Developers question use of Public Art Fund for playground

The city of Napa will soon decide whether to move ahead on a ‘playable art’ project at Fuller Park, currently set to debut in 2025 but already is arousing opposition.

The project, which the City Council will vote on Tuesday, is unpopular with local developers and artists because its cost would be partly covered by the city’s Public Art Fund, which some feel should be reserved for more traditional art installations.

The idea to place public art in Fuller Park arose in March 2021, when the city’s Public Art Steering Committee (PASC) introduced the Arts in the Park concept. The public art committee wanted to commission some form of artwork in a city park as part of a larger goal to expand where public art appears in Napa — aside from conventional sculptures and murals mostly in the tourist-facing areas of the city. 

People are also reading…

Napa’s PASC and Parks and Recreation Commission worked together to develop a plan for Arts in the Park. They decided to build a playable artwork in Fuller Park, due to its central location in the Old Town neighborhood and the need for new playground equipment. 

Existing play equipment at Fuller Park for children ages 5 to 12 was installed in 2002 and is now in “poor condition due to age and use,” according to a city staff report. If built, the playable art structure will replace the current play equipment and the safety surface below it, while newer equipment for younger children ages 2 to 5, built in 2017, will either stay or be moved.

The city recreation manager, Katrina Gregory, explained that instead of commissioning a mural or sculpture at Fuller Park, building playable art means that the park can get both a refurbished playground for kids, as well as visually pleasing and more accessible public art for Napans.

“This is a great opportunity to create something really amazing and wonderful for the community,” she said about the project in September.

However, some artists and developers feel the project is a misuse of Public Art Fund money, as the play structure is allocated $750,000 of the fund’s current budget.

The Public Art Fund is financed through a development fee the city passed in 2010 through the Public Art Ordinance. It requires developers constructing new non-residential private and public projects costing more than $250,000 to contribute to the city’s public art program, either by installing on-site public art equal to 1% of their construction costs or by paying 1% of their construction costs directly to the city’s Public Art Fund.

The total annual contribution to the Public Art Fund fluctuates based on the number of projects underway, but Gregory said that on average, about $190,000 is added to the fund per year.

Gordon Huether, a city of Napa planning commissioner and local artist specializing in public art, believes using Public Art Fund money for the Fuller Park structure is a misuse of the fund.

“The Public Art Fund is reserved for public art installations, which requires that an artist be hired to do a project,” Huether said. “What staff is suggesting is that an industrial designer and landscape architect qualifies as an artist.” Huether does not believe that this qualifies. 

He also said that he feels including playground equipment as a medium of “art” is wrong.

“The public art master plan does list playground equipment, but as an artist who specializes in public art, I have never seen playground equipment qualify as public art,” he said.

Breyana Brandt, the city parks and recreation director, said that the city feels confident that the scope of the Fuller Park project is within the definition of public art, and that the selected artist, Dan Wodarcyk, is more than qualified for the position.

“The Napa Municipal Code defines artists very clearly and we believe that the artist we have on this project not only meets but exceeds the standards outlined in the code,” Brandt said, adding that Wodarcyk’s fine arts education and experience with applied art qualify him for the project.

But according to Todd Zapolski, the developer of the First Street Napa retail arcade, using money from the Public Art Fund for the Fuller Park project feels at least misleading.

“We’re asked to contribute for things that will be in the public environment that enhance the community from an art point of view,” he said. “This use that they’re talking about seems to be out of sync with why we and others have contributed, to what we were told (the fee was for) and what that agreement was.”

Zapolski believes that labeling a play structure as public art is a “real stretch.” While supporting efforts to fund city parks to keep them safe and up to date, he added that the argument isn’t about the “value of the use, it’s about where the funds come from.”

“(Suppose) you pay in for a food service and then you wind up getting textbooks,” Zapolski continued. “Textbooks are very important, but when you’re paying for one thing and getting another, it’s not really apples to apples.”

While Napa officials believe a Fuller Park play structure is a chance to broaden the city’s perception of what public art can be, Zapolski said that the use of Public Art Fund money will set a precedent that he and other developers take into account moving forward.

“If we do another project, it’s going to be a question mark,” he said. “Is this (fee in lieu of art) going to go towards public art?”

Huether, the artist and planning commissioner, foresaw more builders choosing to install art on their own sites instead of contributing to the fund as a result. 

“When the development community sees that their fees are being spent in this way, I don’t think they are going to be very keen in the future to put money into it,” he said. “They are going to put it toward their own property.”

Take a stroll past 10 artworks adorning Napa’s open-air gallery in the downtown area and the Oxbow district.