Monday, January 21, 2013

Hometown Public Art

In 1962 the Space Needle was build for the World’s Fair in Seattle.  Specific architecture will fall somewhere in the continuum between functionality and the aesthetic.  The Space Needle is more sculptural than functional.   The Space Needle was privately financed, although it sits in the Denny Regrade which was a colossal public works project at the turn of the 20th Century. 

In the mid-60s, my parent’s generation spent almost one-half a trillion (in 2006 dollars) to create the Interstate Highway System.  The Interstate Highway System has allowed a national market to develop between the many manufacturing and agricultural locations and the consuming public.  It is hard to imagine that the Puget Sound public, now reluctant to approve mass transit would favor that kind of authorization today.

Historically, public art was found most in nationalistic monuments and statues and portraits of famous people.  New Deal legislation in the 1930s included the Public Works of Art Project which increased public subsidies for the arts as never before.  The PWAP employed almost 50 artists in Washington State and contributed to a fresh cultural awareness.  A common theme of public art in that era is “progress,” which is cultural as well as political.

The linkage between public works and public art was perpetuated in Washington Statutes. “Pursuant to RCW 43.46.090 through 43.46.095, onehalf of one percent of the state’s capital appropriation for the original construction of specific public buildings is set aside for the administration, acquisition, and conservation of works of art for the state art collection.”  WAC 30-40-050.  Most, if not all, cities and counties have similar set-asides for art funding. 

It is unquestioned that public funds may be expended in order to develop markets or make commerce more efficient.  On the other hand public expenditure for art, in the age of the mega-deficit, has come under the cross-hairs of budget cutters.  NPR and PBS were targets during the 2012 elections although Big Bird came out it with just a few ruffled feathers. 

Nick Gillespie argues that public funds should not be used for art in part because there is sufficient support in the private sector.  But if one examines the differences between NPR and commercial radio or PBS and commercial television broadcast the question that emerges is not whether radio and television would continue to exist, but whether the American public would lose an irreplaceable cultural resource.  Similarly, the National Endowment for the Arts offers grants for exhibitions, installations and permanent works which provide an important cultural contribution regardless of their commercial feasibility. 

There are private foundations and non-profit organizations that contribute to art funding and even public art.  One of the more interesting is the Billboard Project which puts up billboard displays of art in public places.  Locally we are fortunate to have KSER, a community radio station.  Yet I can’t help but imagine an increasing sterility in public places, if not for Public Art funding.

Much of the criticism directed at public funding for the arts hovers around the most shocking exemplars, but a better gage of public art funding is the collection of local government.  The City of Everett and Snohomish County both have collections. Some of the art is outdoors and some confined to meeting rooms and interior space.  A map identifying some of the Everett collection is located here.  The Everett Public Library has a downloadable audio tour of some of the collection.  Seattle has a similar tour. 

One of the reasons the funding that public art seems expendable is that the collection is taken for granted because it is freely observable or people are unaware of the pieces hanging in some meeting room.  There are wonderful works of sculptural and two-dimensional art in the collection of the City of Everett and Snohomish County.  There is a lovely Bernie Weber watercolor in the Everett Treasurer’s office.  Colby Avenue is marked with mysterious and compelling sculptures.  The next time you are walking past a public building, take the time to seek out the art, your art, within.

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