The view of the Pier 86 silos from Elliott Avenue West. Photo courtesy of Friends of Art on Pier 86
The view of the Pier 86 silos from Elliott Avenue West. Photo courtesy of Friends of Art on Pier 86

The concept of adorning the 20-foot-high grain silos on Pier 86 isn’t an unprecedented idea. 

But for various reasons, the follow-through of previous attempts to beautify the public face of the facility — from the time they were under construction in the late 1960s, to other proposals throughout the last five decades — have fallen flat. 

“My feeling is that it’s different now,” said Betty Winfield, the chair of the Friends of Art on Pier 86 (FAP86), a group that’s taking another look at bringing art to the site in what may be the most promising effort to date. 

 

A two-fold study

The latest endeavor began two years ago, when Winfield, a retired University of Missouri professor who lives near the site, was walking by on “one of those [summer] days we die for in Seattle,” as she describes it.  

After passing through Olympic Sculpture, Myrtle Edwards and Centennial parks, she reached Pier 86. 

“I looked up and I saw all the moss and the fungus on the silos, and I thought, ‘We can do better than this.’”

What followed were several attempts to get in touch with the Port Commission. In January 2014, she met with commissioners and was advised to begin building community consensus to get her idea off the ground. 

In the meantime, she began researching similar efforts in other cities. 

While Winfield found that most grain silos with art on them are no longer active, in places like Quebec City; Vancouver, B.C. (specifically Granville Island); and Western Australia, art displays and industrial work coexist. With the Terminal 86 grain facility running nearly around the clock, making sure that an art installation would be compatible with the work done on site is critical. 

With a $25,000 Small and Simple Grant from the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, a feasibility study began in late April and will take another three to four months to complete. 

Charles Bookman, who serves on the FAP86 steering committee, said the study is two-fold, looking at both the technical issues that come with working with a complex industrial operation that runs 24/7, along with the public sentiment.

Bookman, a former traffic division head with the Seattle Department of Transportation, said while the operator of the grain terminal has been cooperative, one of the main tenets it’s given the group is that its day-to-day functions cannot be interfered with, even in a brief construction phase.  

“There are some very complicated engineering and operational questions,” he said, noting the presence of port operations on one side of the facility and train tracks on the other. 

 

Honoring the waterfront

In the art realm, the group has learned how many different media could potentially be used. A display could make use of physical material like paint or plastic wrap or potentially light or sound. 

Bookman also said an installation could be permanent or seasonal, noting how most buildings around the city were bathed in blue and green last year in the lead-up to the Seahawks’ Super Bowl appearance. 

“That’s a good example of un-curated but definitely a statement of public art involving light, and it was seasonal and episodic,” he said. 

Winfield noted that the media to decorate silos has varied across the country, with ones in Omaha, Neb., displaying banners; ones in Oklahoma City and San Francisco being painted; and ones in Charlotte, N.C., adorned in vinyl. 

No matter what form an installation takes, Bookman said the group will make a point of recognizing the work done at the facility and on the entire waterfront. 

“Whatever we do,” Bookman said, “we certainly want to honor, not compete or detract from the fact that Seattle has a working waterfront that contributes as much to the economy as the software industry does. It’s very, very important.”

The study will also look at the potential economic impact of public art, Winfield said: “Anytime you’re in Elliott Bay and you’re coming in toward Seattle, this is the icon. This is what you see. This could be fabulous; this could be an absolute amazing way to enter Seattle.” 

 

Community concerns

Late last month, the group hosted a public meeting to present the findings from the feasibility study so far and to garner public comments. 

As for the public feedback they’ve received, Bookman said it’s been “all over the place.” While some have been extremely excited by the idea, others have raised concerns. 

“This is a city where everybody has opinions on every subject,” he said.

Winfield said the cost and any potential of using taxpayer money has some people apprehensive, but that the expectation both from her group and the port is private funds would need to be raised to make it a reality. 

The group is continuing to take feedback through a survey on its website at Fap86.com. 

Bookman said if the conclusion of the feasibility study is that there are technically and operationally workable options, the project can then move to onto presentations and discussions at both the City Council and Port Commission. 

The second phase would include fundraising and the process for selecting a design. Construction would then follow. 

In any case, actually adorning the silos with art is still a ways off. 

“You’re looking at years,” Bookman said, “not months.” 

While past efforts fizzled out, Winfield said much has changed in recent years to make such a proposal more feasible. Besides the content of the grain silos changing — previously wheat and now corn and soybeans — she said the port’s emphasis has shifted slightly to incorporate tourist and cruise ship interests, alongside industrial needs. 

Winfield also noted that the city’s population has changed, there’s a greater emphasis on art in the city (especially along the waterfront) and the latest group of Port Commissioners are more open to trying new things than in years past. 

“We have people really interested in it, and we have a variety of volunteers that have worked really hard on this,” she said, “and I’m sure we’ll continue working up until we get it finished.”

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