VA Palo Alto defends spending millions on art
VA Palo Alto Health Care System officials are pushing back against critics who call its spending on artwork excessive, saying the costs are justified when taken into context of the facilities’ entire construction budget.
The approximately $4.02 million spent on sculptures and ornamental furnishings since 2010 amounts to less than half of 1 percent of VA Palo Alto’s multibillion-dollar construction portfolio during the same period, said system spokesman Damian McGee.
"Yes, veterans deserve top-notch medical care, but they also deserve an aesthetically pleasing environment in which to heal and to receive that care," McGee said.
"Sometimes it’s hard enough to come in for care and treatment," he added. "If you’re expecting and paying for top-notch care, you would hope the place itself reflects that."
Members of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and some of the Peninsula’s top political leaders have questioned why VA Palo Alto spent $6.3 million on artwork and related consulting in the past 10 years at a time when medical care languished at other VA hospitals.
The artwork debacle followed revelations that many veterans across the country had to wait exceedingly long periods for treatment and some died before ever seeing a doctor. Long patient wait times have not been an issue at the Palo Alto system’s facilities, however.
According to an investigation by Cox Media and Open the Books, a website that tracks government spending operated by the nonprofit American Transparency, the VA centers combined likely spent more than $20 million for artwork between 2004 and 2014.
Legislators’ scrutiny of the VA’s art spending the past year has led the agency to begin developing a national art policy to include commissioned artwork.
Bill McGurk of VA Palo Alto’s major projects division said the agency’s central office this year began adhering to an artwork spending limit of no more than 0.4 percent of the total construction cost of any project.
Even before then, VA Palo Alto followed a similar guideline set by the federal General Services Administration, which oversees procurement and management of federal construction projects and dedicates half of 1 percent of each project to art, McGurk said.
VA Palo Alto officials say a common misconception is that money spent on artwork can be used instead on expanding medical services or hiring doctors and nurses.
Unless the VA central office changes its allocation of federal dollars, VA Palo Alto will continue to get specific amounts of money for operations, major construction and activation funding. The activation funding category covers items that go inside new buildings, such as furniture, medical equipment — and art.
The $4.02 million does not include framed pictures that go inside buildings, which comes out of a different budget, according to McGurk.
VA Palo Alto officials confirmed that since 2010 they spent:
- $483,000 for "Aggregate," a rock sculpture that is part of a $1.3 million courtyard at the new Mental Health Center.
- $375,000 for a white, half-arc sculpture that is near the Mental Health Center.
- $305,000 for a green sculpture with letter cutouts in an exterior lobby.
- $365,745 for a stainless steel and aluminum sculpture at the Aquatic Center.
- $285,000 for a holographic colored glass façade adorning a parking structure that translates quotes from Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt into Morse Code.
- $250,000 for Blue Eclipse, a sculpture in the rotunda of the Mental Health Center.
- $250,000 for Harbour, a glass and light installation in the Defenders Lodge, which provides housing for more than 15,000 veterans seeking medical care at the Palo Alto campus each year.
- At least $115,000 on consulting for the art installations.
VA Palo Alto officials disputed that $1.9 million was spent on artwork at the Monterey Health Care Center, as claimed in the Cox Media and Open the Books investigation.
McGee said the $4.02 million distributed among all VA Palo Alto campuses — which includes 12 sites in Monterey, Livermore, Menlo Park, San Jose and elsewhere — was mainly spent after 2010, when an Iraq combat veteran was tasked with integrating art into new facilities.
The goal of the art integration effort was to create a therapeutic environment for veterans receiving treatment.
"Veterans deserve a facility that is on par or better than a private facility," McGurk said.
David Guldmann, a program manager, social work supervisor and creative arts therapist for Foundations of Recovery at VA Palo Alto, said both patients and employees rely on the quiet and privacy of the $1.3 million courtyard at the new Mental Health Center, which has a $483,000 rock sculpture as a focal point.
Mental Health Center patients, in particular, are not allowed to roam to other buildings without an escort in the first seven days of their stay, Guldmann said. The courtyard is a place patients can socialize with visitors without leaving the center.
"A lot of our folks come from environments that may not be so positive," Guldmann said. "Those who come in with depression will find that having an environment that is pleasing to the eye can impact mood and improve motivation."
Jim Romer, a project manager at VA Palo Alto, said it is not as simple as the public thinks to just accept donated art. The artwork has to fit the space aesthetically as well as physically. For instance, the $250,000 cylindrical sculpture that hangs from the ceiling at the entrance to the Mental Health Center has to fit the space of the rotunda.
Restoration and installation of a repurposed 7-foot by 85-foot mural from a Fort Ord enlisted soldiers’ club, which Romer says has "significant sentimental value" for troops in the 1930s, will cost the VA about $400,000 to integrate into a cafe at the Monterey clinic.
McGee said the agency wants what is best for its veterans and does not see the budget allocations as an "either/or equation."
"Do we want to have good access numbers and low wait times? Absolutely," McGee said. "Do we want state-of-the-art facilities? Yes. These are not things that have to be divorced from each other."