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

When the building that houses the Palo Alto Art Center was constructed in 1953, it was considered, according to a self-guided tour brochure, “ultra modern” and innovative due to its “Ranchero style”. But over time, tastes, trends and needs change. Often buildings like this, which served as Palo Alto’s city hall for over 10 years, are torn down in order to create new, updated facilities. That was not the fate of 1313 Newell Road, a venerable structure that has over the years been remodeled, redeveloped and reinvented as a community arts center which will celebrate its 50th anniversary on May 15.

Long considered the center 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 view and create art.

With its extensive galleries and fully equipped studios, the Center serves thousands of users each year. This includes adults, enjoying the opportunity to learn to paint, draw and make ceramics under the guidance of professional artists, and school-aged children who often get their first exposure to art through the program. Project Look.

How has the Palo Alto Art Center survived the vicissitudes of time – and a global pandemic to celebrate this major milestone? The Palo Alto Weekly spoke with 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 Marcia Pugsley.

Content of Judith is a nationally acclaimed textile artist who 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 sits on the Emeritus Council.

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

Content of Judith: The Art Center has always been an accessible and welcoming place to see art, learn about art, and make art. The Art Center nurtures a community of artists, creators, teachers and art lovers.

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

Content: Over the years, I have witnessed an engaged staff who recognized the needs of the community and consistently provided creative programming to meet those needs. For example, with arts curricula reduced in schools, Project Look brought school-aged children to the Art Center for arts education programs with a hands-on component.

Weekly Palo Alto: 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 ever-changing, often interactive art exhibits. It’s like a visual treasure hunt and I always come away inspired.

Weekly Palo Alto: Can you share a particular memory you have of the Center d’art?

Content: My favorite memory was co-creating “Pottery Creek” with the great community of Palo Alto. It is a permanent, site-specific installation that flanks both sides of the art center entrance. It consists of countless pieces of polished pottery. To make it, I received broken pottery plates, cups and bowls from hundreds of people. I broke them and dropped the shards into a stone goblet. It was installed ten years ago and continues to evolve. Now I regularly salvage and reuse discarded pottery from children’s clay classes.

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

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

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 a watercolor class, she was “addicted”. Later, she became involved in the foundation board because “selfishly, I wanted to maintain a good institution”.

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

Marcia Pugsley: The Art Center has changed over time; classes reflected technology (iPad drawing, iPhone photography), fashion design, and calligraphy (in response to members of our Asian American community). There have been exhibits on the work of black artists, immigration, disability and healing. These exhibitions were all planned before the pandemic, which speaks volumes about how curators listened and the importance of art reflecting community and social issues.

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

Pugsley: I hope the Art Center will continue to offer exhibitions that challenge our thinking, shake our perspective and move our hearts – plus, admission remains free. The Art Center has had excellent leadership throughout its 50 years and I hope we can attract and retain the high caliber staff who keep the offerings fresh and moving.

Karen Kienzle has a long history with the Art Center, which began when she was a second-grade student at Keys School and participated in Project Look. While in college, she volunteered 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.

Weekly Palo Alto: How has the Art Center stayed alive – and relevant – during COVID?

Karen Kienzle: The amazing, resourceful, diligent and overall incredible staff at the Art Center have responded to the COVID pandemic in creative ways. We have hosted virtual and hybrid programs and in-person programs securely. Our School Visits program and our Artists in Schools program moved to virtual and then in-class until spring when we were able to offer on-site art experiences.

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

Weekly Palo Alto: Can you share any future projects/goals for the Centre?

Kienzle: We look forward to our summer exhibition, our first juried exhibition in over a decade. It continues the theme of restoration and renewal initiated with our “Creative Attention” project. Next year we are launching a series of climate-related exhibits as part of our “Climate Connections” (exhibition series), including exhibits focusing on fire, water and earth. We continue to work to make our programs more accessible through captioning and visual descriptions and, through 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, treats, and admission to the ongoing exhibit, “Creative Attention: Art and Community Restoration.” The event takes place Sunday, May 15 from 3-5 p.m. at the Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road, Palo Alto. For more information, visit