What criteria should be used to select public art?

You guys know that Oaksterdam University sign painted on the side wall of their building by 17th and Broadway? I think it’s cool. Certainly, it’s an improvement over the big blank wall that was there before.

City staff does not think it is so cool. Well, I suppose I don’t know their personal opinions on the coolness of the sign. But whether or not they think it’s cool, they do think that it violates Oakland’s zoning.

You see, under the new downtown zoning code that was adopted in July 2009, there are some pretty strict limits on the allowed size of signage. I personally think they’re too strict, and thought so at the time they were adopted, but I just really like signage in general. In any case, it’s law now, so whether or not the rules are good is not really relevant to the discussion.

Oaksterdam University current sign

The zoning code determines the permissible size of a sign for any business downtown by the size of the front facing portion of a building. For every foot of building street frontage, you are allowed one square foot of sign. If there are multiple businesses in the building, the allowed sign size applies to all of the businesses together. So, if zoning says signs on the building can be a total of 100 square feet, then than 100 square feet is for the combined size of all the signs for all the businesses.

Under the zoning, the building Oaksterdam University is in would be allowed a total of 60 square feet of signs for all the businesses in the building. Given the size of the other signs already on the building, the permitted size left over for their side wall sign is 20 square feet. You don’t need to take a measuring tape to it to see that the actual size of the sign is a great deal larger than that.

The staff report from July’s meeting (PDF) explains:

That Code section permits one square foot of sign area per linear foot of frontage, up to 200 square feet. The new wall sign exceeds both standards. The 60-foot wide frontage would allow 60 square feet of aggregate sign area for all businesses in the building. Since there is already a 20 square foot sign for another tenant and a 20 square foot OU sign, only 20 square feet of sign area remains available. Thus, the new sign is about 35 (thirty-five) times the maximum 20 square feet allowed.

The sign area originally reported by the applicant is 513 square feet, the area of letters and logo exclusive of the white wall space in between letters and logo. The appeal now states that the signs are really only 470 square feet. However, the sign consists of 20 green 24 square foot letters spelling out OU’s name, plus the 12 foot diameter 125 square foot green-and-yellow school logo, on a white background, located at the second and third story levels of the 3-story office building. Therefore, using the simplest rectangles as measured by staff, the area is closer to 725 square feet. This is the method of measurement used for signs in Oakland.

Of course, a 20 square foot sign on that particular wall would look ridiculous. It would be smaller than each individual item of graffiti that I took pictures of there this morning. So Oaksterdam University applied for a variance (PDF) that would allow them to keep their giant sign. Staff said no, and so Oaksterdam University appealed the decision to the Planning Commission. The appeal came before the Planning Commission staff report from July’s meeting (PDF)in July (PDF).

Presenting the issue, staff bent over backwards to stress that they didn’t have any problem with Oaksterdam University specifically, but that no matter how popular any given business is, it has to be treated the same as everyone else, and they just could not find a way to make findings for a variance for this particular case without setting a precedent. I’m sympathetic to their wariness about setting precedents, although I think they may have been somewhat overly dramatic about their phrasing:

Potentially every other office or medical office in the downtown area would then want a sign the size of a drive in movie screen. And there are just not enough walls to handle all that.

Right off the bat, Commissioner Michael Colbruno asked why it had to be considered a business sign at all, rather than artwork or some kind of mural.

Signage as placemaking

He got into a little back and forth with staff about examples of other signs that, although they may name a business, really serve in practice to designate an area or district, and suggested that this might be the case here.

So then, Oaksterdam University founder Richard Lee comes up to speak, and says that they didn’t realize they needed a permit to begin with, that they felt it was unfair that they were being evaluated by the size of the front of the building when the sign is in fact on the side, and that they see Oaksterdam as a place, and that the University attracts people to Oakland from all over California.

Anecdotally, my own experience from living in this neighborhood suggests that yes, Oaksterdam is very much a place and people do come here to see it. The University is a huge attraction to Oakland.

When I moved into my building, there was a sad “pharmacy” below me that was closed on weekends. At some point it closed altogether. There was never anyone around on weekends, and it was actually kind of depressing around here.

Then Oaksterdam University took the vacant pharmacy space. All of a sudden, there were tons of people around all the time! Instead of being deserted on Saturdays, my neighborhood was full of life. After a while, Oaksterdam University outgrew that spot and moved into the larger space down they street they occupy now.

My corner is a little less exciting now, but people still come to visit Oaksterdam. Every other weekend or so, I’ll be walking to or from my apartment, and some lost looking person will stop me on their way out of BART or something and be like “Hey. I want to see Oaksterdam. Where is it?”

I always feel kind of bad when I have to tell them “Oh yeah, you’re actually here. There’s a coffee shop across the street you can go to and a gift shop a couple of blocks away if you want to buy a shirt. There’s not much more to it. We’ve got an ice rink down that way. You could go skating.”

Nobody ever wants to go ice skating. But they always ask where Oaksterdam University is. So I point down the street and I’m like “Just go that way. There’s a giant sign on the wall. You can’t miss it.” Often people are so excited about their visit to Oaksterdam that will ask me to take pictures of them standing in front of the sign, and I’m always happy to oblige.

Business Sign or Special Sign

The Planning Commission was clearly sympathetic to Oaksterdam University, and wanted to find a way to help them out.

So the conversation turned to a discussion of whether the Oaksterdam University sign was in fact a “business sign,” which is subject to size limits, or instead a “special sign,” which does not have the same size limitations.

Staff listed a couple of different options for ways the Commission could go about allowing Oaksterdam University’s sign, emphasizing that they would prefer that it be done in the manner that is the least precedent setting.

Commissioner Sandra Gálvez suggested that they sidestep the variance process altogether by declaring the sign a mural, and while the rest of the Commission seemed sympathetic to the idea, the consensus among the group seemed to be that there was simply now way to declare a sign that contained nothing other than the name of a business anything other than a business sign.

After some discussion, the Commission decided that Oaksterdam University should work with staff to come up with something that would be more of a mural than a sign.

You can watch video of that whole discussion below:

Oaksterdam: The Mural

Since the Commission never actually voted on appeal itself back in July, the issue had to return to them for resolution. This happened in January (PDF).

In the intervening months, Oaksterdam University put out an RFP for mural proposals, and returned with eight concepts (PDF) for what a mural on the building could look like.

The proposals were reviewed by City staff and representatives of the downtown Business District, and this is the one that “everyone liked the best”.

Oaksterdam Mural Concept

In their comments in support of this option, CEDA offers (PDF):

The artist has presented a beautiful wall mural of Lake Merritt that demonstrates the University’s commitment to nature and beauty and presents a contribution to beautifying the landscape of Downtown Oakland.

I found this really sad. I mean, the whole original discussion about the idea of sign or mural was about placemaking. And whether one thinks this mural is pretty or not, it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with the neighborhood. Oaksterdam is not on Lake Merritt, nor is it at Oakland City Hall. I live in the heart of Oaksterdam, and I cannot see either Lake Merritt or City Hall from my apartment. The only thing about the mural that identifies the neighborhood at all is the text with the name of the business.

The representative from Oakdsterdam pushed gently for a second option.

Oaksterdam Mural Conept

Judging the mural just on its own, and without thinking about how it relates to the neighborhood, the one they picked is fine, I guess. I find it underwhelming, yet inoffensive. I have no strong feelings about it either way really. I am fairly certain nobody will ever ask me to take their photo in front of it. My hands down favorite was a different option entirely (although I would never expect it to get selected):

Oaksterdam Mural Concept

I’ll mix the other proposals in through the rest of the post so you can see what else was on the table.

So this was a pretty interesting discussion. Well, most of the discussion was about whether the words “Oaksterdam” and “University” constituted the area considered a sign or if only the word “University” should be counted towards the 60 square foot maximum signage area out of the 800 square foot mural. So that actually wasn’t really that interesting. (They ended up saying that both words were part of the sign, but that Oaksterdam University could have a little bit of flexibility with the square footage allotment, in case you were wondering.)

What makes good public art?

But I was really fascinated by the discussion over which mural to pick.

Oaksterdam Mural Concept

So Commissioner Madeline Zayas-Mart said that she preferred the first option because it had a broader appeal, and that we have to be careful when putting up a mural of that size to not offend anyone.

Oaksterdam Mural Concept

Then Commissioner Doug Boxer said that he agreed we should pick the option with the broadest appeal, but that he wasn’t sure the postcard was that one, suggesting that perhaps the second option was more unique to Oakland.

Zayas-Mart responded:

The principles that I was trying to espouse was that it should be something that would have a broad appeal, that it shouldn’t be something that’s on the edge, not in this particular case — not because I don’t think that is a worthy thing, but that’s why I go to museums.

In Oakland, of course, we do have an existing process for reviewing public art, which is that proposals are considered by the Public Art Advisory Committee, a subcommittee of the Cultural Affairs Commission. City Public Art staff came to the meeting to politely inform the Planning Commission of this process, and offered to schedule a review of the proposal before that body.

The Commission said no, justifying their decision by saying that it would be unfair to Oaksterdam University to drag out the process any longer. Which is a fair point after this issue has gone on for nearly a year, so perhaps it’s too late to do anything now. But of course, the Planning Commission should never have been picking out murals in the first place. That, at least, seems like a no brainer to me.

Oaksterdam Mural Concept

The Commission ended up deciding that Oaksterdam University could go with either the first or second option, after working with staff to refine the concepts.

But I thought these were interesting questions, and worth talking about. What should the criteria be that we use to select public art? I am certainly not some kind of expert on art, and I don’t know the answer to that question, but it seems to me that the criteria definitely should not be to select whatever is the least likely to bother anyone.

It seems to me that art, even public art, should be designed to be somewhat interesting and capture people’s attention. In this case, when the original discussion focused on placemaking, it seems like the mural should have some connection to Oaksterdam as a place. I don’t know how well any of the proposals necessarily accomplished that, but I didn’t see how the one that was selected did so at all.

Here’s the video of the full hearing in January, if you’re interested:

I’m interested to hear about what readers think about criteria for selecting public art. Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

13 thoughts on “What criteria should be used to select public art?

  1. Aaron Priven

    My recollection is that a very tall building has been permitted for the parking lot at 17th and Broadway, so eventually — soon I hope — the side of this wall will no longer be visible.

  2. V Smoothe Post author

    Gene –

    Glad to see the authority on Oakland signs is on my side!

    Aaron –

    That issue was discussed at the Planning Commission meeting in January. Oaksterdam University said that they understood the sign would be covered eventually, although when the Commission asked, staff said repeatedly that there are no existing entitlements for the lot in question.

    That was definitely not my recollection, and I am sure that at least as of a couple years ago, there was an entitlement for a high rise there. After watching the meeting, I wondered if perhaps that entitlement had expired, although that seemed unlikely to me. I made a note to myself at the time to go check it out, but then never got around to it.

  3. ralph

    I revel in knowing that eventually whatever is posted on that wall will be hidden by a productive asset.

    I can’t really define it but I know it when I see. While I know I do not really care for any of the Oaksterdam artwork, some of the proposed works are less unpleasing to the eye than other proposed works.

  4. Max Allstadt

    It is utterly ridiculous that the Planning Commissioners didn’t know that they were being asked to do the Cultural Affairs Commission’s job. They shouldn’t even have heard this. The should have sent it to where it belongs.

    And picking art based on what’s most bland is completely unacceptable too. BOO!

    I’m with Boxer.

    Actually, I bet Oaksterdam University could legally do option 2 without city consent. That option doesn’t say “university” on it, so it isn’t an ad. It’s a mural identifying the neighborhood. And I’m pretty sure that as long as it’s arguably not an ad, or a business name, they can do whatever they want. And they should.

  5. Gene

    Regarding public art, you’ll never find a single standard that everyone can agree on for what “art” is, never mind what’s suitable or not for public art. But I think most people could agree on a rated PG-13 or above standard: if most people would be uncomfortable with children under 13 seeing it, it’s probably not appropriate for a public setting.

    And interesting timing on the subject of “signage as placemaking”. You know I love Oakland, signs, the idea of what defines a neighborhood, maps, etc., so I recently started another map project: Oakland place name signs. Everything from the “Montclair Village” sign, to the “Allendale Park Neighborhood” (on my neighborhoods map as Allendale), to the “Oaksterdam University” sign.

    I welcome suggestions on “signs as placemaking” for any of the Oakland neighborhoods or districts. Does The Uptown club count as helping to define the place, since there aren’t formal signs (that I know of)?

  6. Naomi Schiff

    The thing that really bothers me most about the extant sign is its faint wobbliness. Second line runs uphill just slightly, if I remember correctly. It is not the best example of professional sign painting. From the Oakland Heritage Alliance office, you become aware of the slight wandering of the lettering baselines. One also might want to contemplate the problem of other businesses wanting to paint their blank walls with similarly gigantic messages, if this one is allowed to stand. That might give rise to even more billboardiness than we now endure, to my mind not a pretty thing.

    It’s true there’s an approved project, but the plan for 17th and Broadway seemed to fade out of action well before the housing crash, so I don’t know if it is likely to happen any time soon. (I have wondered whether prospective residents would clamor for units that close to gigantic microwave antennae atop the phone co. next door.)

  7. V Smoothe Post author

    Interesting, Naomi. I walk past it a couple of times a day, and the uneveness has never popped out at me.

    I’m curious about your general opposition to “billboardiness” on painted walls. I recall attending a community meeting about a proposed development in my neighborhood a few years ago where you made a point of standing up to insist that the extant historic painted sign on the building next door not be covered up by any new development. Why is it okay to look at old signs, but not new ones? That doesn’t make any sense to me.

  8. Art

    Okay, reading this, I couldn’t help but laugh—we’ve been catching up on old episodes of Parks and Recreation. Check out Season 2, Episode 9, “The Camel,” wherein the imaginary planning commissioners have to choose a new mural design. Then come back and re-read this post…

  9. John Gatewood

    This points to just how conservative we are in Oakland when it comes to public spaces. In practice what this means is only the most innocuous and inoffensive work gets moved forward. Even if this particular mural was not the purview of the Planning Commission, look at their comments regarding their selection of the concept with “broader appeal.” It is really sad that we have become so fearful of offending someone’s aesthetic sensibilities that only the most conservative of ideas gets considered – a mural of Lake Merritt. As for the second option, I look forward to when it comes back for review and someone says it looks too much like tagger art and it too falls by the wayside.
    Architecturally what happens is developers and their architects focus on coming up with the most conventional as possible of proposals in hopes that no one takes offense. In practice what this means is buildings with a few historical geegaws slapped on them. At best we get faux Tuscan or Mediterranean or Arts & Crafts piles of historic kitsch. When did we become so fearful of challenging our preconceived aesthetic notions even just a little bit?
    Unfortunately the processes we have in place now skew toward the lowest common denominator being the idea that moves forward – meaning mediocrity wins.
    As for how to approach public art –
    1. Make a city code distinction between billboards and signs/murals painted on walls. They are NOT the same. There was a time when billboards were actually painted, it was a skilled craft and is nearly a lost art. Nowadays billboards are just another disposable item, printed on vinyl, posted for a short time and then discarded. Painted walls, even if it is a commercial message, are more permanent and a more time-intensive endeavor and should be treated differently, and in my opinion more flexibly, in the code.
    2. As for public art, instead of trying to serve as many constituencies as possible and offend none, loosen up a little and focus on what really is the city’s purview, public safety and public access of the art. Obviously we would still need to draw a line at patently offensive work (racist, obscene, etc.) but that still leaves plenty of room for more challenging public art.
    This does not mean we will always get beautiful art. Some might be beautiful and some might not but that is part of making an interesting and exciting cityscape – seeing a range of human expression from the sublime to the ridiculous as we walk down the street.

  10. Naomi Schiff

    I agree that the distinction between signs and murals might be a good thing to clarify. And probably public art process is a better one than planning commission, when reviewing such things. If we had a good distinction betw. signs and murals that might get the stuff in front of the right body. The City’s arts people are more visually sophisticated and willing to take greater risks than the planning commission. Slightly off-topic: is anybody else as addicted as I am to the Al-Jazeera broadcasts on Libya? I’ve been fascinated by the public art (which is now being angrily destroyed) “sculptures” of Qaddafi’s Green Book.