What's the latest art movement in Seattle? Public art. What? Yes. Seriously. For the last few decades, public art has been mostly thought of as a haven for losers, the place where artists go to die (or to hide). It's not just that good public art has been the exception, it's that good artists, with few exceptions, have avoided public art, preferring the freedom of their studios to the compromises of government work. But now, Seattle's established and reputable studio artists—Dan Webb, Cris Bruch, SuttonBeresCuller, Lead Pencil Studio, Susie Lee, Kristen Ramirez, Leo Berk, et al.—are signing up in droves to make major public installations. Will public art kill this new generation of artists? Or can these artists save public art?
This is the first in a series.
Last fall, Dan Webb made a surprising declaration. "I love public art," he wrote in an essay that headlined the Seattle artist newsletter La Especial Norte. (Full text here.)"This puts me at odds with pretty much everyone I know in the gallery world, for whom public art represents everything they either despise or fear as artists: lack of control, compromise, having to dumb everything down, uncomprehending audiences."
Webb makes beautifully crafted, smart, and thoughtful objects: a drop of water bouncing off a rippling surface, as if captured in a photographic frozen moment, but all carved in wood; or a series of photographs of his carving of a man's head, whittling it down to emaciation and then nothing, displayed along with the heartbreaking pile of sawdust. With these works, Webb has risen to a respected position in Seattle art, and he is represented by Greg Kucera Gallery—but last year, he began work on three public-art projects in Bellevue, Burien, and Olympia. As he wrote in his essay, public art "emerged as an escape hatch from a place that I didn't think needed escaping from": the art world.
"Museums today are not so different from what they were at their birth in 1793: Collections are bought by the rich and then looked at with curiosity by a general public removed from the process of how it all got there," he wrote, explaining. "Which brings me back to public art... I love public art because of its clear acknowledgement of art's utility, its use; because of the way it refuses to preach to the choir by venturing out of art's balkanized environs..."
Only a few months later, public art gave Webb the public drubbing of his life.
On April 22, the Olympia City Council, citing citizen response, voted to kill Webb's proposed bronze installation for the new Olympia City Hall. In the three weeks prior, Webb's idea had become a lightning rod for criticism. Anonymous online commenters to the Olympian newspaper called it everything from a "stupid waste of money" and "CIVIC EMBARRASSMENT" to "giant boogers," "10 pieces of cr*p," "bronzed dingleberries," "silly baubles," and "deformed 'reproductive male swimmers.'" Other commenters took issue with the $180,000 budget for the project, from a city program in which 1 percent of public construction money pays for art. One went so far as to provide the going price for bulk bronze in order to encourage future thieves: "$27.00 per pound."
Everyone agrees the situation was a mess. But what really went wrong is that the public-art process was exposed for what it too often is: dysfunctional, inherently cowardly, and shortsighted. Olympia wasted time and money on a manufactured controversy—the problem isn't that Olympia rejected the project, but that it rejected it stupidly. And the problem isn't limited to Olympia.
What went wrong:
1. The artist and the public never came into contact. Webb was not given a platform to answer questions about his proposal, either in a town hall–style meeting or with the city council. Webb was never shown the 160 e-mails the city received about his idea. "A friend of mine who has read them said they were actually pretty smart, and there might have been some things in there that I would have benefited from reading," Webb said in a phone interview after the final rejection. "I did this in Burien, where they made some suggestions, and I said, 'Hey, you guys were right.' So I think I would have even benefited from somebody saying, 'Well, jeez, did you think of this?'"
2. The proposal had no spokesperson, nobody prepared to weather a public storm, nobody to explain why the art was chosen in the first place. Everyone shied away from conversation. The head of the Olympia Arts Commission—which voted unanimously to forward the proposal to the city council—declined to give any opinion of the art when asked, as did Stephanie Johnson, the city's arts and events manager.
3. Webb had never given a presentation to the arts commission in the first place, only to an art-selection committee made up of an architect, a museum professional, an arts educator, an art-business owner, and a college representative, according to Johnson. The Olympian newspaper repeatedly reported, erroneously, that this art-selection committee was made up entirely of other artists, setting up a false fight between artists and citizens. (The city's website itself was confusing about who was on the panel. Now that page just gives an error message.) In an April 30 editorial, the newspaper concluded, "Artists judging fellow artists clearly did not work this time around."
4. The Olympian seemed unclear on more than one point. It described Webb's art—comic book–like thought bubbles mounted to columns on the building's exterior, and a larger speech bubble inside—as bronze, but did not mention that the bronze would be painted white. During the selection process, Johnson told Webb that his bronze maquette was drawing scatological associations from arts commissioners, so he changed their color.
5. The city was unprepared for the way the internet would change the conversation. This is the first time Olympia has posted an art proposal online. Over several weeks, the city received 160 e-mails. The Olympian drew as many anonymous comments online. "This has been a very difficult time," Johnson said. But 160 e-mails is hardly an outpouring in a city of 44,000 people. By contrast, when the arts commission held a special public meeting to take questions and comments about the project, a grand total of six people showed up, and three of them were Webb's friends. The one person who spoke and was quoted by the Olympian objected to any funding for public art.
This City Hall, scheduled to open next year along busy Fourth Avenue, is the first time Olympia's city government—always overshadowed by the state government in the city—will be housed in a central location. The art for City Hall is arguably the most prominent public project the city will complete for years to come, and this art should be selected with care.
The dialogue really cannot afford to be this feeble.
Jeff Kingsbury, the Olympia City Council member who moved to reject the proposal, gave this explanation to the Olympian: "I really don't want something in City Hall that has to be explained." That's not a standard; it's a sound bite. Meanwhile, City Manager Steve Hall turned on the project early, telling the Olympian that his ex-wife had called him to tell him that neither she nor the swim team approved of the art. These are the players who gave their opinions publicly, while the players on the arts side remained silent.
And lest this all seem an anomaly, it happened in Seattle in 2003. Three artworks proposed for Seattle's new City Hall, by Mark and John Bain, Jim Campbell, and Mark Calderon, were summarily rejected after a meeting with city officials in which the art—again—had no spokesperson.
The way cities select public art is self- defeating. To get the best art, the process would work like this: A selection committee of people who care about art—artists, architects, etc.—pass on recommendations to an art czar, who functions as the curator for the city. The art czar picks projects, defends them, and embraces and cultivates robust public debate. Complainers won't always get their way, and neither will supporters.
Olympia is headed back to the same old drawing board for its City Hall art. Instead, the system needs reform. How we talk about art will determine what kind of art we get. Isn't it time that the public-art process started to reflect this fact?