HEY, RICH PEOPLE! So if we tear this installation off the walls of White Bluffs Elementary School in Richland, you'll buy it, right?
  • Courtesy Washington Art in Public Places
  • HEY, RICH PEOPLE! So if we tear this installation off the walls of White Bluffs Elementary School in Richland, you'll buy it, right?
This story in this weekend's News Tribune reports on the Washington state senator (Karen Keiser, D-Kent), who has proposed a bill that would sell public art to fund State Need Grants.

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It seems the lightbulb came on in Keiser's head when she came across a Kenneth Callahan mural in a dark room.

This is the kind of idea that pops into a legislator's head because the voters in the state with the most regressive tax structure in the nation are bankrupting those in need. So, thinks a Democratic legislator, we shall sell some art and make some dough!

Has Karen Keiser ever seen any public art?

I'm trying to imagine the pitch to the prospective collector, hot on the trail* of something for the home.

How would you like to buy a 36-foot rain-collecting arch by an artist you've never heard of! No, no, wait—a ribbon of colored glass embedded in the windows of a junior high school by another artist you've never heard of!

Okay, okay, you want an artist you've heard of—how about this fenced-in grid of trees in giant planters by California Light and Space pioneer Robert Irwin? Oh, come on, you don't think the neighbors will like it?

Keiser is attempting to help everybody. She's seeing a win-win. But her vision of art is the vision of a person who doesn't know anything about how art actually works. Ignorance about art is a commonplace in American life, but that doesn't mean it doesn't drive me crazy. Public art is not a cash cow. Public art is not the pet project of the wealthy. Trust me when I say that the rich and powerful do not give a crap about public art, and will not be caught dead buying it.

Or don't trust me. Ask any art dealer in Seattle. They can barely sell the works they have on display—the ones that will fit above the sofa, the ones made by dead artists with established names (easiest to sell, and still hard to move). Woodside/Braseth Gallery has been open for 50 years, and here's what John Braseth had to say: "In short...a naive idea. Even if the art was highly marketable, and it's not. This would be the worst economy to sell it in!"

No, it's simple: If you want to pay for the poor, you have to tax the rich. Backflips involving yanking the windows out of middle schools isn't going to do it.

*As if any collector in the current market is "hot on the trail" for anything at all.