Palo Alto Art Center celebrates 50 years as city’s cultural hub

When the building that houses the Palo Alto Art Center was constructed in 1953, it was considered, according to a self-guided tour pamphlet, “ultra modern” and innovative due to its “Ranchero Style.” But with the passage of time comes changing tastes, trends and needs. Often buildings like this, which served as Palo Alto’s City Hall for over 10 years, are demolished in order to create new, updated facilities. This was not the fate of 1313 Newell Road, a venerable structure that has been, over the years, remodeled, repurposed and re-imagined as a community arts center that will celebrate its 50th anniversary on May 15.

Long considered the hub of Palo Alto’s cultural community, in addition to the main library, located next door, the Palo Alto Art Center has become known as a place to both see and create art.

With its expansive gallery spaces and fully equipped studios, the Center serves thousands of users each year. This includes adults, taking advantage of the opportunity to learn how to paint, draw and make ceramics under the guidance of professional artists, and school-aged children who often get their first exposure to art via the Project Look Program.

How has the Palo Alto Art Center survived the vicissitudes of time — and a world-wide pandemic to celebrate this major milestone? The Palo Alto Weekly talked to three people who have been closely involved with the Center and its programs for many years: Executive Director Karen Kienzle, Palo Alto artist Judith Content and former Palo Alto Art Center Foundation board member Marcia Pugsley.

Judith Content is a nationally known textile artist who first discovered the Art Center as a student at Gun High School in 1975. She began volunteering at the Center in 1979, served two years on the Foundation Board and now serves on the Emeritus Board.

Palo Alto Weekly: To what do you attribute the longevity of the Art Center?

Judith Content: The Art Center has continuously been an approachable and welcoming place to see art, learn about art and make art. The Art Center nurtures a community of artists, makers, teachers and appreciators of art.

Palo Alto Weekly: How has the Center adapted to the community’s changing needs?

Content: Throughout the years, I have witnessed a committed staff that recognized the needs of the community and consistently provided creative programming to address those needs. For instance, with reduced art curriculums in the schools, Project Look brought school-age children to the Art Center for arts education programming with a hands-on component.

Palo Alto Weekly: What does the Center mean to you as an artist/community member?

Content: I like to visit the Art Center for its surprises. I never know what I will find. They tend to use every wall and hallway for continually changing, often interactive art displays. It is like a visual treasure hunt and I always come away inspired.

Palo Alto Weekly: Can you share a special memory you have of the Art Center?

Content: My favorite memory was co-creating “Pottery Creek” with the greater Palo Alto community. It is a permanent, site-specific installation that flanks both sides of the entry to the Art Center. It consists of countless pieces of polished pottery. To make it, I received broken pottery plates, mugs and bowls from hundreds of individuals. I broke these up and tumbled the shards in a rock tumbler. It was installed ten years ago and continues to evolve. Now, I regularly rescue and repurpose abandoned pottery from the kid’s clay classes.

Palo Alto Weekly: What do you hope the future will hold for the Art Center?

Content: I think that it is important for the Art Center to continue to be a destination for young people. When the importance of art is established early it creates a foundation to build upon throughout a lifetime.

Marcia Pugsley moved to Palo Alto in the mid-1990s. While visiting the Sculpture Garden, she observed people painting and decided to take a class, even though she had no prior art experience. After one watercolor class she was “hooked.” She later became involved with the Foundation Board because, “selfishly I wanted to keep a good institution going.”

Palo Alto Weekly: To what do you attribute the longevity of the Art Center?

Marcia Pugsley: The Art Center has changed with the times; classes have reflected technology (iPad drawing, iPhone photography), fashion design and calligraphy (in response to our Asian American community members). There have been exhibitions on Black artists’ work, immigration, disability and healing. These exhibitions were all planned before the pandemic, which says a lot about how tuned in the curators have been and the importance of art reflecting community and social issues.

Palo Alto Weekly: What do you hope the future will hold for the Art Center?

Pugsley: I am hoping the Art Center continues to provide exhibitions that challenge our thinking, jolt our perspective and stir our heart — plus that admission remains free. The Art Center has had great leadership throughout its 50 years and I am hoping we can attract and maintain the high caliber staff that keeps the offerings fresh and stirring.

Karen Kienzle has a long history with the Art Center, beginning when she was a second- grade student at Keys School and participated in Project Look. During college she was a volunteer and later joined the staff as a part-time publicist. “Coming back to the Center in a leadership role was really coming full circle for me, in many ways,” she said.

Palo Alto Weekly: How did the Art Center stay alive — and relevant — during COVID?

Karen Kienzle: The incredible, resourceful, diligent and overall amazing Art Center staff responded to the COVID pandemic creatively. We hosted virtual and hybrid programs and in-person programs when safe. Our school tour program and artist-in-the-schools program transitioned to virtual, then in the classroom until this spring when we could offer art experiences onsite.

The pandemic highlighted that the community needs art, now more than ever. We offer so much more than an art class, or an art venue. We provide a community, a place for stress relief, for service and belonging. Now into recovery, our class programs are at capacity and our attendance is rebounding.

Palo Alto Weekly: Can you share some future plans/goals for the Center?

Kienzle: We are looking forward to our summer exhibition, our first juried show in more than a decade. It continues the theme of restoration and renewal initiated with our “Creative Attention” project. Next year, we launch a series of climate-related exhibitions as part of our “Climate Connections” (exhibition series), including exhibitions focused on fire, water and earth. We continue to work to make our programs more accessible through captioning and visual descriptions and, thanks to the Palo Alto Art Center Foundation, scholarships to our classes.

The community is invited to the free anniversary celebration, which will include hands-on art activities, studio demonstrations, sweet treats and admission to the current exhibition, “Creative Attention: Art and Community Restoration.” The event takes place on Sunday, May 15 from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road, Palo Alto. For more information, visit cityofpaloalto.org.

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