San Jose’s Green Manhole Project Proves Art Is Dead

Marketing is for terrible people, and art is for people who don’t realize they’re terrible. Leave it to a city-sponsored “art project” highlighting San Jose’s sewer system to synergize the two.

Last month, San Jose officials proudly announced that they will begin painting some of the city’s manholes a fluorescent shade of green—electric green, for those easily stimulated by color palettes—to raise the public’s awareness about how to properly dispose of fats, oils and greases. The project, submitted by the artist team of Claire Napawan and Brett Snyder and opaquely dubbed the FOG Awareness Pilot Public Art Project, will include the painting of 75 manholes, 2,900 informational door hangers and 14-15 decals being affixed to the side of maintenance trucks.

Total cost for the project: $85,000.

The project has already spent $20,000 of that amount conducting community outreach. If that seems like a good deal, you’re probably an artist. Perhaps a con artist.

Jennifer Easton, the city’s friendly public art director, admits that the project “does kind of sound like marketing,” but she adds if that’s the case it’s “actually very cheap marketing.” Easton defends the project as falling under the artistic license of Russian constructivism and/or social practice, which has an emphasis on raising awareness and changing behavior.

“Is this the most sophisticated?” Easton asks.

The answer: Of course not. But let her continue.

“I think in this case it’s really about the conversation,” she says. “That’s what we’re really trying to honor.”

Funds for Gang Green come out of the little known public arts budget, which allocates 1 percent of the cost of all new construction projects—not renovations or partial improvements—to public art focusing on the city departments that do the work. In this case, Easton says, the funds were rolled over for several years by the Department of Transportation, which is collaborating with the Environmental Services Department and Public Works.

For a project dedicated to easing the burden of San Jose’s sewage system, it’s a wonder the city didn’t rededicate Cesar Chavez Park’s favorite poop snake, Quetzalcoatl. But that would just be derivative.

Correction: A previous version of this post used an image of a sewer drain and not a sewer manhole. Also, an artist's name was misspelled. San Jose Inside regrets the errors.

Josh Koehn is the managing editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @Josh_Koehn.

30 Comments

  1. What a total waste of money, thank you Sam and city council. How about covering graffiti instead, but I forgot we don’t have a gang problem.

    • This just in… After a successful FOG Awareness Pilot Public Art Project kick-off, starting NEXT month, San Jose officials will begin painting the city’s population of vagrants and hobos with a fluorescent shade of orange to raise the public’s awareness about how to properly take a shower, sober up and get a job.The project will include the painting of several thousand bums, their shopping carts and makeshift structures found all over the place. We’re on a roll!

  2. At $300 a piece, 283 Artboxes could be done instead. Seems like this would be a more artistic beautification project. Interesting use of money. Seriously Green Manhole covers, really.

    • A couple of comments: 1) The City of SJ does not fund the Art Box Project and 2) The FOG project, in raising awareness about fats, oils, and grease disposal has the potential to save us taxpayers a lot of money in clogged pipes and systems.
      Jennifer Easton is correct, art is about conversation. This FOG art project is more than just painting manhole covers. Hm, I didn’t see the complete expanse of the project detailed in the “article.” It would have been great to also get some hard facts and figures about how much taxpayer money is allocated to unclog and/or replace these pipes and systems. That was noticeably absent from the “article” — perhaps in the future the good readers of SJI can be given a more complete picture to reduce any perception of sensationalism.
      Disclosure: I am the Founder and Managing Director of the Art Box Project and Chair of the Public Art Committee
      – Tina Morrill

  3. Green buds
    Green Bike lanes
    And now, green manhole covers

    Not sure though if it’s pissing money down a rathole though. I’d guess we probably have close to 5000+ manhole covers. Even a can of spray paint runs about $7 these days. Throw in having the city cone off around the covers while they dry, and the $85k price tag starts to look reasonable.

    OTOH $85k for pictures of our waste treatment plant was a huge waste. 1 guy going out with his Nikon D600 and taking photo’s that I can produce on my old TMO sidekick was a huge waste.

    Aside from art being in the eye of the beholder, this project seems to have fairly justifiable costs.

  4. I have no problems with this project, except the cost. $85k is a bit ridiculous, but I think the streets will look nicer.

  5. > to raise the public’s awareness . . .

    OK. My awareness has been raised.

    Now what?

    You could have also raised my awareness by buying me a slice of pie at Coco’s.

  6. As one of the artists, I’ll simply comment that the green manholes are part of a more comprehensive strategy that includes educational material, truck graphics, and community participation. The problem of FOG waste that this project addresses is one that can do serious environmental harm costing the city many times this amount when there is a sanitary sewer overflow.

      • What part of Brett’s statement are you disputing, John?

        More generally, I think the “argument from incredulity” that you see here is lazy. A better argument would look at marketing efforts at other cities and see what they’ve done with an equivalent budget to deal with FOG waste, and demonstrate that other places have done a better job.

        Anyone remember the 15 ton fat blob in a London sewer? Look it up. Fun times.

        Finally, Josh does a great job IMHO despite the problems of who he works for, but I think he might want to label when he’s acting like a columnist and when like a journalist. This is more of a columnist piece, and I think the opinion aspect detracts from his other pieces that are straight journalism.

  7. It is difficult to determine who are the bigger parasites–the so-called artists who propose this nonsense, or the city employees who spend countless useless hours and taxpayer dollars evaluating and implementing these ridiculous public “art” projects. $85k could give us perhaps half a cop for a year. So, cancel the project and sack Ms. Easton. This drivel and projects like it are one reason the city is in such financial trouble. This project is even more worthless than the giant $500k plastic turd that replaced the Liberty Bell that once graced Plaza de Cesar Chavez.

    • I bet that if you (or the Grand Jury) were to ask “the City Employees” what they thought of this project you might find that they would agree that this is a ridiculous waste of time and money. Those City employees have to “evaluate and implement” these wastes of taxpayer dollars because IDIOT VOTERS pass IDIOTIC LAWS and elect IDIOTIC POLITICIANS which mandate IDIOTIC WASTES of taxpayer dollars.

      And you want to liken employees to parasites???? Truth be told JMO you and your former Grand Jury would probably condemn the laws, politicians and anyone who supports these laws and expenditures while simultaneously demanding any public employee who refused to follow orders to “evaluate and implement” be unceremoniously terminated from Public Employment insubordination – parasites? What ate your brain?

  8. > Those City employees have to “evaluate and implement” these wastes of taxpayer dollars because IDIOT VOTERS pass IDIOTIC LAWS and elect IDIOTIC POLITICIANS which mandate IDIOTIC WASTES of taxpayer dollars.

    Well, they may be idiot voters, but they’re the only voters we have.

    What would you have us do about it? Import voters from Mexico?

    • You know Bubble the police officers and fire fighters the San Jose had were the only ones we had before the idiots passed the elected idiots idiotic pension reform. Now where is SJ going to get replacements from?

  9. Mr. Koehn:

    Thank you for reporting on this frivolous use of taxpayer dollars.

    As a recovering journalist, I dug a little deeper into the backgrounds of the newsmakers involved. San Jose certainly did call for entries for the FOG Awareness Pilot Public Art Project via Facebook and websites like bayareaartgrind.com. However, just a few clicks of a mouse also allowed me to discover that the newsmakers in your story (Ms. Easton, Ms. Napawan, and Mr. Snyder) all have ties to U.C. Davis.

    The above revelation begs the question: Was the fix in when the FOG project was awarded to Ms. Napawan and Mr. Snyder? Rats tend to congregate in and around sewers. I’m not saying, I’m just saying.

    Meanwhile, although not a direct quote, I found Ms. Easton’s so-called defense of the project as falling under the artistic license of Russian constructivism and/or social practice personally offensive.

    The early Constructivists, among other things, contributed many works to the Bolshevik government. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin ordered the arrest and subsequent execution of my relative Vladimir Tagantsev on trumped up charges.

    The Tagantsev Affair, as it has come to be known historically, had a host of innocent victims, including true artists like poet Nikolai Gumilev, a dear friend to members of my maternal ancestors.

    Sincerely,

    Michael Patrick O’Connor

  10. Remember one short year ago when the city said they were financially challenged and needed to add a sales tax to make ends meet….Guess the good times are back and throwing taxpayer money into the wind is back in city council’s agenda. What a load of cr*p!

  11. “Also, an artist’s name was misspelled…”

    Does this actually mean there is a real live person that wants to claim “credit” for this sewage “art”? Someone must be seeking notoriety and not credit

  12. It is simply amazing that this P.O.S. City is crying “Broke” while wasting money is this stupid endeavor.

  13. This is perhaps the stupidest waste of money yet. You could get high school or college students, boy scouts, girl scouts, etc to do this for free as part of a project. What kind of fricking “artist” do you have to be to paint a manhole cover florescent green, which will be a huge eyesore. And to think that San Jose’s Director of Economic Development, Director of Transportation and Director of Environmental Services signed off on this. What a disgrace.

  14. Where’s the beef (reference to old Wendy’s commercial)?

    If green manhole covers raise ” awareness about fats, oils, and grease disposal” resulting in net cost savings, how will we know to what extent it works? Is $85K too much, too little, or just about right? What kind of recurring spend is needed after the initial “conversation”?

    PSAs – Public Service Announcements are often free or virtually free. Creative firms volunteer time, media companies donate ad space and broadcast time.

    A quick check at SJ’s website shows no attempt to promote awareness, adopt a sewer, or anything similar.

    Sadly, it seems as though SJ’s efforts are more laughable than laudable.

  15. Does anyone, other than the proponents (that would be the “artist”, his coterie, and the public employee crew who administer this “awareness effort”) of this ridiculous waste of taxpayer money believe that when anyone drives over one of the $85 million green manhole covers that they will immediately, or ever, think “Oh, I’ve gotta call my councilmember right away to make sure he/she is behind FOG reduction awareness in SJ”?
    Who gets a job as a public art administrator for a city–a failed artist with a masters degree in public administration who can’t get any other job in the public sector, or someone with an MFA who can’t get a teaching job?
    Has this “artist” ever sold a work of his “art” to a private individual, or does he merely troll for sucker cities to buy his “concept” with taxpayer dollars? Perhaps he aspires to be another Robert Graham, who sold San Jose a large plastic dog turd for $500k. Now that’s the big time, Bubba!
    I am confident that this ridiculous public art program is not the only ridiculous waste of taxpayer money in SJ government. There must be dozens of such programs. End them all, and hire more cops at reasonable pay and benefits. And while you’re at it, please hire a chief who is not a lapdog and who can set proper public safety priorities; not one who guts the burglary and gang units to help the FBI conduct a two year investigation of gambling machines in Vietnamese coffee shops, followed by highly publicized raids.

    • Thanks. For some proof-points on wasteful spending, see the analysis of what auditor recommendations have NOT been adopted. And those reports just scratched the surface of what’s possible.

      We could easily fund the extra $22M / year for SJPD and more for our decaying roads. But not until there’s a willingness to curb profligate spending.

      The sad fact is that no one is held accountable for it.

  16. Somebody please explain to me how seeing a green sewer cover morphs into awareness of FOG issues? It would make more sense to me if these were benchmarks for police drones.