Enduring Tradition

Palm Desert Uplifts the Arts With Growing Public Arts Program

With more than 180 installations by diverse local and international artists in the city, art is more accessible than ever.

Janice Kleinschmidt Arts & Entertainment, Sponsored

Enduring Tradition

"Enduring Tradition" sculpture by Gerald Clarke Jr. 

A coiled fiberglass sculpture by Gerald Clarke Jr. adds color to the wide-open landscape surrounding the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument Visitor Center in Palm Desert. Installed in 2016, “Enduring Tradition” represents the basketry of the artist’s Cahuilla Indian heritage. In a larger context, it points to the city’s mission to make art accessible to the community.

The beauty of art is that it can evoke feelings distinct to each individual gazing upon it. The beauty of public art is that it is situated for anyone to view. And the beauty of public art in Palm Desert, according to Mayor Kathleen Kelly, is that it is diverse and widespread throughout the city.

“It is a core part of the city’s identity, and the reputation of our public art program attracts interest from artists internationally,” she says. “It is very important to [city leaders] that access to good art does not hinge on people being able to go to a museum — or even to a specific place.”

Palm Desert is home to 70 city-owned works, 79 developer installations, nine murals, and 18 pieces in the rotating El Paseo Sculpture Exhibition. Additionally, there are 14 art-wrapped public utility cabinets, which is apropos in light of Kelly’s view that art is as essential as water and power to the enrichment of life.

Michael Anderson won the city’s first Art in Public Places commission in 1989. The Arizona-based sculptor created the painted-steel “Desert Dessert” installation for Palm Desert Civic Center Park — a key gathering place and recreational resource for the community with 21 other works, including Dee Clements’ “Holocaust Memorial” and “Poly Parfait” by E. Tyler Burton.

Armando’s Bar

"Urban Tree" by Carlos Basanta.

To Kelly’s point about diversity, consider the “Urban Tree” stack of reflective stainless-steel cubes by Spanish/Canadian artist Carlos Basanta at Desert Willow Golf Resort and the ceramic mosaic “Baja Palapa” designed by Donna Billick and Arthur Gonzalez and executed by more than 100 community members.

Palm Desert’s public art program reaches beyond the installation of artworks. A free documentary film series — launched in 2009 and hosted by the University of California, Riverside’s Palm Desert campus — runs January through April. Featured artists have ranged from M.C. Escher, Henri Matisse, and Maynard Dixon to Dale Chihuly, Robert Irwin, and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

“People are eager to stretch their minds, and the series allows them to learn more so they can better appreciate art they encounter,” Kelly says.

City Hall also hosts exhibitions, which include student art and essays. “We all want to support future generations, and this is a fantastic but simple way to provide encouragement,” she continues.

The city has created an online/virtual tour that shows the locations of public art and includes their titles, creators’ names, and descriptions. Commissioned pieces represent 45 percent of the city’s collection; the remaining 55 percent is split evenly among donations and purchases.

“Historically, the vast majority of purchases are made from the El Paseo Sculpture Exhibition,” says Erica Powell, who oversees the city’s public art collection and programs.

Palm Desert is so dedicated to supporting the full scope of arts that, this year, it put out a call for nominations to a new post: poet laureate. But that is not the only new thing under the sun in the city. Donald Gialanella’s 25-foot-tall, stainless steel “Sunburst” will shine, literally and figuratively, in the center of a San Pablo corridor roundabout.

Adopted April 28, 2022, the San Pablo Public Art Development Plan for creating a “city center” acknowledges that, after a framework of street redesign was established, “The next step will be to activate the area through special events and public art in the broadest sense: placemaking, sculpture, eye-catching murals, interactive elements that invite community participation, and hidden gems inspiring delight and discovery.”

Mayor Kelly adds that the City Council’s vision is “to provide residents with more and more interactive experiences where they not only view art but also have the opportunity to express their own creativity.”

Armando’s Bar

“Taming the Wild West” by Tim Shockley.

In fact, the city asked community members to help select the roundabout sculpture from two options. Gialanella describes his winning design: “The piece can be interpreted to represent multiple concepts — the sun, a star, a flower that opens and closes as the viewer circulates around it, or an abstract palm tree that celebrates Palm Desert’s natural beauty.”

Or it could be anything you see in it.