Visual Art

Kudos Overload

Does Seattle Deserve Its Reputation for Great Public Art?

Kudos Overload

Kelly O

KRISTEN RAMIREZ Spending her summer in a bridge tower.

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Kelly O

Hundreds of people are about to descend on Seattle for an Americans for the Arts conference this weekend, and what do they know of this city? I'd put money on the fact that they don't know the names of our contemporary artists. They don't know which Seattle curators are doing the most interesting work right now. They don't know which collectors are driving the local market, which museums have new directors, or which art schools specialize in what. What they do know is that Seattle is a great public-art town. They've heard it passed down in textbooks and through the grapevine, in media reports and from colleagues—and this has all added up to a vague conventional wisdom: Seattle is a mecca for public art. "Seattle has become synonymous with public art, which has enhanced the entire city, and by extension the nation," Robert Lynch, leader of Americans for the Arts, the largest arts advocacy group in the country, said in 2005.

By this logic, public art is Seattle's gift to the nation. It was that way once. But it hasn't been that way for years—maybe decades.

Let's back up to the early 1980s. Richard Andrews was head of the city's public-art program. Seattle's One Percent for Art law is often cited as one of the oldest in the country—it is, but that's not a very meaningful marker, considering that it wasn't passed until 1973 and the first one (Philadelphia's) took effect all the way back in 1959. No, it wasn't age that distinguished Seattle. It was vision. Andrews and others, especially his counterpart at King County's art department in the 1970s, Jerry Allen, invented the "design team" concept in contemporary public art—creating work that's not plopped down, but built from within the construction project that's funding it, from its very earliest design by architects and engineers. Then, Andrews packed up a slide show and set out on the road: a cross between a missionary and a traveling salesman.

"I saw that slide show back when I was in Santa Monica, and it was like, wow," remembers Barbara Goldstein, who now heads public art in San Jose, but was well respected during her time as Seattle's public-art guru from 1993 to 2004. "You could actually commission an artist to work in a complex way, in a complex project, along with architects and engineers and inside government departments."

This was the opposite of modern "plop" art. Among the slides: earth artist Michael Heizer's first urban commission on the Elliott Bay waterfront (1976–77); a sculpture garden including sound, interactive, and abstract works at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration campus next to Magnuson Park (1983); an entire artificial landscape of trees in holding pens outside the new downtown sheriff's office by artist Robert Irwin (1983). Equally dramatic was the process that launched the "design team" concept, led by Seattle artists Sherry Markovitz, Andrew Keating, and Buster Simpson in the late 1970s: the Viewland/Hoffman electrical substation, subject of many a dissertation since. Beginning by canvassing the disgruntled residents of the area, the artists turned what would otherwise have been a dead zone of infrastructure into a little community park. Adding to the mix, Seattle Art Museum hosted a symposium in 1979 about earthworks, which resulted in major public pieces by Robert Morris and Herbert Bayer in south King County—one a commentary on the use of artists to clean up polluted land, and the other a functioning watershed.

Okay, that covers the 1970s and the early '80s. What's happened in the 25 years since?

Unfortunately, the design-team revolution turned into a stale convention that produces anemic work, and Seattle's visionaries couldn't hold their posts forever.

Artists are still profoundly involved in public projects in Seattle. One great example: From 2002 to 2005, Daniel Mihalyo of Lead Pencil Studio wrote an entire plan for art and design at the Seattle Department of Transportation. It's available on the city's website, and it called for such works as Kristen Ramirez's current summerlong residency inside the Fremont Bridge tower. Ramirez is creating a collectively imagined audio work including memories, sounds, and the results of a quiz she created that she hopes can be delivered to people's cell phones as they wait to cross the beloved old blue drawbridge.

But more common are "integrated" works that seem integrated to the point of invisibility. Artists' designs interwoven into terrazzo lobby floors, for instance. Or the art that's everywhere along the new Sound Transit light-rail line—a kind-of-neat sculpture here, playful striped poles and sparkly columns there, but for the most part art that feels scattered and sedate. Somehow the appearance of creativity is imparted without any real innovation. Today, if we're being honest, Seattle public art is notable more for quantity than quality.

"Now with the thinking that not everything has to be integrated, other cities have surpassed Seattle in some ways—not in variety and quantity, but in some ways," admits Norie Sato, one of the Sound Transit design-team artists. What she's trying not to say: There's a lot of weak work out there.

The biggest aesthetic category missing from Seattle's public-art scene today is ephemerality. Almost every new commission is for a permanent installation made out of some material that will last longer than earth itself. Time-based and temporary works, which can be more adventurous and inject life into a city, are few and far between. (London has the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, where sculptures rotate in and out and create plenty of debate; New York has eyebrow-raising projects like the 100-foot-tall artificial waterfalls in New York Harbor last summer, by Olafur Eliasson—though it's worth noting that the waterfalls were not commissioned by the government but by one of New York's two major, privately funded organizations devoted to public art.)

Art that doesn't last can be a tough sell to taxpayers. But so can any kind of contemporary art. In 1991, the City of Seattle put on a popular festival that mixed temporary and permanent public works in honor of the opening of Seattle Art Museum's Robert Venturi building. It generated essential works, including Jonathan Borofsky's Hammering Man—which still provokes discussion about social class—and brought people together around not just an object, but a moment in time. There are all kinds of benefits to short-lived works, including less pressure, so they can introduce new artists, new blood, to public art.

"Maybe we have let some aspects of a really vital program languish here," admits Cath Brunner, head of public art at King County's arts wing, 4Culture.

But she's quick to point out that her department is already on the case.

"Our whole new focus this year has been to offer more ephemeral work," she says. "We're just coming off of the Site-Specific Performance Network. We're commissioning permanent works for Brightwater [Wastewater Treatment Plant] now, but we're starting a program there in 2011 where artists will create temporary projects in 100 percent natural materials. We really do need to continue to push innovation and risk-taking. We won't always succeed, but risk-taking is at the core of art, at the core of any creative act." (4Culture has also cosponsored a temporary installation-takeover of the Moore Theatre this weekend by the Free Sheep Foundation, profiled in this week's issue on page 16.)

The Seattle Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs—what used to be called the Seattle Arts Commission—has come across in recent years as conservative. In 2005, director Michael Killoren failed to speak up for edgy projects at city hall, and they were killed, which didn't earn his office any points with artists. Both Goldstein and the longtime curator of the city's collection, Beth Sellars, decided to leave rather than work under Killoren in the Greg Nickels administration. "I don't care what anyone says," Goldstein says now, in a phone interview. "Paul Schell was a very art-friendly mayor, and I don't think Greg Nickels is an art-friendly mayor."

Ruri Yampolsky is the director of public art at the city today. She says she is focused on "the strengths of what we do." (If she sees the problems others do, she's not talking about it.) But she also points to a new series of temporary projects including Mater Matrix Mother and Medium, a 200-foot-long crocheted river by Mandy Greer that's being communally created at gatherings all over the city. (It culminates in an installation- in-the-forest and performance at West Seattle's Camp Long in July.)

And both Yampolsky and Brunner say they could be doing more with technology or on the web—arguably the largest public space in human history. Exploring how virtual and real public spaces coexist could be another revolution in public art.

So does public art in Seattle today deserve the reputation its forebears built? A better question might be: What if Seattle didn't have any laurels to rest on? If risk-taking is, as Brunner says, central to any creative act, then there's little place in art for complacency. The same kudos have been rolling in long enough. It's time to earn new ones. recommended


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$20K to produce a phone number, so that when you're waiting at the Fremont Bridge hearing boat horns and car horns, you can call up and hear the artiste's montage of boat horns and car horns. $800,000 for art in Beacon Hill station when a few colored lanterns would achieve 70% of the same benefit and many trains around the world seem to function just fine, without art, and when there are neighborhoods that are seeing cuts in bus service and lack transit facilities. And where many other train systems get along just fine with 5-6 poster boards advertising local theater or movies. You know, getting the art in those ads, for free, or actually getting paid. Then we see $60,000 for a movie in the city building on a floro the public doesn't even hardly go to, the film is about vague human shapes in fire and water that disturbs workers, this leads to additional wasted funds for hours of staff time to bitch, moan, discuss, rehash, "solve" the situation -- really, why aren't these people doint work -- then more money to send the "artist" back to another vacation in Central America to shoot more film. When there are tens of thousands of screen savers for free, or you could use photos or film clips from the workers themselves for free, or you could go to National Gallery and take jpegs of 10,000 masterpieces at a cost of about $900 (round trip fare, one night in a hotel, and a few extra memory chips; borrow the damn Powershot camera) and any of that would achieve all or more of the "benefit" from this work of "art."

None of this stuff is productive, like investements in education or health. None of it is even good art, really. The ephemeral stuff is, um, ephemeral. None of it is needed. And even if you wanted this much money to go to art (some $880,000 in the above examples) it would be better spent on art teachers and paint brushes (and laptops) for school kids so that thousands of kids would learn about art; or paying to take kids on day trips to museums -- which a recent report says we're not doing enough of anymore. In fact, local schools are eliminating many art classes and those kinds of "extras."

This public art deal isn't for the public. It's a trough filled with dollars that are consumed by a narrow, special interest group ("artists") that not only doesn't care a fig for what people really need or want, but even trashes those who say this stuff generally or individual works are bad art or a bad use of public funds.

Posted by PC on June 18, 2009 at 8:17 AM · Report this

You: "And where many other train systems get along just fine with 5-6 poster boards advertising local theater or movies. You know, getting the art in those ads, for free, or actually getting paid."

I direct you now to David Foster Wallace or anyone else writing about why "art" in ads is not art. A representative quote: "[E]ven a really beautiful, ingenious, powerful ad (of which there are a lot) can never be any kind of real art: an ad has no status as gift, i.e. it's never really for the person it's directed at."

You: "When there are tens of thousands of screen savers for free or you could use photos or film clips from the workers themselves for free, or you could go to National Gallery and take jpegs of 10,000 masterpieces ... and any of that would achieve all or more of the 'benefit' from this work of 'art.'"

Wow. Seriously? You lost it there. Sorry to break it to you: free screensavers /= art. Jpgs of "masterpieces" /= art.

You: "None of this stuff is productive, like investements in education or health."

First half is wrong, second makes a fallacious assumption that spending $800K on education would be productive. Please provide evidence demonstrating how a mere $800K devoted to education would make as substantial a difference in people's lives as a permanent piece of public art.

You: "None of it is even good art, really."

Please provide examples of "good" art to demonstrate your ignorance. (Anyone who says that no public art is "good" is clearly ignorant.)

You: "This public art deal isn't for the public. It's a trough filled with dollars that are consumed by a narrow, special interest group ("artists")"

Yes, the cabal of wealthy artists that runs the world is looking for ways to siphon even more millions from an unsuspecting public.

Do you know anything about the relative numbers involved here? Seriously? Do you? I'd suggest rereading this:…

OK, done? I'm sure you can find a dozen "misuses" of public funds that are far more egregious than the miniscule amount that goes to art.
Posted by Ralph Malph Wiggum on June 18, 2009 at 10:53 AM · Report this
sharonArnold 3
You know what PC? The distribution of your tax dollars to public art is so low it's nearly insignificant. If you want to get angry about how your tax dollars are spent, go here and dig around to find true disproportion of government spending. I promise there's an easy-to-read aesthetically pleasing chart to go with the numbers.
Posted by sharonArnold on June 18, 2009 at 11:11 AM · Report this
FreudianShrimp 4
Pish posh, "public art" is an oxymoron, but I must admit that Kristen Ramirez looks quite fetching in her bib overalls and tee-shirt. Just think, she's spending the summer in the Fremont Bridge Tower. Sure hope the Fremont Troll doesn't get a hankering for some nice succulent artist flesh late at night and one public art project gets eaten by another; she may need rescuing by a prince declaiming "Ramirez, Ramirez let down your hair, so that I may climb the russet stair." I wonder how she feels about shrimp and Freudians.
Posted by FreudianShrimp on June 18, 2009 at 3:10 PM · Report this
MadDog 5
Yeah Ralph! and PC I reiterate--you are fucking retarded!!!!
Posted by MadDog on June 20, 2009 at 12:23 AM · Report this
pdp 6
Wait. Seattle has a reputation for great public art? Seriously!?!? I am admittedly not a part of the art scene, but when I got to a real city -- Chicago, say -- I see lots and lots of serious public art. Fabulous neo-classical stuff in the background everywhere. Real architecture, spanning more than a century of styles. Sculpture, from Picasso, Miro, Dubuffet to the incredible stuff in Millennium Park. And that's not even touching the ephemera!

What does Seattle have? Some tired Claes Oldenburg crap that was cutting-edge back in the 60s but only came to Seattle a few years ago? Seriously, the whole premise of this article is so deeply off-base.
Posted by pdp on June 20, 2009 at 4:36 PM · Report this
I haven't been to Seattle in years, but I've seen pics and read articles etc. I don't want to be too harsh but I'm kinda on the side of pdp. I'm an amateur artist. I have a lot of activities and I also attend night art classes and for decades pump out the best stuff I can. So it may be me, but I see some "odd" things--not all that personally creative that get run by the "public art" title. I live in the SF bay area, and we've got tons of great pro galleries and museums and stuff. I often appreciate the "volunteer" public art-some legal-some not-more than what the well meaning government groups decide to buy.
Posted by tomget on June 22, 2009 at 8:11 AM · Report this
Ditto with 6&7....the weakest of Chicago's Public Art kicks the best of Seattle's. The sculpture park looks like the bits that nobody else wanted but it remains a great concept. It comes down to who's doing the curating/selecting, not so much the $'s. Something is better than nothing, but SEA could use some new filters. Perhaps a group of people who are a little edgier and a lot less passive. Maybe fresh off of the boat. In the meantime, just let Trimpin have the run of the place!!!
Posted by oneflashoflight on June 23, 2009 at 10:29 AM · Report this
Most Seattle art is overrated. And I'm one who grew up here.

Anyone who thinks Seattle's a great art town needs to get out more.
Posted by mstock57 on June 23, 2009 at 4:51 PM · Report this
gettingtoknowyoubetter 10
Before I moved here, I heard from many people that Seattle was a great city for public art. Though, I wouldn't come to that conclusion after seeing the public art that is here now.

Seattle seems to have a very conservative take on public art. Lots of heavy, metal "plops" as you call them (I refer to them as art turds).

A few years ago, a friend's ephemeral public work (which is excellent and has been celebrated in more prestigious art cities internationally) was denied public works grants at both Artist Trust and 4culture. When he wrote 4culture and asked why he didn't get the grant, he was told that what he does "isn't art." This was news to him! and I was totally blown away. Crazy.

Maybe some arts education is in order?

Alas, the SAM sculpture park couldn't really be any safer. The one conceptually interesting piece (Mark Dion's) is NEVER OPEN! I've been to the sculpture park at least 7 times, always eager, and have NEVER SEEN IT! Apparently it is only open when a volunteer comes??? What a weird allocation of funding? (Really? a volunteer?!)

Posted by gettingtoknowyoubetter on June 24, 2009 at 7:11 PM · Report this
:1- 11
Thanks to Jen Graves for bringing up the issue! Asking publicartists to say this is like asking them to slit their own throats. Public "art" in Seattle and many places suffers from trying to satisfy everyone so that no one like PC can say what a waste it is - and yet they still say it! - so I guess it is not a very effective strategy. Talk about homogenized! Risk is necessary for most good art and lets face it the panel/jury/selection process manages to eliminate much of it because they often only choose artists who have proven track records and spend lots of dough on making slick presentations. You don't really have a chance to be a public artist until you've been a public artist. Talk about catch-22. It is no wonder the artists are not putting much energy into the commissions they get. They have already shot their wad by jumping so many hoops just to get it. Besides most who are successful at obtaining commissions already have a name for themselves and have 13 other projects going at the same time just to make a "living". The process is overly bureacratic and lends itself to left brained overly analytical paper pushers - in other words not passionately creative people. All boxes must be checked and all blanks must be filled out with the proper inputs. The environment necessary for great art has been carefully eliminated from all but a few low paying low profile projects along with any discernable or meaningful content. Modernism is DEAD and it died before its evil heartless POST-Modernist child ever took a breath! Good luck :1-
Posted by :1- on June 24, 2009 at 8:21 PM · Report this
Jen's original piece called for temporary, ephemeral public art. Check out what CoCA did with $10,000 from Neighborhoods dept. at Carkeek Park, where 13 sculptures are installed throughout the park until Aug. 10. The show is called "Heaven and Earth" because it took over a year of arm-wrestling with parks to let it happen -- at first they said 'absolutely not' because Carkeek is about trails and forest, places where art doesn't belong. But we insisted and agreed to keep the art out of the woods and instead in "human use areas." An online map takes you through a draft of the exhibit, but the real thing is worth a look, especially after Jen's point about what Seattle needs in terms of public art.
Ballard Tribune headlined it July 1, as did Tacoma News Tribune. -- Dave F. / CoCA
Posted by Dave F on July 2, 2009 at 9:59 AM · Report this
Ha! you people...can't please everybody...
You people that gloat on and on about Chicago, do you know how much that stuff costs? do you? you know alot of that money comes from wealthy wealthy private donors right?
I think Seattle's quite well, thank you. Bitches.
Posted by jack-e-o on February 23, 2010 at 1:45 PM · Report this

The process of making a public art in Seattle is about as bad as it gets- convoluted, fickle and less than committed to artistic vision- just about assuring that what you will get is watered down to the point of being meaningless as art. The leadership is much more committed to pleasing the "funders" (mostly the public utilities at this point) than passionate artists or the public.

This City needs to make changes in process that are driven by new and visionary leadership.
Posted by art stranger on December 13, 2012 at 3:39 AM · Report this
The process of making a public art in Seattle is about as bad as it gets- convoluted, fickle and less than committed to artistic vision- just about assuring that what you will get is watered down to the point of being meaningless as art.

This City needs to make changes in process that are driven by new and visionary leadership.
Posted by insideout on December 13, 2012 at 12:34 PM · Report this

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