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How an Oversight in Public Arts Policy Caused a Kerfuffle in Palo Alto

The case emphasizes the importance of clear formal agreements between public art commissions and artists.

View of “Digital DNA” by Adriana Varella, installed in Downtown Palo Alto (all images courtesy the artist)

For 12 years, a giant egg covered in computer circuit boards has balanced in the middle of Lytton Plaza in downtown Palo Alto. “Digital DNA,” created by artist Adriana Varella and commissioned by the city’s Public Art Program in 2000, quickly became a beloved, local landmark that acknowledges Palo Alto’s reputation as the heart of Silicon Valley. People love taking photographs of it and with it; individuals literally embrace it. You could say the sculpture carries a similar public sentiment as New York City’s Astor Place Cube.

“Digital DNA” by Adriana Varella, installed in Downtown Palo Alto

But now the city may be deaccessioning the egg, and Varella is rushing to save her work as well as fight for its permanence. This week, she launched a Kickstarter to raise $15,000, most of which will go towards restoring the piece, whether or not she successfully convinces officials to keep it on city property. A small amount will also possibly go towards covering a lawsuit Varella wants to file against the commission to fight its eight-month-old deaccession policy, provisions of which she believes may violate federal and state laws.

Believing her work was intended to be permanently installed, Varella was shocked when she received an email from the Public Arts Commission in August informing her that the city will vote to deaccession “Digital DNA” on November 16. Among the reasons cited were the sculpture’s need for “excessive maintenance” and deteriorated state.

Today, the public art program takes into account the ongoing maintenance cost estimates and durability of materials prior to taking a piece into its collection, according to Public Art Program Director Elise DeMarzo. It also ensures to clearly state its lifespan in writing. But in 2000, Varella had signed a “purchase order for ‘Digital DNA’ — like those that the City uses to purchase other materials and goods,” as DeMarzo told Hyperallergic. “There was no language regarding the permanence of the piece.”

This appears to be why Varella had believed all this time that she was making a work for posterity. In 2010, five years after its erection, she restored the piece with support from the commission; she has not been in touch with officials since.

“Digital DNA” by Adriana Varella, installed in Downtown Palo Alto

“Certainly the city would not have paid for it if they did not intend for the piece to be there for a very long time,” Varella told Hyperallergic. “I would never have put [five years of] work in a piece if it was not meant to be a permanent piece. I believe the main problem is that we never made a formal assessment (and agreement) of how to guarantee the piece’s longevity. Finally, time just went by and nothing was done for too long, requiring a lot more work to get it done now.”

Her initial process included conducting interviews with people in the tech industry then sewing phrases such as ‘circuits of power,’ ‘colonizing circuits,’ and ‘warfare circuits’ into the physical circuits that “symbolize the ideology of technology … to promote a glimpse of consciousness among its viewers,” the artist said. “”Digital DNA’ was to serve as a momentary reflection on how thinkers and engineers are building, researching, and planning the software and hardware permeating our lives.”

View of “Digital DNA” by Adriana Varella, installed in Downtown Palo Alto

Varella is now hoping that the city will allow her to find a benefactor to adopt the piece and continue maintaining it. She is also looking into solutions to reduce its need for regular restoration, including installing a UV-proof acrylic box around it to protect it from the sun and rain. As for a possible lawsuit, she’s currently working with a lawyer to research the legalities of the deaccessions policy. DeMarzo, however, suggested that the artist likely won’t have a case.

“The policy was written in close coordination with our legal team keeping in mind federal and state protections for artists,” Demarzo said. “It is legal to deaccession artwork as long as proper procedures and notifications have been followed.

“Deaccession is not meant to be an attack on the artists or the merits of their artwork,” she added. “‘Digital DNA’ has offered a great point of discussion about Palo Alto’s place in the heart of Silicon Valley and our connection to a broader context. However, the materials are not suited to the site, and no indoor site has been found. Should the deaccession go through and the artists decide that they do not want it back, perhaps a private collector would like to acquire it and put it on display in the lobby of their building.”

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