Building a Better Modesto

Modesto Art Museum

Funding Received: 2013
Modesto, CA
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
April 24, 2014


By Bob Barzan for Modesto Art Museum

-- The Modesto Art Museum staff and volunteers joined with other community members and city workers (we call ourselves the Modesto Downtown Design Group) to refresh the first two parklets in the design district. The parklets, at a key intersection, are an experiment in tactical urbanism. The success of these first two parklets has won over city officials who are now encouraging more parklets and experiments in urban design in the district.

-- The Downtown Design Group is experimenting with a plastic wrap for art on the city’s utility boxes. Four paintings from a local artist were digitally printed on vinyl with an adhesive backing. The prints were then plastered to the four sides of the utility box. So far through social media, the response has been strongly positive. The wraps are an experiment to deal with several public art issues including graffiti and long-term care.

-- The opening of “Modern Art Kimono,” the exhibit of early 20th century Japanese kimono that were inspired by European modern art, was well attended and a large number of visitors continue to enjoy the exhibit. The exhibition is part of our effort to brand the design district as a place to experience and enjoy design of all kinds including fashion.

-- The Modesto Downtown Design Committee completed selection of three designs for the public art bike racks. The group is now considering sites for the art in the design district.

The public art portion of the project has been the biggest challenge of the last several months. The city’s culture commission has become non-existent, so there is no entity within city government with which we can work to create a public art policy. I approached one of the senior city planners in the Community and Economic Development Department who is interested in having more publicly displayed art in the city. He put together the Modesto Downtown Design Group, and the museum is working with them to develop guidelines for the city’s publicly displayed art. We’ve responded to the lack of city structures or mechanisms for supporting art by creating some new ones. In place of the culture commission, we are working with the new Downtown Design Group. We are also using a tactical urbanism approach and experimenting with policies and procedures. This way, we have firsthand experience with what works and doesn’t in the Modesto context before securing the policies in difficult to change city codes.

Recent Wins
-- The city council has decided to move quickly on adopting a public art policy. In the next two months, two council committees will meet to draft a policy with input from the Modesto Art Museum, and the entire council is scheduled to vote on it at their June meeting. Adoption of a city public art policy is a major goal of the Building a Better Modesto project.

-- Modesto received local and national attention in the media when Smart Growth America listed it as the 7th most densely populated mid-size (500,000 to 1 million) urban area in the country. The ranking is not new, but this time, it received extensive local media attention that related the lack of local sprawl to benefits for city residents.

I’ve learned how important it is to be flexible not only with our goals, but also perhaps more importantly with the means for accomplishing those goals. I had it in my mind exactly how we would develop a public art policy for Modesto and what that policy would look like. Those plans were immediately frustrated because the city did not have the structures that I was depending on. In letting go of both the goals and the process other possibilities came to light, allies suddenly appeared, and both the goals and the process were redefined in a way that is more inclusive and appropriate for the Modesto context. Now I think we will have a public art ordinance that is better than I could have imagined.