Where's our public art?

Seattle's 1 Percent for Arts spreads works around the city

Georgia Gerber’s dog in front of Trader Joe’s notwithstanding, I may be barking up the wrong tree when I worry about the lack of public art in our neighborhood. But truth to tell, beyond the fringes of Seattle Center, we simply do not have many works of public art on Queen Anne.

I was drawn to this subject of Queen Anne’s public art when as part of its designation of the Mount Zion Baptist Church in the Central District, the Landmarks Preservation Board included James W. Washington, Jr.’s sculpture, “The Oracle of Truth.” I am really thrilled by this decision to landmark one of Washington’s sculptures. With Gwendolyn and Jacob Lawrence, James Washington Jr. was one of the most important African-American artists in Seattle’s 20th century history. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time a sculpture been folded into a landmark nomination, so the designation is momentous.

Many of us know the two-headed bird at Betty Bowen Viewpoint that James Washington contributed to the memorial installation at Marshall Park. It is owned by the Department of Parks and Recreation. Not unlike the wonderful totem Senator Warren Magnusson’s staff gave him when he retired from the Senate which is just to north of the Viewpoint at 8th Avenue West and West Lee Street, it is not part of the city’s 1 Percent for Art collection. Now, the totem sits carefully restored on its original site no longer watered by the Magnusson’s sprinkler system. 

Public Art means works of art commissioned by local governments from a percentage (in Seattle it’s one percent) of funds spent on capital projects such as roads, electrical sub-stations, or, for example, improvements at Seattle Center. Created it in 1973, Seattle’s 1 Percent for Art program is one of the country’s oldest and most successful programs.

The city’s collection is huge. For legal reasons beyond this humanist’s ken, you can’t see the largest part of the Portable Collection which has been amassed through City Light’s portion of 1 Percent for Arts, but the city regularly exhibits works in its collection at Seattle Municipal Tower and in city offices. The city’s portable collection has climate controlled storage, a workshop for collection conservation and a permanent staff that manages it. Other staff members oversee the acquisition of new pieces for both permanent installations and the Portable Collection, most often through a jury process.

You’ll immediate recognize some of the big collection pieces such as, “Hammering Man,” by Jonathan Borofsky, 1992, outside the Seattle Art Museum, the two totem poles at Steinbreuck Park adjacent to the Pike Place Market (“Untitled Totem Pole,” by Marvin Oliver and James Bender, 1984 and “Farmer’s Pole,” by Victor Steinbreuck and James Bender, 1984) or the exquisite, “Adjacent, Against, Upon,” by Michael Heizer, 1976, along the water in Myrtle Edwards Park. You can find a list of works at http://www.seattle.gov/arts/programs/public-art. But large or small, there are but very few Public Art pieces in Queen Anne.

There is no question we are lucky to have the 2014 addition of Rob Ley’s beautiful, “Wind and Water,” at Fire Station 20 (West Armour Street at 15th Ave West) to Queen Anne and the intriguingly mysterious, “2010 Quarry Rings,” by Adam Kuby in Thomas C. Wales Park (Dexter Avenue North and Sixth North). Doris Chase’s imposing, “Changing Form,” at Kerry Overlook is also in the city’s collection, but it was gifted to the city by Kerry descendants and predates the 1 Percent for Art program. James Washington’s piece at the Betty Bowen Viewpoint and the ten flat pieces that share the space and inadvertently celebrate the Northwest School were gifts that also predate the program. They are owned by Parks, but they are not in the city’s art collection.

So why has Queen Anne been neglected? There certainly are lots of spots where the city could put the art. I’d love to see a gracious modern piece at the little plot at Garfield and Queen Anne Ave that is cared for by Picture Perfect Queen Anne or at our branch of the public library. For all mayoral talk about paying attention to neighborhoods — it goes back in my mind at least to 1989 when Norm Rice became mayor — Queen Anne has nothing to show in the way of public art. Messy Mercer has public art in the median strip near the freeway, but shouldn’t we have a delightful work of art on our scrap of that big capital project?

I hope every citizen of Queen Anne joins me in requesting more 1 Percent for Art projects in our neighborhood. We deserve the enhancement works of art provide and could probably find temporary indoor locations for some of the city’s Portable Collection, if it wanted to share.

MICHAEL HERSCHENSOHN is president of the Queen Anne Historical Society (qahistory.org).