The City of Seattle’s civic art collection was founded on monuments to great men, but soon expanded to include symbolic works, works that embraced the modernism of the twentieth century, works that explored activism, and those that reflected the values of the community. Through ordinances, levies, bond issues, and the work of city commissions and city departments, Seattle became a city rich in public art – from its large-scale sculptures on downtown streets to site-specific works situated in small, neighborhood parks.
Early Figural Works
Figural sculptures were the foundation of the City of Seattle's art collection. Sculptors, often trained in Europe, had been creating monumental works for American cities since the eighteenth century. In the early twentieth century, Seattle, still a fledgling city, was beginning to recognize the value of visual art in public spaces and began building a collection.
In 1907, the Seattle City Council formed a commission to build a monument at Tilikum Place, a site north of downtown meant to mark the locale where land claims were made by early Seattleites Arthur Denny (1822-1899), Carson Boren (1824-1912), and William Bell (1817-1887). Following Seattle’s Denny Hill regrade project, money left over was set aside to mark the site and fund Seattle's first public artwork. The commission selected James Wehn (1882-1973), a classically trained sculptor and the first chairman of the University of Washington’s Sculpture Department, as its artist. Wehn wanted to create a statue of Chief Seattle (Si'ahl, ca. 1780-1866) and strove for something that "served as a historical monument to Chief of the Suquamish and Duwamish tribes," and captured "the moment when he first greeted the Denny party of settlers in 1851" (Poyner, 61). The statue was dedicated on November 13, 1912.
More figural works followed, including two by sculptor Richard E. Brooks (1865-1919). One was a statue of William H. Seward (1801-1872), who was instrumental in the United States’ purchase of Alaska. Funded by public subscription, the Seward statue was unveiled on September 10, 1909, at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition on what is now the University of Washington campus. It was moved to its current location in Volunteer Park in 1910. Shortly thereafter, Brooks created a work of lawyer, businessman, and governor of Washington John H. McGraw (1850-1910). A site was selected by McGraw’s family members and private citizens, placing the monument at the intersection of Westlake Avenue, North Street, and Stewart Street. The work was funded by private sources and unveiled on July 22, 1913. Brooks’s works coincided with the rapidly developing public park system in which the Seattle Parks Department took a larger role in public art. The city charter was amended to include Article XIII, a fund for parks to govern "such gifts, bequests and devises as may be given, bequeathed, or devised to the City of Seattle for the purpose of parks, parkways, public squares, play or recreation grounds, or any ornamentation thereof" (Poyner, 25-26).
The world wars influenced works that followed. Alonzo Victor Lewis (1886-1946) began work on a 12-foot-high bronze statue in 1922, American Doughboy Bringing Home Victory (also called Armistice) to honor fallen American soldiers in World War I. After a decade of controversies and legal battles, the work, commissioned by the 91st Division Association, and ultimately paid for with city funding, was sited at Memorial Park near the Civic Auditorium on May 30, 1932. It was moved to Seattle Center in 1961, and then re-sited at the Veteran’s Memorial Cemetery at Evergreen Washelli in 1998, given to the cemetery as a gift from the city.
In the 1940s, Seattle Mayor William F. Devin (1898-1982) activated the Seattle Civic Arts Commission, which made a real push for public art. Sculptor and University of Washington professor Dudley Pratt (1897-1975) was commissioned to create a work in 1950 as a tribute to those who died in World War II. Gold Star Mother, a term used for a mother who lost a son in the war, was created in Carrara marble and sited at the Washington Memorial Plaza at the Public Safety Building on 4th Avenue between James and Cherry streets. With the demolition of the Public Safety Building in 2005, the work, like Doughboy, was transferred to Evergreen Washelli.
Early Commissions and Community Involvement
In 1955, the Municipal Arts Commission was formed out of the work of arts-advocacy group Allied Arts. It was made up of "prominent citizens who were charged with advising the mayor on emerging issues relating to cultural development and to urban improvement projects including historic preservation" (Blecha and Becker). Public art was becoming an integral part of city development, and there was now a permanent governing body to oversee it.
Works during this period indicated a shift toward more abstract, non-representational work that transcended the traditional statue on a plinth. In 1966, George Tsutakawa (1910-1997) worked with local architect Floyd Naramore (1879-1970) to create a fountain at 6th Avenue and Seneca Street as a gift to the city. Tsutakawa’s design forced water through elongated curved bronze abstract shapes, creating "flared sheets of water that extend the bronze forms" (Rupp and Edwards, 133). The Naramore Fountain was unusual in its display: The fountain was placed above eye level on a concave platform of rocks quarried from the Cascade Mountains, which gave the effect of a flowing mountain stream.
Doris Totten Chase (1923-2008) was one of the first women to create monumental sculpture for the city’s collection. Changing Form (1969) consisted of a large cylindrical shape stacked atop an even larger cube pierced through with large circles. Sited at Kerry Park on Queen Anne Hill, this was her first large-scale commission. As the title suggests, the heavy structure made of Cor-Ten steel was changeable and allowed a strong participant to turn the cylindrical shape on the top a full 360 degrees with the help of bearings. The work was gifted to the city by Mr. and Mrs. Albert Kerry.
The Impact of the World’s Fair
The Century 21 Exposition in 1962 had a significant effect on the trajectory of Seattle’s public art. Not only did it introduce Seattleites to the modern art of the mid-twentieth century through fair exhibitions, but the site of the fair (now Seattle Center) became a locus for the city’s public art collection. Over the next few years large sculptural works were sited there, many which remain in the city’s collection – works by Doris Totten Chase and James Washington Jr. (1911-2000); fountains by James FitzGerald (1910-1973), Everett DuPen (1912-2005), and François Stahly (1911-2006); and Paul Horiuchi’s (1906-1999) mosaic Seattle Mural.
With the excitement around the arts brought by the World’s Fair, city leaders recognized the opportunity to make public art an enduring part of everyday life in Seattle. In 1971, Allied Arts, the Seattle Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the Washington State Arts Commission, the Seattle Art Museum’s (SAM) Council on Contemporary Art, and local philanthropic group PONCHO sponsored an "Art in Public Places" conference. Local, national, and international speakers presented. It was the first on the subject in Seattle and was instrumental in further formalizing Seattle’s public art program, including the passage of an ordinance that would change everything.
One Percent for Art
In June 1971, Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935) replaced the Municipal Arts Commission with the Seattle Arts Commission, a 15-person group made up of artists, businesspeople, educators, gallery owners, and other citizens. They acted as advisors to the city council and oversaw the donation process for potential gifts to the city’s public art program. Their major task, however, was shepherding an ordinance through the city government to guarantee the allocation of funds for artwork within any municipal construction project. They were successful, and on June 30, 1973, Mayor Uhlman signed Ordinance 105389, establishing that all city departments should include "an amount for works of art equal to at least one percent (1%) of the total cost of any such construction project" (The Arts, 1). Seattle joined only a handful of cities –Baltimore, Philadelphia, San Francisco – in establishing such a directive.
In 1974, the inaugural 1% for Art project saw approximately $25,000 spent on works by Washington artists to be displayed in two public auditoriums under Seattle City Light’s management. These works – paintings, prints, drawings, and photographs – were the beginnings of the "portable works" portion of the city’s collection. Said City Light Superintendent Gordon Vickery (1920-1996): "City Light was very pleased to have the first 1% for Art program completed ... this program was an extraordinary opportunity for local artists, and ... many new people will be exposed to the artworks in City’s Light’s auditoriums ... 30,000 people a year [will use these facilities] with an increase of 5,000 more each year" (Vickery via Seattle Arts Commission, 8)
The Seattle Water Department (now Seattle Public Utilities) also enacted one of the earliest 1% projects by commissioning Washington artist Ted Jonsson (1933-2015) to create a work for its Maintenance and Operations Control Center in 1975. Jonsson's work, Chimera, consisted of two curved stainless-steel pipes in which water flowed. Each pipe began at one of the two ends of a pool and met in the middle. The 'S' shaped pipes mirrored one another to create a figure eight. The artist wanted to project the illusion of tremendous volumes of flowing water. It was one of the earliest examples of work directly reflecting a city department’s purpose.
Monumental Works by National and International Artists
Even before the 1% for Art ordinance was enacted, the city recognized the importance of bringing nationally and internationally known artists into the collection. In 1967, the Municipal Arts Commission partnered with SAM to acquire a work to be sited in front of the museum in Volunteer Park. Asian-American artist Isamu Noguchi’s (1904-1988) work, Black Sun, a 9-foot-wide ring cut from a single piece of Brazilian black granite, was selected. It was gifted to the city by the Seattle Foundation, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). At the time, Noguchi was considered one of the few American sculptors with international reputations whose work was displayed in Seattle.
Several years later, artist Tony Smith (1912-1980) was sought to produce the first ordinance-funded monumental work created by an internationally recognized sculptor. His work, Moses, a 5,500-pound abstract composition of connected black steel geometrical shapes, was first introduced in 1968 by SAM’s Contemporary Art Council in the lead-up to curator Lucy Lippard’s groundbreaking exhibition, 557,087. Although Smith participated in the exhibition with another work, he fabricated a plywood mockup of Moses in the hopes that the piece would be constructed in steel and permanently sited in Seattle. The completed work was indeed constructed in steel in 1975. Because it exceeded the 1 percent budget, an NEA Art in Public Places program grant and local donors made up the rest. Sited at Seattle Center, Moses was considered the first major art acquisition under Seattle’s new 1% for Art program.
In 1975 the Seattle Arts Commission selected Michael Heizer (b. 1944) to create a work in the former Elliott Bay Park, which was being re-dedicated to Seattle politician and activist Myrtle Edwards (1894-1969). Adjacent, Against, Upon, a work of three enormous Cascade granite slabs resting on or near three concrete plinths, was completed in 1976 and funded through the 1% for Art program, along with contributions from SAM’s Contemporary Art Council and a grant from the NEA. This project was important in that it allowed the artist to explore his own ideas about a city, rather than being asked to respond to a city directive. The work generated substantial public debate and faced resistance from the parks department and Edwards’s family, who felt the sculpture wasn’t an appropriate memorial. The arts commission prevailed, and the work has gained popular acceptance and become a favorite among waterfront visitors.
These and other works prompted art writers Susan Brown and Hiro Kawasaki to observe: "In less than one hundred years, Seattle’s public art has evolved from one which honored her pioneers and heroes to one of national acclaim on its own artistic merits" (Brown and Kawasaki, 6).
Public Art by Washington Artists
Even though the city’s public art program was attracting artists from outside the region, it recognized the importance of supporting the local art community. Shortly after Ordinance 105389 passed, the arts commission created a registry for Washington artists who were interested in 1% for Art projects. It was overseen by Henry Art Gallery Associate Director LaMar Harrington (1917-2005) and included artists’ biographies, images of their work, and resource files. Project developers were encouraged to utilize artists from this resource.
In March 1974, the arts commission accepted a gift from Helen Harrington Schiff (1894-1980) of a sculpture/fountain by the Seattle sculptor James FitzGerald for the new Waterfront Park. FitzGerald died in October 1973 and the work, Waterfront Fountain, was completed by his wife, artist Margaret Tomkins (1916-2002). Measuring more than 16 feet high, the work is considered one of FitzGerald’s most abstract, with its "angular columns and interlocking beams with platforms, the entire assembly a forest of right angles draped in falling water cascading over the top and ends to spill down the sides in torrents to a concrete collecting pool" (Poyner). It was the last of five fountains FitzGerald made for Seattle.
In 1977, the arts commission acquisitioned a sculpture by Lawrence Beck (1938-1994), a Seattle artist of Inuit-Chanagmiut descent. The work, Atala Kivliktwok Okitun Dukik, was made from sheets of yellow-painted steel and sited at Golden Gardens Park. The sculpture referred to Beck's Inuit heritage and meant "Just like the Golden Shiny Money Moon" in Yupik. It was one of the first works by an Indigenous artist funded by 1% funds.
Neighborhoods became more involved in public art, and in 1977, the Fremont Art Board raised funds for a proposed gift by Washington sculptor Richard Beyer (1925-2012). By 1979, Beyer’s People Waiting for the Interurban, a work depicting six figures constructed in cast aluminum, was completed. This work became the symbol of Fremont and set the stage for future neighborhood-sponsored works. Other works by Beyer were added to the city’s collection; he created a fountain base to accompany Wehn’s sculpture of Chief Seattle (1975), and several years later, in 1988, created a figural work depicting seafood restaurant entrepreneur Ivar Haglund (1905-1985) called Ivar Feeding the Gulls.
In 1976, a pilot project at Seattle City Light’s Viewland/Hoffman Electrical Substation became a prototype for integrating art into a functioning city facility. The city hired artists to work collaboratively with the project’s architectural firm, Hobbs/Fukui, to conceptualize and design the overall project, rather than having the artists create discrete artworks that were independent of the facility. Meanwhile, artists Andrew Keating (b. 1948), Sherry Markovitz (b. 1947), and Buster Simpson (b. 1942) transformed an intrusive collection of electrical equipment in the Bitter Lake neighborhood into a community park. The works included a mural, color-coded electrical equipment, signage, and an area featuring 27 whirligigs made from discarded appliance parts by Coulee City-based Emil Gerke and Veva Gerke. Through this project the arts commission was credited with formulating the "design team" concept that became a national model for the collaborative approach to public facility design.
The "First Avenue Project" was a 10-plus-year project begun in 1978 that focused on adding interest to an otherwise basic city street. Artists Buster Simpson, Jack Mackie, Paul Rhinehart, and Deborah Rhinehart wanted to remake 1st Avenue downtown by adding stone benches, recycled stone steps, plum trees, rough boulders, and sandstone slabs at bus stops. It was an innovative concept, as it "maintain[ed] an inner-city 'laboratory' feel ... [and] foster[ed] a setting that allow[ed] for experimentation and discovery in an unexpected, but thoroughly functional manner ... [the project provided] pragmatic, streetwise solutions [that] appear to 'happen' rather than be imposed from outside" (Simpson via Office of Arts & Culture). This project transformed thinking in the city. "Today, we have urban gardens everywhere, we have a variety of trees, we have bus shelters with seats (sometimes), all of these were unknown in the Seattle of the early 1970s" (Platt).
In the 1980s, the arts commission evaluated its collection and recognized the need to continue to court local artists, but to do it in a more deliberate way. As an example, Seattle City Light’s 1% for Art portable works collection contained more than 1,200 items, but it had grown too quickly and the quality was uneven. Those making acquisitions were encouraged to strike more of a balance between mid-career and emerging artists. To this end, the arts commission and Seattle City Light launched the "Seattle Artists Program," which was designed to support and encourage significant achievements by Seattle artists by commissioning new artwork for the City Light portable works collection. This program continued through the 1990s and resulted in the acquisition of works by Jeffrey Bishop (b. 1949), Catherine Cook, Drake Deknatel (1943-2005), Joe Max Emminger, Randy Hayes (b. 1944), Ken Kelly (b. 1955), Deborah Lawrence, and Rich Lehl. In 1989, the "Northwest Major Works Program" was launched and a second iteration followed in 1991. This program awarded a handful of Northwest artists up to $25,000 to produce a body of work for the portable works collection or for indoor or outdoor public sites. This brought work into the collection by Cris Bruch (b. 1957), Ronald Hilbert Coy (1943-2006), James Lavadour (b. 1951), Jeffry Mitchell (b. 1958), Liza vonRosenstiel (b. 1954), and Beliz Brother (b. 1950). This last work was sadly destroyed by a fire and deaccessioned in 2011.
In 1983, artist Robert Irwin (b. 1928) created Nine Spaces, Nine Trees as a commission for the Seattle Public Safety Building. The work utilized blue fencing to create nine rooms around nine planters and benches. An open doorway led into each space containing a plum tree set in a square planter. Irwin spent considerable time observing and planning the space – looking at pedestrian walking patterns, light and climate conditions. It was notable for being physically and conceptually tied to the plaza where it was sited. This work was transferred to the Washington State Arts Commission/University of Washington Public Art Commission in 2003 and was reproduced and installed near the Henry Art Gallery on the UW campus.
City parks and community centers realized public art projects in the late 1970s and 1980s. Artist Charles Greening (b. 1949) produced several works for the city. In 1978, he created Sundial (1978) with Kim Lazare atop a hill in Fremont’s Gas Works Park. With Mary Kern and Robert Williamson, he created the Meridian Archway (1981) in Wallingford’s Meridian Park. An elaborate structure made of rocks and concrete shells, the work served as a barrier-free accessible ramp into the park. In 1989, he created Ballard Boat for the Ballard Community Center Playground, a sculpture that resembles a full-scale boat's prow constructed from cast concrete, bronze, yellow cedar, and rubber.
Seattle artist Ginny Ruffner (b. 1952) created The Unified Playing Field Theory for the South Park Community Center in 1989. Rather than creating a single work, she designed a 26-foot-high painted steel entry structure; created inlays for the sidewalks and plaza depicting days of the year, holidays, and the alphabet in braille, morse code, and hand signs; and, in the center’s locker rooms, created a ceramic mural containing handprints of well-known local athletes.
Other park and community center projects included Stroke (1980) by R. Allen Jensen (1935-2022), a 26-foot-high oar-shaped rod and steel cylinder work for Green Lake Park that referenced the boating and sailing facility located nearby. Ellen Ziegler (b. 1949) created Pole Vault Gateway (1986), a painted steel and bronze work set into the playground entrance and approach to the Ravenna-Eckstein Community Center, which represented the world's pole vault record set on the same day that the community center opened, July 8, 1986, by Russian Sergey Bubka. Artist Robert Maki (b. 1938) collaborated with the landscape design firm of Hanna/Olin to create sculptural elements for Westlake Park – Westlake Star Axis/Seven Hills (1988) – which included seven pink Texas red granite geometrical sculptures at the south end of the park and paving block arranged in a Salish basket-weave pattern design at the north end.
Next: In Part 2, the city's public art collection expands and diversifies.