Pacific Art League (PAL) has been a mainstay on the local arts scene for nearly a century, since its founding as the Palo Alto Art Club in 1921. With new director Lisa Coscino at the helm, the nonprofit plans to increase its outreach and scope, both within the historic space on downtown Palo Alto's Ramona Street and beyond its borders.
"I might be described a little bit as a change agent," Coscino, who joined PAL in November, mused during a recent conversation with the Weekly.
Her previous position was as head of New Museum Los Gatos, the rebranding and reopening of which she led in 2015. While she has extensive experience in development and fundraising -- a large part of the museum director job once the initial design and creation period was over -- she was attracted to the PAL position partly because of the opportunity to better utilize her longtime passion for arts education. She also has experience in commercial art, having run her own gallery for a decade, but said she prefers the nonprofit world.
"I end up being kind of a 'do-goodie,'" she said with a laugh. "And selling art isn't as fun as exhibiting art and working with artists. We (PAL) teach classes, employ artists as teachers, create new artists and give them a place to exhibit. That is very exciting to me."
PAL has experienced a fair amount of turbulence over the past two decades, with internal conflicts over the vision for the organization as well as the renovation of the 668 Ramona St. building leading to high turnover of board members and staff. Under the leadership of Coscino's predecessor, Jon Graves, PAL has worked to raise its community profile and put past squabbles behind it.
In her first few months on the job, Coscino said she's spent a lot of time observing and researching the league's history and public perception.
"As this organization's really great classes and faculty have gained momentum, become more established and become more known as a learning institute, as a place to take classes in Palo Alto," she said, "we've let slip (communicating to) our public that we're a nonprofit that does community outreach, that teaches underserved populations and all sorts of other things."
A new exhibition this month in the front Ramona Gallery, "Creating Change Through Art," will help celebrate and spread the word about some of PAL's outreach programs: an after-school arts program for low-income and/or English-learning youth at several Mid-Peninsula Boys & Girls Club sites in San Mateo County; the DREAMS (Design, Reading, Engineering, Arts, Math and Science) program at four elementary schools in the Ravenswood City School District; and the Bill Wilson Center Expressive Art Program at five locations in Santa Clara County, which provides a creative and therapeutic outlet to at-risk youth.
Each program involves experienced teaching artists who work in a variety of mediums, with the Expressive Art Program also employing an art therapist. The DREAMS program, founded by PAL instructor Dana Shields, aims to bring a creative approach to Common Core curriculum, weaving academic standards into art projects and diverse cultural exploration.
PAL's involvement with these programs began over the past two years, Marketing Director Aly Gould said, and have each already doubled in scope since then, with Coscino's passion helping to keep up momentum.
"I've been involved with youth arts for a while and I feel really strongly about it," Coscino said. "It was one of the things that really drew me to this job, knowing that we had outreach in place in that area and this organization was ripe for rocketship potential," she said. "The board feels that way; the staff feels that way; everyone is on board to do as much as we can for the community."
Relationships with other groups, including Facebook, which recently helped fund the expansion of the Ravenswood program, and Santa Clara County, which supports the Bill Wilson Center program, are also key, Coscino said.
County Supervisor Joe Simitian first proposed the partnership in 2017. In a recent press release, he lauded the program's success.
"It was honestly a very obvious match. Pacific Art League was looking to expand its services to a more diverse population, and the Bill Wilson Center is always looking to do more for the kids they serve," Simitian noted. "We owe it to these kids and young adults to prepare them for life as much as we can. And that includes emotional preparedness."
To Coscino, experiences in art are crucial for fostering creative thinking and self-expression.
"One of the main things that all of the arts do is teach you how to make your own decisions and get comfortable with them," she said. The "Creating Change Through Art" exhibition will also give participants the chance to have their work professionally framed and displayed. "You can't measure how important that is" as a confidence boost, she said. She is hoping to make the exhibition an annual event.
Also on display in February is an exhibition by former Palo Alto artist Florence Robichon, who's long been involved with youth arts and education. Her collection, "Hope is Back," features photos of murals created by young refugees under the guidance of Robichon and the nonprofit Arbat Brighter Future at the Arbat Camp in Kurdistan, Northern Iraq.
"I am a strong believer of art as a therapy," Robichon told the Weekly, noting that creating the colorful murals not only helped the children to remember and celebrate lost parts of their previous lives and express their dreams for the future, but also to beautify their current conditions and take ownership of their new living space. One 10-year-old painter, she said, told her, "Our camp is now so beautiful that I don't want to leave it anymore."
"Hope is Back," which is displayed in the Center (hallway) Gallery, with its theme of youth using art to help deal with trauma, is a natural companion to the main exhibition (a third February exhibition, featuring Punch Magazine, is on view in the Forrest Gallery). In March, the Center Gallery will feature plans for the future Palo Alto History Museum.
"That is one of the uses of that space in the center, to give voice to other community members; to help other people tell their stories," Coscino said.
PAL's downtown location, near other art hotspots including Pace Gallery, Bryant Street Gallery, the city's public-art space on King Plaza and the newly opened Pamela Walsh Gallery also make it uniquely situated for mutually beneficial relationships.
"Partnerships are the thing that elevates any organization," Coscino said. "I'm determined about it." She said PAL is working on a future show of work from the late Nathan Oliveira's family collection. While PAL takes the informational, museum perspective on his oeuvre, the Walsh gallery up the street can broker pieces for sale.
"If we can coordinate a show like that every year where we take the education side and the gallery takes the sales side, that would be a delight," she said. "It's a win-win for everybody."
Coscino also said PAL hopes to do more to support all artists who exhibit their work in PAL's three galleries, including offering training on how to pursue art as a career.
"Things like how to put a portfolio together, how to approach galleries, how to edit your work. 'What is tax deductible?'" she said. "Teaching artists how to be professional business people is super important."
She'd like to better organize PAL's exhibitions and take inspiration from a PAL practice of the past by offering teacher-student shows, as well as attracting more mid-career artists to exhibit and speak to students and the public. And though she may not consider herself a salesperson, she does hope to bolster up PAL's support for helping artists sell their work, as well.
"I think Lisa is going to be an amazing asset to the organization as we grow," incoming board president Ellie Javadi told the Weekly. "The local art scene has come alive over the last few years and we're seeing a renewed interest in our classes, lectures and exhibits -- as well as after-school satellite art programs that bring families quality art education, which may be missing in their regular school environment," according to a statement released on behalf of the board.
When she's more settled into her new role and has some breathing room, Coscino said she also hopes to start dropping in on PAL's classes herself, nurturing her particular love for oil painting and figure drawing.
"Throughout my entire life, I have made art, badly but happily. I do not judge myself at all," she said. "I'd probably never finish anything but I'd be happy in the process. That is definitely in my future."
Speaking of the future, PAL also hopes to organize a special celebration when its centennial rolls around next year, honoring its long history as well as its current focus.
"Here's the first 100 years, really learning how to be this amazing arts organization -- how to teach and have exhibit space," she said, "and here's the next 100 years of giving back to the community."
What: "Creating Change Through Art," Hope is Back" and "Punch Magazine Exhibition."
Where: Pacific Art League, 668 Ramona St., Palo Alto.
When: Through Feb. 26. Galleries open Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.