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Originally published May 8, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 13, 2005 at 11:38 AM

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Is public art disappearing?

When's the last time you saw a new piece of public art that really grabbed you? There's certainly no shortage of recent work. Scores of commissions have...

Seattle Times art critic

When's the last time you saw a new piece of public art that really grabbed you?

There's certainly no shortage of recent work. Scores of commissions have cropped up on bus shelters, sidewalks, park benches and under bridges. They are integrated into walls, lobbies, public restrooms, floors.

Yet many of the pieces Seattleites think of as "public art," such as the 12-ton granite sphere of Isamu Noguchi's "Black Sun" at Volunteer Park and Michael Heizer's imposing "Adjacent, Against, Upon" at Myrtle Edwards Park, date back to the 1970s and before.

Today, what Seattle's getting for its public-art funds has undergone a dramatic change, brought about by a history of contentious politics and a different notion of how public art should be created.

Since Seattle's 1% for Art program began in 1973, the city's art collection has burgeoned. The budget has grown exponentially, creating hundreds of permanently sited sculptural works — not to mention all the art commissioned by agencies such as Sound Transit and the Port of Seattle.

Yet the days of grand, free-standing, artist-initiated projects are mostly over. Newer public art is usually created by teams: an artist or group of artists working with designers, architects, project managers and clients to integrate their works into buildings or landscapes.

Some fine artwork has come out of the process — think of Tony Oursler's strange, murmuring apparitions in the escalator wall at the new Central Library — but many more are hardly noticeable.

If you wander across the scattered design of Vicki Scuri's "Cloudwalk" terrazzo floor at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, or "Blue Glass Passage" at the new City Hall — a sleek, transparent catwalk designed by James Carpenter — you might not even realize you are treading on public art.

Simple forms, complex issues

It looks so simple, you'd never imagine the hostile debate it set off. Three rough stones and three smooth geometric forms, paired up one-on-one in an elemental dance. Stretched along 130 feet of shoreline at Myrtle Edwards Park, Heizer's sculpture "Adjacent, Against, Upon" first seems like nothing more than a harmonious arrangement of forms against a shimmering backdrop of sky and water.

But as you enter into the piece and explore the artist's design, it keeps growing. You feel the force of the relationship between raw stone and sculpted cement and can start to reflect on the way civilization butts against nature, instinct against reason. Heizer's massive haiku of a sculpture encapsulates the basic conflicts of being human.

"Adjacent, Against, Upon" is one of a handful of artworks that have become bold Seattle landmarks. Like the view-framing oculus of Noguchi's "Black Sun" at Volunteer Park — a favorite place to lounge and watch the sunset — and the grand anatomy of Henry Moore's bronze "Vertebrae" — clustered like the remains of some ancient denizen of downtown — Heizer's sculpture helps define the city's unique character.

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The clash over the sculpture's selection heralded the politicking and controversies that have swirled behind the scenes of Seattle's public-art program ever since.

Planning a legacy

Before the 1% program, public art came mostly as gifts of heroic statuary by civic organizations, donations from private individuals or sculptures on corporate plazas. Some works were commissioned for the Seattle World's Fair and remain at Seattle Center.

In 1973, even though the city was still gripped in the economic doldrums of the Boeing recession, Mayor Wes Uhlman signed an ordinance to commit 1 percent of capital-project funds to art. He declared the city responsible "for expanding experience with visual art — to better enable people in all society to better understand their communities and individual lives."

"They passed it in the wink of an eye: It seemed like apple pie and motherhood," recalls art patron Virginia Wright, an early proponent of Seattle public art, noting that other cities had similar legislation. "Everybody thought it was a great idea without questioning who was going to make decisions, the nuts and bolts of the whole thing."

The process was contentious from the start. Even before a crane had hoisted the 50-ton boulders into place for "Adjacent, Against, Upon," critics and columnists were clashing over the merits of the monumental sculpture. The Seattle Arts Commission (SAC), an unpaid group of art advocates chosen by the mayor, was taking heat for its decision to buy what some considered a bunch of big rocks.

Wright, an early member of SAC's Art in Public Places committee, contributed $10,000 toward the $80,000 price of the sculpture. Other donations supplemented $40,000 from Seattle City Light.

But some City Light officials questioned whether the sculpture was appropriate, and Parks Department officials doubted whether "the common man" could appreciate it.

"It's very different from how art gets chosen for a museum," said Jim McDonald, current director of the city's public-art program. "Almost never are you buying something where you can say 'I want one of those.' You are contracting for something that hasn't been made."

Uncharted water

The issue brought the commission face to face with a modern-day conundrum: How do you select art for the masses in a democratic society? Should the work be chosen by experts with an eye to its long-term significance or be picked by consensus to avoid controversy right now?

SAC and its city staff were basically in uncharted water. There was no clear line between the commission and city government. They tried different ways of selecting artists, from open calls to hiring a curator to make suggestions. Panels of consultants weighed in.

Civic leaders couldn't look to history for guidance, because the great artworks and monuments of past civilizations were commissioned by kings, popes, tyrants and aristocrats — too bad if the populace didn't approve.

Power struggles

At first, it was considered normal for politicians to be involved in the process, says Henry Art Gallery director Richard Andrews, a current arts commissioner who also served in the early days of Seattle's public-art program. "But ultimately the City Council was not a good forum for debating the merits of art," he said.

The council, frustrated by the debates about "Adjacent, Against, Upon" and other art-related issues, passed a 1976 resolution titled, "What Is Art? And Why We Should Not Spend Too Much Time Trying to Answer That Question." It shifted responsibility for the 1% program away from the City Council and to the Arts Commission in conjunction with appropriate departments and citizen boards.

Recently, there have been other changes at the Arts Commission. In 2003, Greg Nickels transformed it into the Mayor's Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs under executive director Michael Killoren.

Killoren says the name change signals a broader focus for the office, encompassing neighborhood projects and education without changing the art commission's role.

Yet Barbara Goldstein, who stepped down last year as head of the city's public-art program, said the commission lost some clout. "There was an attempt to focus more on the mayor's agenda," she said.

The design-team approach

The huge paradigm shift, a new way of creating public art, happened in the late 1970s, more or less by accident. City Light, as the largest generator of the city's 1% funds, became the proving ground for an experiment that would change the way Seattle's public-art program — and programs nationwide — worked.

SAC arranged to have artists Sherry Markovitz, Andrew Keating and Buster Simpson collaborate on the Viewland / Hoffman Substation, which opened in 1979. They helped turn it into a playful community park, with folksy whirligigs, a bright-colored mural and quirky furniture.

The substation, at North 105th Street and Fremont Avenue North, offered a fresh take on the possibilities for public art and zoomed to legendary status.

"When public art became a big deal in the 1970s, when Seafirst was built, it was mandatory for corporations to have a big sculpture plunked in the front yard," patron Wright said, referring to "Vertebrae," which sits in front of the former Seattle First National Bank building on Fourth Avenue. "In a way, [the design-team approach] opposed this whole notion of 'plop art:' this big swing of the pendulum away from things plopped on corporate plazas."

Further cementing the trend, a massive dispute erupted in 1981 over the placement of Richard Serra's 120-foot steel "Tilted Arc" bisecting the Federal Plaza of New York City. In 1989, after a prolonged court battle, the $175,000 piece was carted away in the middle of the night and scrapped.

Here in Washington state, Michael Spafford's "Twelve Labors of Hercules" murals in the state Capitol were deemed too suggestive by some politicians. The murals were draped and then removed, at a cost of $162,000 — nearly twice the original price.

Such disputes were magnified in 1989 as Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., mounted his attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts. Arts administrators, trying to deal with an onslaught of knee-jerk news coverage and evaporating government funding, began advocating a more utilitarian approach to art.

That trend has resulted in integrated works such as "Ballard Gateway," a group of aluminum columns on the railings of the Ballard Bridge. With no place for motorists to pause, the works flash by in an instant. Or Nancy Blum's "Flower Wall," which serves as little more than an unobtrusive decoration above the doorways at Sea-Tac Airport's South Train Station.

"It descended into this design-team approach which became the buzzword, this kind of anonymous functional design. It became politicized," Wright said. What had been an innovative way to get artists involved at the ground floor of projects led instead to a proliferation of other decorations that some refer to as "wallpaper."

"Wallpaper? I call it flying under the radar screen," said Carol Valenta, art-program administrator for Sound Transit. "It's not where you'd like to be. We go through waves, and we are probably going through a somewhat conservative wave right now, where people have to weigh priorities."

Artist rosters

To simplify the process of choosing artists, city and county administrators formed their own public-art rosters, lists of artists they considered qualified to work on public projects. But the notion of public-art rosters has built-in drawbacks.

"A lot of really good artists don't want to be involved in the process because it's cumbersome," said Andrews, an arts commissioner. "Of those who become professional public artists, some are exceptionally good, some exceptionally formulaic. ... You can dumb down the whole process."

"A friend of mine called it welfare for artists," said art patron Wright.

Some artists object to the whole notion of prescreened "public artists," too.

"They know how to sell it and work the system. I just think a lot of it is mediocre work," said John Feodorov, artist and former Seattle arts commissioner. He's got some straight-forward advice for those who want to make a living as public artists: "Get a job."

The biggest problem with design-team art is that it can end up all one flavor — vanilla — says John Young, artist and University of Washington professor.

Young, who has taught classes in public art since 1986, maintains there is a big difference between art and decoration. "Art has layers of meaning, some sort of significance or poetry. Decoration is just visual," he said.

"I think controversy is a critical part of acceptance and that any good art brings debate."

Yet for politicians and bureaucrats, used to seeking consensus, the idea of controversy as a marker of success is foreign territory. At the Port of Seattle, which pays for its own artwork, Paige Miller, a Port commissioner and former member of the Port's Art Oversight Committee, looked shocked at the notion.

"No one has ever said this is not what you should be doing. I have heard nothing but genuine excitement about what we've done at [the airport's] Concourse A."

The test of time

Controversy in itself does not guarantee great results, and plenty of small and subtle artworks are powerful and fine despite their quiet ways. But often the newest ideas and greatest advancements lie outside the standard framework most people have for evaluating quality. Usually, all that's needed is a period of adjustment.

In the case of Heizer's sculpture at Myrtle Edwards Park, time has been kind. The artist — recently featured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine — has grown in prestige, and his poetic sculpture, a rare public artwork for the artist, well-suits its waterfront site and the city.

When Seattle Art Museum's new Olympic Sculpture Park opens on adjacent land next summer, Heizer will be a star.

But what about artworks that don't hold up well and turn out to be the wrong choice?

"There is no reason to assume that every thing in public art should be forever," said Arts Commissioner Andrews.

He proposes that a work of art placed by the proper process be protected for 15 years. Then he says there should be a thoughtful process in place for removing it if need be.

"Time is useful and we gain perspective. [The art] needs a protective time zone so we don't make a knee-jerk reaction that we will later regret."

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.

Information in this story, originally published May 8, 2005, was corrected May 11, 2005. The name of the executive director of the Mayor's Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs was misspelled. His name is Michael Killoren.

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