An exclusive conversation with Emeryville Economic and Community Development Coordinator Amber Evans

13 mins read

We recently had the pleasure of talking with Amber Evans, our City’s Economic and Community Development Coordinator. On a sunny afternoon in city hall, we chatted about the Arts in Public Places Program’s past, present, and future. I came in with ten questions and left with a better understanding of the city we live in.


WH: Let’s start with just a brief intro. Tell us a bit about yourself.

AE: I’m Amber Evans and I am the Economic and Community Development Coordinator. That can mean lot of different things. Sometimes I call myself the “ABC” coordinator, which is Arts, Brownfields, and Community Development. I am the sole staff to the Arts program, but we do have interns that help with the program, as well as administrative support. I have a Masters in Planning from U.C. Berkeley. Prior to the City of Emeryville, I had no background in Public Art. I was here on staff full-time as a Community Development Coordinator doing grant writing and project management. With the loss of Redevelopment, a lot of positions within my department – which is now a division – were eliminated, and staffing was consolidated. So a part-time person, who was coordinating the Arts position at the time, lost their position, and the role fell to me in 2012.

WH: Where are you from and how did you get involved in the Public Art Program?

AE: I was born and raised in San Francisco. I went to Santa Cruz for my undergraduate degree and came back to San Francisco briefly before moving to Berkeley about 20 years ago, where I went to grad school. That’s where I’ve been ever since.

WH: How did the Public Art Program begin in the City and what were some of the obstacles that it had to overcome?

AE: The Public Art Program was initiated in 1990, making it one of the earliest 1% of arts programs, as other cities have since explored it. It came out of a fractious moment where there was a possible loss of housing for artists in 1990 and the birth of the co-op. The support of the co-op through Redevelopment and the collaboration that were born out of the process [helped initiate the program.] They started asking questions like, “Besides the artist co-op (which ended up becoming a very successful model), what else can the City do?” The City looked toward members of the co-op to form the first Public Art Committee (PAC) for the City. That’s when they drafted the original ordinance for the City with our City Attorney. It predated any staff in 1990. As money was being collected, staff was assigned to publicly fund art. But a lot of the initial developments kept that art on site. Our ordinance allows you to build on-site, and if you don’t want to build on site, then you pay into a Citywide fund.

WH: So, were the initial committees elected?

AE: They were appointed by the council. The committee today are [also] appointed by the Council. They consist of residents and in a few cases, business representatives. For the PAC, that’s art businesses or those that have participated in the program. The longest standing committee member is Sharon Wilchar, and she was initially in the co-op as a textile artist. One of the business representatives, Camille Hamilton, she’s a glass artist. Rick Tejada-Flores is the newest member, and he’s a film-maker. The 1% for the arts goes towards visual arts, so while there have been performing artist on the committee, the program is focused solely on the visual arts. Gallery owners and marketing professionals have also been on the committee.

WH: How did stakeholders at the time react to the Public Art Program? How did neighboring cities react to the plan?

AE: The Public Arts Program didn’t get initiated with a plan. This [Public Arts Master Plan] is the first plan we are commissioning in 25 years into the success of the program. I wasn’t here at the time. Certainly, Berkeley went on to create an Art in Public Places Program, which was based on the municipal part, but didn’t pass it on to developers. Oakland only, two years ago, emulated the program. So I think for the most of part, the reaction was to see it as unique, and not adopt it immediately. We remain unique in that aspect of our City operation. We didn’t have that many other impact fees as Berkeley or Oakland might have had, whereas we prioritized the arts.

The Co-op started before, but what we call the Art in Public Places Program (AiPP) of the City is directly tied to the inauguration of the ordinance and the requirement for private development to sponsor public art on their site or with payment to the City. That program evolved so that we added residential [developments] later, but it’s only 0.5%. When we had Redevelopment, 60% of the money could be used on site, but 40% had to be paid to the City. Now that Redevelopment doesn’t exist, that is a loss of a guaranteed funding stream. Typically when we have smaller projects we get cash payments.

WH: Are there any incentives for the developers to contribute to the art program?

AE: It’s just a requirement of development. We have provided referrals to art consultants, but they have to pay for that consultant separately. Many of our developers will use architects to identify other artists in the community. Some developers have private collections and they know artists through their own collections and commission art themselves.

WH: How is art selected for the Art Program? How are the locations selected? Can you walk us through the steps of how a piece of art is installed in the City?

AE: There really are three different processes. 1.) Art can be selected through the Annual Purchase Award. The selections of qualified artists for consideration is conducted by a non-profit, the Celebration for the Arts. It juries artwork from employees or residents of Emeryville. That’s the only way you can be in that show. About 100 to 150 local artists have their artwork shown for a month, in the Celebration for the Arts. It’s an annual show and it predates the AiPP, they’re having their 30th anniversary this year. Starting in 2006, The City made a commitment to buy a piece from the show, and in some years we’ve bought multiple pieces from the show. The selection panel may say, “Having looked at City Hall and some ancillary sites, we think this is perfect for our site.” That program was just here for City Hall, and we purchased 14 pieces that way. The year before last, we bought a piece for the Police Station, the rest of the work is here in City Hall. Next year we’re opening the purchases for the Senior Center and the ECCL.

2.) Then we have a Bus Shelter Program, which similar to the Purchase Award Program, is only for local artists that are living and working in Emeryville. These artists are selected for temporary exhibits at four bus stops in the City. We put out a call. The PAC advises on the theme and the goals of a call, that’s recommended to the City Council. The Council approves the call and it goes out locally. Next a selection panel, which usually have some representation from the PAC, but also professional artists, staff members from the City, and maybe even a technical consultant of some kind, or a stakeholder. For example, if it’s a school site like ECCL, you might have someone representing the school district. The selection panel is specific to the call. It always will have PAC representation and other representation, specific to the call. Multiple respondents are collected; the selection panel does an initial culling. Often times we augment the limited staffing that we have by having a professional arts consultant work with us. So they will identify those professionals to be on the selection panel because they have those networks within those circles, and the City doesn’t necessarily have those connections. They may support the staffing of the selection panel. For example, if there are six artists being selected, the finalists are whittled down, and then that’s recommended to the City Council and they approve the commission. We’ve been doing this since 2009 and have done three phases and intend to do it again in 2016. We built the shelters that these are exhibited in and it’s been a very popular program.

3.) Lastly, we may do a call for a public art capital project, and we’ve done about ten of these. The most noted one is Seyed Alavi’s utility boxes (Sign of the Times). Some others include Neighborhood Convergence, underneath the I-80 at Powell, Anita Margrill’s piece, the blue hand out in the Marina (Peninsula Tell Tail and Overlook), which was one of our earliest pieces, was moved out there because trees were growing too tall around it for the 25 years that it’s been there. It was originally by the Fire Station and was moved out there two years ago. Those are just examples. There we do a call, similar to the bus shelters, but we go nationally. Now we use a service called Call for Entry, an online website that artists can subscribe to. That way, when we do a call, it gets emailed to them that that opportunity is available.

#emeryville #evilleart #publicart #eastbay #thebay

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WH: The blue spinning hand is my favorite piece by the way. I go to dim sum with my family a lot at East Ocean restaurant and every time I see it, it makes me smile. So when did the Public Art Program get noticed? At what point did the Public Art Program gain traction?

AE: I think it’s fair to say Seyed Alavi’s piece (2004), which won a national award, and created an identity for the City really got people going, “Hey wait, I recognize this is something…” Because there are 25 of them in the City and it’s got enough presence where people will go, “Hey wait, I just noticed that, where was that?” It has been like a treasure hunt, people have described it as that. A lot of people have talked about the utility boxes as a way of knowing you’re in Emeryville. That’s one strategy we’re thinking about in the PAMP, as there are ways we can use Public Art to identify Emeryville and give it a sense of place.

WH: Besides providing “art” to the City, how has the Public Art Program benefitted the community?

AE: It’s one strategy for providing economic development. We have a strong resident population that consists of artists. Both the bus shelter and the purchase award are ways of creating economic opportunities that are competitively awarded. We also see it explicitly as a place to make Emeryville attractive; to increase business attraction and retention. Developers have talked about the other fees, but the Public Art Program has enough of a reputation that they see it as a benefit. I also think that people who start their own businesses or who are developers, are fairly creative, and they like the idea that they can put a stamp [on their project] in a unique way. I think that in a community like Emeryville, where we balance being a small town and being a large regional, urban, and metro area, a sense of identity is important. It’s also softening the edges of the corporate-residential interface. Or the anonymity that comes with having branded, multi-national corporations in our City – if they have public art that’s very unique to this place, then we kind of ground those converging, and potentially conflicting different needs of a city, and unite them with a shared aesthetic.

WH: I see what you’re saying. Because big companies, like Pixar is here, but they too have to contribute to the cause.

AE: And it’s a challenge for companies like Pixar that have sealed campuses, so they just paid. They paid in and we were able to use that to fund some of our Citywide art installations, like Seyed’s piece. We’re pooling individual developers’ contributions and then doing something in the public right-of-way or parks.

WH: Last year there was a lawsuit between a Building Industry Association and the City of Oakland’s public art ordinance. How was Emeryville impacted by this case?

AE: We are watching this case, but since there hasn’t been a ruling, we haven’t changed our practices. It does make us conscious about if we are considering any revisions to our ordinance. So we’re going a PAMP right now and we might consider revisions to have more review publicly of private development or to have a requirement to have funds be paid to the City than only putting art on places. Given that there’s an open question about the reach of these ordinances, we may be more cautious about things that we could see as being beneficial to the residents and the City overall, but if they put us in a legally vulnerable place for the program, we would be more cautious about exploring that.

WH: Yes, I know that more than 200 cities are looking at this ruling, and we all want a more legally defensible ordinance in the future. What are some of the plans for the Public Art Program on the horizon? What could residents and art lovers be looking forward to in the future?

AE: A lot of things actually! So the PAMP, and citizens can be engaged in that process to talk about where they want art and what kind of art. We’ll be having a workshop on May 14th, at Bullseye Glass, and people can participate in a glass art project. The capital projects that are coming [are the following]: We have selected an artist for underneath the overpass on Powell, above Shellmound, between Bay Street and the Public Market. We are planning to construct that this year. We have five finalists for the ECCL. On March 16th to April 8th, the finalists will be available for the public to look at. There will be surveys available for them to comment and give feedback on. Seyed Alavi’s 25 public utility box pieces are going to have 20 new images. So the existing locations where they are will have new images on them, designed by the same artist, but to refresh them. The five that will be retained will be moved around. So if you’ve always been looking at the question mark piece outside your window, you’ll have a new image by the same artist out there. They will have the same uniformity and color and thematic expression, but they will have new individual pieces. We anticipate those will be installed in May. And for the Bus Shelter Program, new artists get put in every four months. Lastly, over the next year, we will be looking at revisiting the feasibility of the site next to City Hall, and fundraising to develop that as a center for the arts and a permanent house for the Celebration of the Arts.

WH: How will the Public Art Master Plan add to the existing Public Art program?

AE: We want to better guide the PAC with some uniform selection criteria and locational priorities, and programmatic priorities. We have had banner programs. We talked about how public art might work in gateway locations. We have pondered if these will be in the Public art program or will they be forwarded through other funding mechanisms. We have looked at the reach and the depth of the program, and the investment. We hope that the program can identify some other funding streams. We have about $100,000 in activity costs every year that are paid for by the 1%, and we have about $1.3 million available for art programming in capital. So how much do we put into programs versus how much we put into capital projects? And how we prioritize that? And what’s the vision for bringing in additional dollars? The PAMP needs to look into these questions. It [the PAMP] might create new art programs. We’ve talked about the possibility of having artists initiated programs or discretionary funds for art.

WH: Is the plan being done in-house?

AE: No, we have hired a firm out of Ohio. Our top competitor was out of Pennsylvania. We had five respondents to our call, and some of them were local but we really liked some of the creative approaches that this team brought. They will be riding through some of our corridors with Go-Pro cameras, and having people say where art should be placed.

WH: Do you have an expected deadline for when this to be completed?

AE: We expect the PAMP to be published in October. But we hope to at least have the draft by then to roll out with the Celebration for the Arts annual show in October, which is their 30th anniversary.

WH: Lastly, what is your favorite Public Art piece and why?

AE: My favorite piece is actually one that hangs right here in City Hall, Solar Rose. The artist is Roger Berry. The reason because it’s dichromatic glass that changes by the light of the day, by the light of the season, and as a user of this space, I can always expect something different – both in how it’s cast indoors and outdoors. I’m really a fan of interactive and functional art, but I find it fascinating that this very static piece creates interaction by the shadows that it casts. You can have kids play on the dots that are casts by the multi-color glass on the ground. I love that in its permanence, it creates a temporary inspiration.

WH: I really like that piece as well. I’ve walked past it a couple times and you couldn’t go by without looking up. It reminds me of the one by Public Market with the wind turbines.

AE: The piece you just talked about was installed through a grant by the State. It’s called, Lift, by the Exploratorium. That is NOT a piece in our program. Tylar Hoare’s pieces out by Shorebird Park were not commissioned by the City. These seagulls, over here on Pixar, they’re not part of our program. In some ways, this is what I mean by the culture of Emeryville having a creative expression. Some of the public art that people see every day, maybe they don’t know where any of the art comes from. But as people become more aware of the City’s program, they should be aware that some of those touches are just independent endeavors.

WH: So do they get added to the Public Arts Map?

AE: They don’t. So for example, Wareham Development, they have a significant body of work, which is interior to the building that’s required by the ordinance to be publicly accessible from business hours. People should be aware that you can go in to the lobbies of these buildings and take a look. Wareham has wall in their lobby that’s of Nobel Laureates and they made sure to put women in so that when school children came by, they would be able to see somebody like themselves, and know that they can be inspired to be a Nobel scientist. Going back to your question about what can art do? It can inspire people. It can be part of our educational system.

WH: Thank you so much for your time.

For more info on Emeryville’s public art program, please see the following links: AiPP Website, PAMP Website, and Art Map.

Please also take a moment to help Amber out with this survey.

You can also register for May 14th’s event here.


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William He

is a city planner for the City of American Canyon. He grew up in Oakland and moved to Emeryville in 2011. He has a Master's Degree in Urban Planning from San Jose State University and completed his thesis on the impact of redevelopment projects in Emeryville. His interests include community planning, land use optimization, and urban design. William lives with his wife in the Park Avenue District and enjoys photography and traveling on his spare time.

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