Communication Breakdown

A Recent Debacle in Olympia Illustrates How Not to Pick Public Art


As you probably know, we've had some *controversy* surrounding one of the art pieces designed for the new ST Capitol Hill transit station - if you haven't yet talked to her, Barbara Luecke at Sound Transit would be a great resource for this series, as she has been an excellent facilitator for public art in Seattle for some time now and has some great stories. I look forward to the rest of the series!
Just some background--
We have a saying in Olympia: "You're nobody in this town until you've been misquoted or misrepresented in the Olympian." There are some good people who work there (i.e. photographer Tony Overman) but the editorial staff are a walking joke. They delight in obfuscating, omitting, and altering facts, with no real agenda or political stance, except perhaps to show that everyone else in town is dumber than they are.
Spot on article, Jen.

@2, I'd like to see Barbara Luecke defend/explain the wire sculptures by the Pine Street stub tunnel vent. Thank god they're gone for now.
Thanks for the great article. We're here in Olympia as surprised and confused as anyone...…
I was one of the 160 who wrote the city about this crap being foisted on us as art. It's ugly, it's tacky, and it literally looks like crap falling off the walls.

What really sickens me is the whole elitist attitude by artists in this manner. Olympia is being portrayed as a bunch of artistic luddites because we either didn't want to pay for this stuff, or because we are not advanced enough to appreciate this stuff. Well, go fuck off. It's ugly, it's tacky, and we don't like it.
Fabulous article. Public Art is subject to the same sausage-factory machinations as any other element of political life, with the added burdens of: A. a public that has systemically been kept out of the overall Art game for, like, ever and; B. is inherently not owned by anyone, but paid for by everyone, which I think strikes most folks as slightly Pinko by nature. And unlike, say, a monorail, the only practical benefits it gives the users --- and I believe in utility in public art --- is the cultivation of public imagination. And dreams by themselves are difficult to evaluate. The idea of a Public Art czar is, however, a magical idea; it's also one that I believe could ostensibly give citizens a sense that they have a greater hand in their collective aesthetic destiny, so to speak --- don't like the sculpture? Vote. The drawback, it seems, is that it would have to be a constitutionally protected appointment, as a Republican Governor would be more likely to eliminate the position altogether before appointing Hilton Kramer. Cries of elitism, and controversy in general, are simply an a priori condition of these discussions, and must be dismissed out of hand, which is hard for most artists (sensitive souls by nature)to fully swallow. In any case, onward and outward...
@ 2 and @5 - I think your comments explain why so much public art gets dumbed down to the point where nobody likes it. Everyone has an opinion, and no matter what you put out there as an artist *somebody* is going to hate it. And it's usually the haters, not the supporters, who show up at public meetings to express their opinions. So the art gets revised, re-done, and sanitized for the masses. The public art mantra: "well if somebody's gonna hate it then everybody should have to hate it". Harsh, but this is what happens in many cases. It's the rare piece of public art that maintains it's original vision and actually gets installed intact.
@7: I agree with you in principle, that an artist must work to maintain the essence of their original vision; without this intentionality, no work can be done in the first place. However, absolute insistence on one particular vision has its place, which is in the studio and, ultimately, the free market. Public art is a dialogue, and that dialogue begins in its formation; this is not to say these works should be subject to community approval --- far from it, and Jen's suggestion of an appointed figure addresses this point. But, just as anyone who works on commission or by hire --- and this is precisely the situation with public art --- a certain amount of negotiation must be factored into the nature of this work as a whole. Despite many challenges, artists have the virtually unique position in our culture to shape almost every aspect of their --- our --- vocational destiny. To suggest that capitulation of any kind in the sphere of public works somehow subtracts from an artist's capacity for total commitment to her or his unique vision in their private or market-aimed work is simply specious reasoning.
Public Art does not have to compromise, especially when it is done on a temporary basis and in conjunction with privet land .. The Burien Interim Art space is one such space. One acre of privet land turned over to artists for large to small scale art installations and events in the heart of downtown Burien.

A True Artist P-Patch

Dane Johnson , CoFounder of the Burien Interim Art Space
There's an inherent contradiction in public art. If the public is paying for it, they want it to be accessible. But accessibility is anathema in the modern elitist art world, where something isn't "real art" if the public understands it.
I didn't care for that art either, just not my style, but I get the frustration around the flubbed process. I don't think many people knew that the sculptures would be white, all of the mock ups were bronze. They really did kind of look like poo.
Thoughtful and clear, this. Appreciate the acknowledgement of a broader pattern-Olympia, yes, but not only. Also liked that you contacted some of those directly involved. The responses are informing in how things unfolded.

Advocacy. you brought this up, so did Regina Hackett (in a separate piece.) In our society, government employees are not paid as advocates, at least not for individual artists. Communicating with enthusiasm about art is a talent or gift not shared by all. Columnists like you are in that business, and often become like cheerleaders for artists whose work you like. Administrators of public art programs play different roles.

Ideas about better ways of selecting art-thats a good thing to wonder about. The notion of an "art czar.." however, is neither novel nor likely to work. The word choice evokes the elitism people resent about the art world, and adds a slant of dictatorial authority to further upset those who don't like public money spent for art.

A further thought: In Olympia, and likely elsewhere, much art can be seen in public places that was not commissioned, not advocated for, nor administered by people paid to do so. Such installations are generally not talked about by Art Commissions, nor by columnists or critics. Perhaps thats because no money was involved, no prestige. Presences of such public art are nonetheless a public blessing.
@12: the last point you make seems reasonable on its face, but fails to consider the utterly capricious nature of private projects that merely happen to be in public view. In these cases, advocacy plays absolutely zero role. Public art has never been intended as such kind of aesthetic muzak writ large, irrespective of its framework; this was (and remains) as true of classical Roman sculpture as it is of the Soundgarden. Public art serves not a specific aesthetic interest, but the cultural principle(s) which inform it. A democratic art can and should not merely attempt to placate as many viewers as possible; democracy is fundamentally about mediating conflict, and a democratic Art naturally addresses conflict not placidity. There must be a minority that is unhappy with it, and the ultimate goal of this art is to convert an unhappy or uninformed minority into an engaged and supportive majority. It's active not passive.
I think I'll add one last point on this subject, which is this: I'm assuming that the image that is attached to this article is one of the proposal drawings; if this is correct, Webb's intention of the sculptures as thought or speech balloons is simply unconvincing --- the reason folks are up in arms in the first place. This is a direct result of the virtually exclusive focus, among visual culturati, on ideas over craft. On another thread --- the Vancouver problem, I believe --- Eric F(redrickson) notes on an "illustration school" (as opposed to Art school, one may presume), with a distinctly pejorative accent to the remark. But it is precisely those skills --- literally the capacity to illustrate one's notions --- that allow an artist the breadth and depth of visual vocabulary to say what he or she means unambiguously. And as with any language, the larger the vocabulary, the larger the well of ideas one may draw from; you cannot think something you cannot in some way say. Craft is the bread that serves up the butter of an idea, and most people, philistine and plebian alike, do not like to root around with their fingers in a tub of Shedd's Spread. I'm not saying Dan Webb can't draw; I'm just saying that if the illo above is his, he can't draw very well. He didn't get his idea across clearly, and thus bears a significant burden of blame in this case.
If that's not his drawing, I apologize to Mr. Webb.
I meant plebe and patrician.
The greatest disappointment for me with how things went down is the lack of imagination it revealed in the process of selection and input/comment. What I've heard from some people involved saddened me. There is a streak of elitism built into the current system that needs to be addressed. A way to take popular opinion respectfully into account EARLIER in the selection process should be added. I also feel it is ridiculous to not allow the artists an opportunity to present in an open forum, and equally assinine that the selected artist not be given a chance for redress and redesign. Hopefully this unfortunate event will not only help us improve the way we approach public art but also the ways in which we approach community life and shared community spaces in general.
Jen, thanks for covering what happened with Dan's proposal in Olympia. The points you make (1-5) do a good job of clarifying what went wrong. Being both a public artist and an administrator, I would like to add that if the process is followed correctly, there is no need for a public art czar. In fact, that step would be at odds with what I love about public art (and I use the word love intentionally - my heart has been broken by public art many times - my condolences to Dan).

It may never be an easy process (how easy is it to make art? to engage in civic dialogue?), but much of the heartache can be avoided by implementing tried-and-true policies and procedures.
You want a rant? You got one. I'd like to take a moment to talk about a word, and that word is: Elite. Or elitism, whichever works for you.
Dear commenter number 16: This inherent streak of elitism in the public art milieu which you point out does not exist anywhere but in your head.
This reference to elitism is a common refrain in political debate; populists, demagogues, and radially-syndicated sociopaths of every stripe love pointing out perceived Elitism at any indication they might risk losing a Lincoln penny to anyone who is not of their direct bloodline. And, number 16, you sound, from the few sentences I can judge you by, as if you are a reasonable sort of person. So why don't you set a good example for thousands of other reasonable people who fail do differentiate between Elitism and what is merely an idiosyncratic and highly competitive selection process. It will do you tons of good, and I'll tell you why.
Elitism is, by it's definition, leadership or rule by an elite. It may also be simply the belief or advocacy of such rule. Well then, what's an Elite? It's a socially superior group. But the selection process of public art at the city, county, and state levels is reflective of no such entrenchment. As a matter of fact, most administers of these programs will tell you --- I know this, because they've told me --- that they are disappointed season in and season out because it's the same several dozen artists (if that many) who apply for their grants every time. That sure might seem like an elitist tendency, but only if you're someone who does not have the quality that these several dozen artists display, which is tenacity.
Number sixteen, you may be an artist, or an art-lover, or merely a person who is deeply mistrustful of groups or situations you perceive as Elite, but here is a helpful hint in any of those cases: You can apply for as many public art grants as you'd care to. And I guarantee you this: If you do your initial paperwork properly (which many do not); and you have taken care to make your presentation clear, well-organized and professional (which many do not); and you have followed to the letter every instruction that comes with these application processes (which many do not); and you have spent enough time developing your ideas and the requisite skills by which to make those ideas manifest (which many do not); and you do this enough times (which most do not), you then will, in every likelihood, eventually get yourself a public commission. But that seems like a great deal of effort to go to just to get some public art up, the end result being a public who can be counted on to dismiss your efforts as elitist and therefore worth-less. But check it out: yes, a resumé with a high-falutin' college on it looks good. It looks good to that dude hiring at the record store too. Yes, groups of these like-minded individuals hang out together and get drunk at the same parties. The gall, the sheer nerve of them, acting elite like that.
In point of fact, my best friend, the great painter Robert Hardgrave, has no BFA that I'm aware of, generally stays to himself unless he's with his wife or looking at art, and is represented on both coasts and the midlands. He's the best painter in the United States, and it's not because he's Elite, it's because he is dogged in pursuit of his vision. We all should be so driven.
So hop to it, number sixteen; you put in the hours and take your lumps like the rest of us, and one day you too can be bitching about your work being unappreciated by the masses who couldn't distinguish between Elitism and a merely arbitrary sense of quality.
Your friend,
Sean Michael Hurley
Wow. Thats quite a rant, alright.... I am going to refer back to where I left off at comments #12 and #13, because Sean, after reading your #13 three times, I still don't know how it relates to my final paragraph. It sounds like you are talking about privately funded sculptures or paintings that are permanently installed, just not with public funding?

What I was referring to, on the other hand, was many different things. In Olympia, I was saying, we have a lot of art being shown by artists, and some of it is delightful- which has neither public acknowledgement by nor fiscal support from any government funds of the local or State Art Commissions.

We have enjoyed, for one example, diverse solo exhibitions on a daily basis, changing month after month, in one of Olympia's best coffeehouses. This went on for perhaps 18-20 years- long before a local art commission was formed-and it was all done by curator and artist Georgia Munger (who worked as a volunteer, as her way to benefit the community, and who recently stepped back for health reasons) and because of the community minded owners of Batdorf and Bronson, which provided dedicated space and supportively hosted the shows.

There are many, many other examples. It has been my observation during various public events over the years that Art Commission folks-some of whom I consider friends, and am very fond of- like to congratulate themselves for Olympia being known as a great art town. They know better than I what their real contribution is. And I'm not knocking those contributions.

My point is that much volunteer work goes completely unacknowledged in the newspapers and at formal Dedications of Public Art-yet it massively contributes to our richly creative surroundings. It happens because of passionately caring and dedicated people like Georgia, and it has been going on around Olympia for a very long time.

So thanks for your note, Sean, hope I've been more clear now. It just seemed like something worth noting alongside all the troubles of public art selection.

Point well taken, Jeffree. I'm a big fan of work that finds its way to the public at large through means besides galleries and museums. I've heard critics say without apology that they categorically refuse to review, say, coffee-shop shows. Maybe that's because there are too many coffee shops showing work that doesn't merit published review, and too much time and effort would go into finding the wheat among the chafe; you gotta remember that while Olympia's coffee-houses could likely be visited in one day by a single art reviewer, Seattle's surely could not, and that the economics of scale are at work here. And, fair or not, critical rules and roles tend to be set in cities not towns. But the more salient point is this: The intention of art in the spaces you cite is exactly the same intention of art found in galleries; manifestations of personal expression, be it purely aesthetic or totally political. It's a private matter that some person or people have privately chosen to put in front of the public. Publically funded work, by contrast, serves a completely different intention; it is, despite any arguments to the contrary by artists or public, primarily about problem solving, the problem being how to best (fill in the blank) with taxpayers' dough. It is purely a professional, as opposed to a vocational, enterprise. And it's this difference in intentionality --- the soil from which any art (indeed any purposeful human activity) grows --- that makes every bit of difference.
just fyi to the readers, the olympia city council is made up almost entirely of leotards.
i'm actually a HUGE fan of public art. but, i have to say, those "thought/word bubbles" just looked bad. i understand that they might have been making a statement, but they didn't look pleasant at all! i would go so far as to call them ugly. it's not like they were censoring the artist, they were reacting to the fact that the public didn't want the art. you shouldn't FORCE art onto the public.

PLUS, little sidenote to this story. the Oly city council voted this down to make themselves look better to the public. they IGNORED their constituents when they voted FOR raising building hight limits on a piece of land near the capital campus that would BLOCK views of the sound and the capital. people were PISSED, but the council voted for it anyway, taking the side of a greedy developer over their own citizens. they probably voted this art project down to try and appease some of the people they let down.
Actually I think they did the right thing by supporting the building height increase. Save Downtown! Develop the Isthmus! Woot! Sorry to all the hippies out there, but this time Capitalism wins. Go whine about the "rich" on some other project.
Dan Webb's actual proposal is the fabrication of a public art proposal of archetypal drama, updated to reflect modern modes of communication. Webb, knowing full well the "uncomprehending audiences" reject modern art as "jesus made out of poop," proposed to propose dung.

"The public will hate it," he twittered.

"My investors will have to rush to its defense," he typed.

"Our Olympians will enter into the fray as but a bull in an electronics boutique!" he exclaimed.
It seems to me that Dan Webb's art in Olympia and the process has been a resounding success. Granted I'm using my own standard here, but it seems to me that if art is meant to make people think and engage with each other - this art has doe that and then some! Especially when the art itself is supposed to represent public dialogue! When's the last time "art" has received this much press in the Olympia area - and not just art, but the meaning of art and it's place in society. The artist and the city couldn't have engineered a more spirited and interesting discussion. Bravo, city of Olympia and Dan Webb!
i just didn't like the art and i sent in my comments that were solicited by the city. why assume that the public is ignorant? many of us understand art and can have opinion about it.

yes deliberation is good. it is good that the city wanted feedback from the public.

i am tired of bland conceptual public art that looks good on paper only.

-- want inspiring art in my city
they should call it public decoration and not public art. more wall mounted or free standing fish, what have that is public art!
People have as profound lack of understanding of the way that culture and the arts contribute to economic growth. Because of this, the tendency is to view any such effort (public art) as 'a waste', but that's usually because very few towns bother to educate their constituents as to WHY it's so important.

When one realizes just how much money culture and the arts DRAW to cities and towns across the country, and how profound a difference public art in particular makes to those considering things like quality of life, community and enjoyable environments, et al, I'm constantly surprised that the connection is not more immediate and obvious.

Anyone who reads this piece and thinks this is either a waste of time or not worth discussion should take a moment to read the following information and then, ask yourselves, "Can you really afford NOT to support public art?"…

More pointedly, you should be asking yourself, "Why is it I want to live in 'nice' areas with interesting things to do and see, but I still can't get my head around the fact that beautiful surroundings require money and support to happen?"