Art on the way for Palo Alto’s University Ave. pedestrian tunnel

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(Photo: Stephanie M. Gutierrez)
Palo Alto pedestrians can expect a more artistic commute as the city has approved plans for a temporary art installation in University Avenue tunnel. (Photo: Stephanie M. Gutierrez)

Commuters should soon see art installations in the tunnel under the University Avenue train station now that the Palo Alto Public Art Commission unanimously approved the placement of temporary exhibits there.

The Commission voted on Jan. 17 to approve the installation of temporary exhibits on both walkways under the tunnel, which could turn the dark passageways into a popular destination. The next step is to solicit proposals from artists and to figure out how to fund the initiative.

“There’s been a lot of talk about revitalizing this area,” said Vikki Tobak, one of the commissioners on the city’s Temporary Public Art subcommittee, which spearheaded the project.

The Commission sees the University Avenue project as a potential pilot that could lead to other public art opportunities, such as the expansion of the murals on local businesses’ walls in downtown Palo Alto, Tobak said.

Tobak added that the goal of the project is to brighten the poorly lit tunnels by creating “an integrated art installation that makes a strong aesthetic statement down there.”

The Commission wants the future art installation in the tunnels to be some form of mural or light display that is easy to maintain. They also hope to use a progressive style that incorporates geometric shapes and technology.

The project has garnered the attention of some Stanford faculty members, who see the project as an opportunity for their students. Ala Ebtekar, a visiting lecturer in the department of Art and Art History, spoke at the Jan. 17 meeting to show his support for the project.

This spring, Ebtekar will teach what he says will be the first Stanford course to focus solely on public art: “Art in the Streets: Identity in Murals, Site-specific works, and Interventions in Public Spaces.”

“I just think there’s so much potential to work with the students,” Ebtekar said. “And to do something temporary down there that could be potentially really impactful.”

He noted that currently the tunnel feels unwelcoming and is not reflective of the warm and inviting communities that it bridges together.

(Photo: Stephanie M. Gutierrez/ Peninsula Press)
Palo Alto officials will soon be soliciting art submissions from local artists and community groups to adorn the tunnel that crosses under the University Avenue Caltrain station. (Photo: Stephanie M. Gutierrez/ Peninsula Press)

The commission members say they will select an art installation that is temporary rather than permanent to avoid bureaucratic problems that arise when properties with permanent art are sold. Temporary pieces should also be less costly to maintain.

Although Ebtekar said a permanent work in the tunnels would be great, he thinks the temporary project should still be done. Similarly, he said that the temporary nature of the installation would allow for the showcasing of a variety of art.

Tobak said that it is still unclear whether the project will become a rotating installation. The future plans for the project will depend on how people react to the pilot.

The commission is still exploring funding options, including finding sponsorships and partnerships. Meanwhile, Tobak said it will begin reaching out to artists and looking for concepts. The commission is still finalizing the process for submissions and has not yet set a date for completion.

“It’s just a blank canvas and so to just offer something lovely and surprising to look at…would be a nice surprise for such a transitory space,” Tobak said.

The next meeting for the Public Art Commission will take place tonight at 7 p.m. at the Palo Alto City Hall Council Chambers.

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