For Three Decades, City-Funded Artwork Has Largely Excluded San Jose’s Homegrown Talent 

In 2012, San Jose announced a new public art initiative intended to make downtown look more like people’s expectations of Silicon Valley. Funded with a $600,000 grant from ArtPlace America, “Illuminating Downtown” tasked artists with literally lighting up the heart of the city by using a trove of donated LED lights from Philips Lumileds.

“Illuminating Downtown” went live a few years later with its first three pieces. Then-Seattle-based artist Dan Corson dressed two Highway 87 underpasses with interactive lighting. Called “Sensing YOU” and “Sensing WATER” by the artist, the one close to the SAP Center is unofficially known as the “blue doughnuts.”

“San Carlos Lantern Relay,” a series of eight 6-foot-tall, networked and interactive lamp posts made by locals Steve Durie and Bruce Gardner, can be activated by pedestrians at the touch of a button.

For their contribution to the light-themed art initiative, records show that Corson and his team made $657,000 from the city and another $100,000 from the San Jose Downtown Association. He would later relocate to Hawaii to open a boutique chocolate farm.

For their eight individual pieces, Durie and Gardner split $90,000.

According to the first analysis of the city’s public art projects by this news organization, that economic disparity is par for the course in San Jose. Not only does the city award the vast majority of its public art money to creatives without any apparent ties to San Jose, it also pays local artists far less on average than their out-of-town counterparts.

(Infographic by Kathy Manlapaz)

Since the late ’80s, San Jose has amassed an impressive array of public art. On its website, the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs (OCA) details 150 pieces in the collection, prefacing a database of the installations by saying, “We strive to celebrate the city’s diversity, innovative spirit [and] historic richness.”

But after a spate of high-profile public art contracts went to artists, musicians and designers from outside the city, local creatives began to wonder about the collection, and how well it actually represents the community.

Using the city’s website and publicly searchable contracts, San Jose Inside analyzed the collection by looking at the provenance of the artists and how much money each creative made per project. The numbers paint a story of a city that has failed to use its economic power to invest in its own art community.

In 30 years of commissions, from 1988 to 2017, the city entered into contracts with San Jose artists only about 15 percent of the time. Of the 150 pieces the OCA lists on its website, 127 were made by artists from outside the city.

In analyzing public art contracts for this piece, San Jose Inside defined San Jose artists as those with significant, demonstrable links to the city (San Jose State alumni, for example). Through that lens, it appears that the city hired San Jose artists just 15 percent of the time over the course of three decades.

Looking at the money spent on each piece, the disparity becomes even more pronounced. Of the $17.2 million the city spent on its public art collection in that same 30-year timeframe, only $715,937 reached San Jose artists—a mere 4.15 percent of the total.

On average, artists from outside the city received $134,710 for their projects. San Jose artists, by contrast, received on average $31,406.

No San Jose artist ranked in the top 10 highest payments. No artist from San Jose made it to even the top 20. It’s only at the 22nd spot that we see a San Jose artist show up, namely Tony May, who way back in 1998 took home $175,000 for his collection of ivy-covered arbors titled “Remembering Agriculture.”

“In terms of the numbers, that doesn’t sound good,” Durie says.

A professor at SJSU, Durie is among the relatively few San Jose makers represented in the city’s roster of publicly funded artists.

He and Gardner, who were the only San Jose artists to participate in the “Illuminating Downtown” project, divided that $90,000 among themselves and several part-timers who helped them execute their vision.

“We had a lot of people we had to hire in the design process,” Durie says. “At the request of the city, we had to hire an electrician to vet our design, and a mechanical engineer to vet how the lanterns were mounted to the poles.”

In addition, the artists also had to pay subcontractors to help with the fabrication. For his part, Durie says he has no qualms about what the city paid him, and that the size and complexity of a project should be kept in mind when determining compensation.

“Everything is commensurate on scale,” he says. “My question is not how much they got paid, but what was the nature of the project?”

Scale-wise, there’s a compelling case to make that Durie and Gardner’s work on “San Carlos St. Lantern Relay” was, in many ways, as complex as artist Corson’s work on “Sensing YOU” and “Sensing WATER.” In both cases, the artists had to hire extensive teams to help with fabrication. Both projects spanned multiple blocks downtown (two for “Sensing YOU” and “Sensing WATER,” and four for “San Carlos St. Lantern Relay”). Both were funded through the same ArtPlace America grant.

While the city systematically overlooks San Jose artists, Demone Carter—rapper, podcaster and Multicultural Arts Leadership Institute director—has tried to elevate local talent. (Illustration by Kathy Manlapaz)

But while Durie and Gardner split a five-figure sum for their work, the Seattle-based Corson made more than five times what they did. That’s probably why Corson can spend his time these days farming cocoa pods in sunny Papaikou.

When presented with San Jose Inside’s analysis, Michael Ogilvie—San Jose’s public arts director since coming to San Jose from a similar position in Las Vegas a couple years ago—defended the city’s decisions.

“The calls that we do for public art are open and competitive,” he contends. “There are ways you can restrict them locally, but when you restrict things locally, there tends to be intellectual inbreeding. It helps to add new flavor to that dialogue.”

Widely regarded as one of the most diverse cities in the US, it’s hard to imagine “intellectual inbreeding” being a problem in San Jose, whose racial, ethnic and economic variety make it one of the most culturally rich cities in the world.

Rather, the figures show that consistently over the past 30 years, the city did not prioritize hiring local creators—even as those artists increasingly struggled to keep up with Silicon Valley’s notoriously ascendant cost of living.

“If you think about the greatest cities in the world, New Orleans would never go out and get a musician from across the globe to represent their city,” says Demone Carter, a San Jose rapper, podcaster and artistic impresario. “It would seem ridiculous.”

As the head of the Multicultural Arts Leadership Institute (MALI), Carter is deeply ingrained in the South Bay arts scene. Through MALI, he’s made an effort to support the city’s multifarious art world, championing the work of local creators, from painters and pianists to folklorico dancers and DJs.

“I know that public art can be a complicated process,” he says, “but I really believe strongly that we do already have world class talent here in San Jose, and we have some work to do in how we support that talent.”

If the goal of art is to reveal, then what the city’s collection shows is that local artists have been under-hired, and underpaid, for at least a generation.

21 Comments

  1. Shameful. maybe we should import politicians, public leaders, city bureaucrats, etc to replace the ones we have. couldn’t do any worse. If you had your choice who would you pick – – – Red Chinese leaders or maybe Trump? either way chances are we would likely get more local artists to be able to get public art work.

  2. Thank you SJI for publishing what is obvious. It is San Jose, google, and many others doing the same. This is why outsiders have pushed out local families out of the area to places like Merced and Modesto where there is less academic and employment opportunity. For the public officials, Google…The Talent comes from other places. We must vote out all these politicians. The change starts with us now!

  3. I love this article! Well done! Bravo! Finally some balls…. Another pie In the face to the mayor….. Now how about other contracts the City awards?. How many are given to out of towners?

  4. Sorry that the writer chose to omit that the Office of Cultural Affairs is the largest funder of the arts in the region. This fiscal year it will invest $ 5.75 Million in the LOCAL arts community through about 120 grants to nonprofit art organizations, artists, and art based businesses. Think bigger, Metro!

    • Kerry, the question here is not how much money is invested to support local artists each year, but how that compares to what outsiders will take for themselves of the total investment. I want my tax dollars to support local people not to make the path of those wishing to come to San Jose easier. We must take care of our local families and residents before we bring others. Colleges are doing the same thing. International and out of state students have a easier path to these colleges. These students also have a better opportunity to obtain the best positions locally once they graduate. Local students, artists, and residents are being left out of the economic pie in San Jose and the Bay Area, and outsiders are taking their homes, college places, and jobs. Our current political culture focuses on making the most money and advancing their political careers. They give a sh!t about the low and middle income families and individuals. Then these are the ones proclaiming to dislike capitalism and being socialist and for the poor. They are no better than Trump! #KamalaHarris2020

  5. Yes, let’s build a wall around San Jose artists! Keep outside artists out, and inside artists in. BUILD THE WALL! BUILD THE WALL! The author, Hogignore, has drank too much of the terrorist in chief’s cool aid.

  6. This article is inaccurate in its math. Specifically, one of the largest public art contracts in the history of the program went to someone who grew up in San José and went to SJSU and it was not Tony May, it was Robert Graham. The writer seems to have decided to leave that out for some reason, possibly because it would invalidate much of the content of his article. He also omitted the tremendous amount of fiscal support from the Office of Cultural Affairs to local arts organizations – as Kerry states above.

    Lastly, he took what I said out of context. I had referenced a past job managing the Clark County public art program where projects were restricted to locals. Restricting calls can be good, and there is merit to this, and I do agree with the article more locals should be hired for public art projects (an effort I have been working to implement since I have come to San José), however, one problem I found when calls are restricted to locals is artistic diversity is reduced. Because the calls were competitive the same few artists kept getting the contracts, leaving many others in the dark. When the same few artists keep getting the contracts it creates a visual homogenization to the urban landscape, and it helps to diversify this.

    • what you fail to mention is that Robert Graham is that as world famous artist (married to Angelica Huston) he grew up in SJ and hated this town, partly because his Hispanic house cleaning mother was ill – treated. when he was invited back to produce a “great artwork” for the city, he originally proposed a very tall and elegant Quetzalcoatl statute but then “some” local politicians and other “know-it-alls, started making suggestions and changes and so Robert left San Jose with the pile of – What do you call that again – at one end of the park as a parting gesture to the “Know-it-alls, they know who they are) . it is reported just the round cement slab the pile of Dog Sh*t – sits on cost the city a nifty $1/2mm- – – so thats the rest of the story

      • Hold on – that’s not the “rest of the story” – – there is more. When Robert Graham presented his idea for a tall, elegant Quetzalcoatl statute he did so with a beautiful model of what the tall beautiful statute would look like. That was given to the City of San Jose. But where is it? – – – the model resides in the private home of a former county supervisor, as a personal treasure. this is one of the same stick their nose “I know better about what’s good for San Jose) into the affair, pissing off Graham and causing us to have a pile of dog poop displayed in our C. Chavez park. Some irony. Ain’t that a shame?

        • I respectfully submit that Robert Graham’s Quetzalcoatl is a strong work of public art. I have spent the last year studying this work as a case study in politics of place, art, and cultural inclusion – the subject of my Stanford thesis. The Plumed Serpent iconography authentically reflects Mesoamerican art. It is beautiful and powerful. It’s a powerful work of art.

          • Ms Hapner must have had a hand in this “public art” to pronounce such glowing words as “iconography authentically and ” case study in politics of place, art, and cultural inclusion” – -OMG – who would want their cu;tire or politics identified in such a manner? Its’ insulting. did you ever see a representation of the original model, tall and glorious as it should be represented.

          • :”a strong work of public art” Ms. Hapner? Seriously? It’s a plastic dung heap that cost taxpayers $500k and made SJ a national laughing stock. An expensive Stanford education, and you haven’t sense enough to come in out of a hailstorm.

  7. luls well that’s easy to explain; the Hipster Illuminati pick from their friends, but in order to make it look like it’s not a homie hookup, they pay them cut wages, that way, they get to brag to the city that they’re saving money and “diversifying” the neighborhood, when all they’re actually doing is boosting their own positions in government and gentrifying the very neighborhoods they claim they’re saving. And sure, anyone can freely attempt to contribute, but if you’re taking money away from the HI or you don’t buy their overly micromanaged BS, you’ll be basically blacklisted, so no matter how many times you submit, you just won’t get picked. This of course, would never work with some artist who’s well established and not connected to any of the SJ HI, as they’d see the cronyism for what it is. If we want public murals, they should be set up by schools, churches, and community groups – not unaccountable hipsters.

  8. > On its website, the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs (OCA) details 150 pieces in the collection, prefacing a database of the installations by saying, “We strive to celebrate the city’s diversity, innovative spirit [and] historic richness.”

    I’m feeling modestly public spirited today.

    If I were king, the San Jose Office of Cultural Affairs would consist of one bottom tier bureaucrat with a gong.

    The bureaucrat’s job would be to look at proposed art projects — COMPLETELY FUNDED BY PRIVATE DONORS — and give a thumbs up to those that weren’t offensive, obnoxious, ridiculous, or pro-Democrat.

    If an art proposal DIDN’T measure up — GONG!

    San Jose would be a much more beautiful and classy place.

  9. Is it just me, or do we have very little beautiful public art?
    And it’s not just “to each his/her own”… it’s evident in the same-old boring styles… everything is either edgy, graffiti-like, or ethnocentric pandering. Yawn. I’m tired of it. And it’s generally kind of ugly.

    Some exceptions:
    – Some of the downtown doors are nice / interesting (by high school kids, for free)
    – The Fallon statue is ok, but most people only just drive by
    – A statue or two in St. James park if you dare visit
    – The crazy spy camera robot thing in Terminal B is funny and captures a zeitgeist… ok.

    We are famous for Silicon Valley but we have almost nothing recognizing that (the wacky lights?).
    I’d love to see something celebrating our unique strengths, talents, and values. Computer pioneers? Something interactive?
    Or even just something beautiful — a nice fountain? (anyone remember the old El Paseo in Saratoga — that was cool)
    Maybe the new light tower thing will send us in a new direction.

  10. We have public art in San Jose? Is there a Michal Angelo, a Rhodian, a de Vichi here?………….. Not!

    A concrete casting of a Mayan God seems to violate the “separation of church and state” clause not written in the First Amendment but flaunted by the atheist’s here about

    Had the city put up a statue to Saint Jose I’m absolute certain it would have been desecrated by the anti religious community at large and torn down by the politically and culturally sensitive city fathers.
    Sorry Capitan Columbus but we see no value into transferring the new world into a place people are dying to get too.
    Off to the art scrap heap you go. So why bother spending on art, when you could have given school administrators another raise.

    In San Jose art comes free you can see it sprayed on the railroad bridges an underpasses around town along with the urban blight of colorful homeless camps springing up along the public highways.

    As for me I prefer the fountain playing “Time To Say Good Bye” in front of the Villaggio in Las Vegas, a town with some real Class.

  11. > Sorry Capitan Columbus but we see no value into transferring the new world into a place people are dying to get too.
    Off to the art scrap heap you go. So why bother spending on art, when you could have given school administrators another raise.

    You raise an excellent issue, Mr. Gunn.

    We had a wonderful specimen of high civilization art, the statue of Christopher Columbus, formerly on dignified display in the lobby of city hall.

    It might even be possible to claim that the Christopher Columbus statue was “local” art, since it was obtained and donated by the local Italian American community.

    Then, the rabble and the barbarians found the dignified, historical, high civilization art to be “offensive”, and hysterical mobs demanded it be desecrated, vandalized, smashed, or at least removed to dark and silent exile.

    So now, elements of the citizenry are fretting about the lack of public artwork?

    For a city to have dignified, inspiring public art, it first has to have the resolve to suppress the rabble and the barbarians, declare them out of order, and if necessary, crack their skulls with batons and pikes.

    • Perhaps a stepped pyramid to throw the heartless infidels off of would please the rabble below Mr. Bubble.
      Of course the Taliban might eventually blow that up as well !

  12. I would just like to thank you all for your opinions. This range of expressions exemplifies the power of public art, and that there are many perspectives in our diverse, big city. I encourage all to get engaged in the public process. The San Jose Public Art Program is a public program with public meetings. We invite you to these meetings, hear about the process and active projects, give your input, and have constructive, informed dialogue. For more information about upcoming meetings, see http://www.sanjoseculture.org. If you want to affect change, be part of the process. Public art is our art, the people’s art.

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