
Shere occupies an old chemistry classroom at Cubberley, where there’s plenty of wall space for paintings that are dynamic, colorful and large-scale; some of Shere's canvases stretch six feet wide and five feet tall.
Shere does pretty well, financially speaking, because she has corporate clients. But that's not the case for most artists based in Silicon Valley. "I don’t know if you can really live here, on an artist’s salary," Shere says. "But Palo Alto is helping, and the fact that we have this community is just invaluable."
That’s a common refrain at Cubberley. And Shere, who originally hails from Winnipeg, Canada, takes the concept one step further. She organizes a salon in her chemistry class, where people are invited to discuss literature, art, the homeless crisis -- whatever seems topical.
At one recent salon, tech executive Shubhra Sinha performed Kathak, a form of Indian classical dance.
Shere says the salons inspire her and others. "It’s quite lovely, and it really translates into my work," Shere says. "I think it’s part of art; sharing with like-minded people is important."
Palo Alto is unusual among Silicon Valley municipalities to support artists in this way. "It’s really imperative that we make sure that this is a place where artists can live, where arts organizations can not just stay alive, but thrive," Halpern says.
Cubberley is hardly the only publicly owned arts community. There are similar examples around the state, like the Angels Gate Cultural Center in Southern California. But Goldstein wants to see more of the same in Silicon Valley and the broader Bay Area. "Cubberly Artists Studios is a really good example of something that could work for artists all over this region," Goldstein says.
Goldstein is not averse to help coming from private bodies either -- as with the Minnesota Street Project in San Francisco, the Citadel Art Studios in San Jose, or the Tannery Arts Center in Santa Cruz. But she warns that these entities face the same market pressures other private landlords do. Eventually, a real estate developer might make an offer they can’t refuse.