Large-scale metal sculptures by artist Albert Paley coming to Sonoma Plaza

In a town that debates the use and character of its downtown Plaza like few others, Sonoma might soon have something very big, heavy and metallic to talk about.

That was the direction the city was headed Monday night when the Sonoma City Council unanimously approved the first step toward having a temporary exhibit of four-to-six towering metal sculptures liven up the Plaza and Depot Park for much of the coming summer.

The public art proposal is a brainchild of the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, which submitted a letter last month to the Council requesting city officials consider a temporary public art display to coincide with the museum’s upcoming exhibition of the works of Albert Paley, a New York artist known for large-scale metalworks. According to the museum, Paley’s sculptures can be found in 50 public locations worldwide, including zoos, airports, parks and plazas. His work is part of the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, among others.

The proposed public art would include up to six of Paley’s sculptures and display in conjunction with the museum exhibit, which runs July 1 to Sept. 26.

In her recommendation to the Council to move forward with the proposal, City Manager Cathy Capriola described it as a “test run” for the City’s long dormant public art program, an initiative adopted by the City Council in 2009, which laid the groundwork for the city to establish a program for the “creation and acquisition” of public artwork. But due to the recession – and perhaps a general lack of urgency from the Council and community – the public art program never found a framework. According to Capriola, since the city established its public art policies in 2009, no temporary public art projects have been completed and only one permanent project has been approved – the General Vallejo bench/statue, which is still in development.

Several community members spoke at the March 6 meeting in support of the temporary sculpture project.

Michael Coats, a local supporter of the arts who also handles publicity for the museum, championed the proposal, reminding the Council that “we’re not all about wine here.”

Sonoma resident Suzanne Brangham said she liked the idea that residents would “observe it, acknowledge it, talk about it – and then go home and create something of their own.”

“Public art can play a key factor in creating… yet another Sonoma experience,” said Brangham.

Carol Campbell, of Sonoma, asked if there were any precautionary measures that would be put in place to keep kids from climbing the sculptures. Following the public comment period, museum director Linda Cano said Paley’s sculptures are meant to be touched by onlookers, and his public art in other cities hasn’t created any problems with over-eager sculpture enthusiasts.

In her Feb. 27 letter to the Council about the sculptures’ viability on outdoor city grounds, Cano said the artworks “have been designed to resist wear, weather and most human-caused damage.”

The coating on the pieces allows for easy removal of graffiti, as well, said Cano.

“Ideally, the City and the museum would provide low lighting for the sculptures and signage during the three-month installation,” wrote Cano. “Temporary signage next to each sculpture would identify the sculpture, artist, project supporters and the partnership between the City of Sonoma and SVMA.”

The sculptures would be transported from Paley’s studio in Rochester, New York to Sonoma by truck and would be installed via crane. Any grass damaged by the sculptures would be replaced at the museum’s expense.

According to a city staff report, the estimated cost to the city for the temporary exhibit would be between $4,000 and $5,000 in staff time.

The City Council didn’t hide its public-art enthusiasm, with individual members describing themselves at various times as being “thrilled,” “excited” and “grateful” for the proposal.

“The best part about it being temporary,” said Mayor Rachel Hundley, “is that if you hate it – it’s gone pretty soon.”

The next step will be for city staff to draft a “lender agreement” covering insurance, maintenance and any losses or damages incurred through the program. City staff will then determine up to 10 possible locations within the Plaza and Depot Park for up to six sculptures; the city Cultural and Fine Arts Commission will select the final locations based on those initial 10 sites. Final recommendations by the Cultural and Fine Arts Commission would return for City Council consideration in May.

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