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 twentieth century modernism, works that explored activism, and those that reflected the values of a community. Through ordinances, levies, bond issues, and the work of City commissions and City departments, Seattle has become a city rich in public art – from its large-scale sculptures that dominate downtown streets to site-specific works situated in small, neighborhood parks. Part 1 covers the period from 1900 to the 1980s; Part 2 picks up at the dawn of the 1990s.
Activism in Artwork
The 1990s saw work based in activism. A gift to the city, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Daryl Smith was commissioned by Dr. Floyd Schmoe (1895-2001), who had won the Hiroshima Peace Prize in 1987, for a site near the University of Washington campus. The bronze statue memorialized Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese girl who survived the bombing of Hiroshima only to die of radiation sickness at age 12. The work was dedicated on August 6, 1990, the 45th anniversary of the bombing.
Local sculptor Robert Kelly (d. 1989) created a memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) for a new park at Martin Luther King Way South and South Bayview Street dedicated to the civil rights activist. Inspired by King's final speech, "I've Been to the Mountaintop," Kelly created a structure symbolic of a mountain – "perilous to climb, yet interspersed with plateaus of rest and reflection" (Miller). The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Committee gifted the work to the city in 1991, following the sculptor’s death.
In 1994, sculptor Gerard Tsutakawa (b. 1947) created Urban Peace Circle Sculpture, a gift to the city from the Stop the Violence Committee. The work was the culmination of a gun buy-back program formed by the committee after several people were killed by gun violence in the Puget Sound area on a single weekend in 1992. Money from the buy-back program funded the work, which was seen as a memorial to peace. Several reclaimed guns were entombed in the work's base.
In Public: Seattle 1991
In the early 1990s, the Seattle Arts Commission instituted its largest artist-initiated project to date: "In Public: Seattle 1991." The project was a response to a levy passed to construct a new Seattle Art Museum building downtown. Representatives from the Arts Commission and SAM collaborated on a project to "mark the museum’s opening and celebrate Seattle’s history of commissioning public art" (Shamash, 17). Seen as an inventive way of redefining public art, "In Public" brought together 38 artists from North and South America, Europe, the Soviet Union, and Asia with a goal to create temporary and permanent works throughout the city. Artists planned works for the waterfront, Seattle Public Library branches, the bus tunnel, and the University of Washington campus, in addition to downtown. They used print media, public transit, airwaves, and even telephone lines as places to inspire dialog.
Artist Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds (b. 1954), a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Nation, created a work to sit on either side of a bust of Chief Seattle by James Wehn located in Pioneer Square. Heap of Birds wanted Day/Night (1992) to convey the sentiments of Chief Seattle’s speech given during treaty negotiations in 1854. It featured two porcelain-on-steel panels that included messages in Lushootseed on one side and English on the other: "Far away brothers and sisters, we still remember you" and "Chief Seattle, now the streets are our home." At the time, the use of the Lushootseed language outside of its community of speakers was considered novel. The artist wanted to convey the reality that "for many transient inter-tribal Native people, the streets of Seattle are home" (Heap of Birds).
One of the most iconic works produced for "In Public" was Jonathan Borofsky’s (b. 1942) Hammering Man, a work sited in front of the new museum at 1st Avenue and University Street. Hammering Man was a 48-foot-high steel silhouette of a working man methodically hammering up and down four times per minute. Borofsky explained that the work symbolized "the worker in all of us" (Rupp, 1992). After a rigging mishap in 1991, Hammering Man was permanently installed in 1992. It was funded by 1% for Art funds and a donation from the Virginia Wright Fund.
Artists in Residence
In 1997 and 1998, the Seattle Arts Commission created artist-in-residence programs with Seattle Public Utilities and Seattle City Light. Artists Lorna Jordan (1954-2021), Buster Simpson, and Peter de Lory (b. 1948) worked with Public Utilities, while Dan Corson (b. 1964) and Lyn McCracken worked with City Light. By 2002, Simpson had created Beckoning Cistern (2002), a work that resembled a large hand and was made of corrugated aluminum. It was designed to capture and direct rainwater runoff to a concrete planter. De Lory created a series of 66 black-and-white photographs between 1999 and 2011, 45 of which were added to the city's portable works collection, entitled Cityworks: Seattle Public Utilities Revealed. The images explored many areas of SPU's operations: water, drainage, wastewater, and solid waste. De Lory created photographic diptychs, triptychs, and single-image works as the result of observations and conversations with staff in a variety of areas. Corson and McCracken created a series of installations for the Union Street Electric Gallery entitled Within Disease and Health (2001), of which several were added to the portable works collection. The installations consisted of three photographic diptychs that "explore the correlation between the human circulatory system and the city's electrical network ... [they] also reveal the fragility of life and the indispensability of energy centers" (Office of Arts & Culture).
Parks and Community Centers
In the late 1990s, voters passed two levies that funded public art: the 1999 Community Center Levy and the 1999 Seattle Parks and Recreation Community Center Levy. Ela Lamblin's work, Whirl Piece: Current Events (2005), a stainless-steel gazebo structure, was sited at Yesler Terrace Park; Nikki McClure (b. 1968) created a series of laser-cut blue-gray metal waves inset with colored glass to form The Eddy (2006) for the Northgate Community Center; Kristin Tollefson created WaterLogs + Leaf/Hull (2007), which included a large stainless-steel leaf (or sail) sculpture and log forms made from wood reclaimed from the bottom of Lake Union, for the Montlake Community Center; Samara (2007), a structure resembling a stem and seed pods, was created by Susan Zoccola for the Laurelhurst Community Center; and Aaron Power created a work for the Van Asselt Community Center entitled Many Threads, One Spool (2007), a spool sculpture radiating six colorful threads that end at a translucent resin pod. Levies continued into the 2020s, providing more public art funding for community spaces.
A New Millennium
In 2004, the city launched its Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI), which aimed to eliminate racial disparities and achieve racial equality in all departments and areas, including its public art collection. The Seattle Arts Commission (renamed the Mayor’s Office of Art and Cultural Affairs in 2002) had been thinking about and working toward diversity in its collection since the late 1980s when, in 1989, it commissioned a panel to create a strategic plan, "The Arts in Seattle: Looking to the Future." The plan strove for sustained support for racial and ethnic diversity while voicing frustration with the lack of visibility and validation of artforms and aesthetics not based on Western European traditions. In 1990, the Arts Commission adopted a "Statement of Philosophy on Cultural and Ethnic Diversity," solidifying its commitment. RSJI expanded the notion of inclusivity in the public art collection and rethought what it meant to acknowledge and undo systemic racism in the ways it provided opportunities for, juried, and selected work.
In 2013, the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs became simply the Office of Arts & Culture (OAC). It continued the important racial-equity work and created a pilot program called "Artists Up" with other local arts-related agencies to determine how to best serve Latinx artists. That program evolved to serve all artists who had been historically underrepresented. In 2018, the OAC published "Capacity Building for Racial Equity in Public Art," a white paper that reflected its Public Art Boot Camp program and temporary projects like Art Interruptions. It acknowledged: "Public art began and continues to reflect our history, society, and place. Artists who created public works emphasized the dominant narratives and leaders of their times and in the United States that was a reflection and emphasis of white culture. The narratives and stories of Indigenous people, immigrants, African Americans and Blacks were largely untold in the public realm" (Office of Arts & Culture). The OAC now included an Ethnic Artists Roster. Like the Washington State artists registry of the 1970s, this roster allowed artists to self-identify and make themselves available for public art opportunities.
Art in Libraries
The Seattle Public Library (SPL) had been including public art at its sites for decades. Now bond funding and the city’s stated focus on racial equity allowed diverse artworks to flourish. In 1998, Seattle voters passed the $196.4 million Libraries for All Bond. Its 1% for Art funds component amplified art in SPL branches city wide. Gu Xiong (b. 1953) created A Place Called Home (2004), a photographic work that "deals with all people's experiences of being immigrants within the context of 'home' and 'identity,' linking cultures and different social backgrounds" (Xiong, 2004) for the Columbia City Library. Miles Pepper created a kinetic boat sculpture and rain scupper architectural elements for the Beacon Hill Branch – Beacon Hill Discovery and Ravens Bill Downspouts (2005). Rene Yung created Wellspring (2005) for the International District/Chinatown Branch Library, a three-part work centered on tea – teacups floating in resin tubes, teacups and informational text in a window display, and an installation of 120 teacups donated by the community mounted on a wall in the shape of an oval.
Marita Dingus (b. 1956) created Children of the Sea (2006), a mixed-media installation featuring three African American cherub-like figures who swim among seaweed and vines for the Douglass-Truth Branch. In 2006, artist Franklin Joyce created South Park Lights for the South Park Branch, a series of theatrical light fixtures in steel enclosures mounted on columns whose imagery changed seasonally. Katherine Kerr created Anthology (2006), a series of five bronze hands cast from library patrons' hands for the Southwest Branch. "Each hand holds an object inspired by community members’ thoughts and values” (Office of Arts & Culture).
The Central Branch, which opened its new building in 2004, installed many new works through the bond. Gary Hill (b. 1951) created a two-channel projection project entitled Astronomy by Day (and Other Oxymorons) (2003-2004) that made viewers feel like they were moving through line drawings of a city made with everyday objects. Other objects at the Central Branch included Literacy/ESL/World Languages (LEW) Floor (2004) by Ann Hamilton (b. 1956), Braincast (2004) by Tony Ourlser (b. 1957), Babe, The Phoenix Fairy, and The Magic Grove (2006) by Mandy Greer, and Of Memory (2007) by Lynne Yamamoto (b. 1961).
In 2003, Seattle voters approved the Fleets and Facilities Department Fire Facilities and Emergency Response Levy, which included a 1% for Art funds component. Works that developed from the funds included Stuart Nakamura's water- and community-inspired steel, granite, and flagstone installation Call and Response (2008) and Gloria Bornstein’s (b. 1937) Sentinels (2008), a series of eight red sculptures inspired by Asian architecture and craft, both for Fire Station 10 in the International District. Steve Gardner created a stained-glass and laser-cut aluminum work, The Call (2012), for Station 6 in the Central District, and Perri Lynch Howard created Moment to Moment (2012), a 12-foot-tall stone and glass sculpture for Station 21 in Greenwood. Peter Reiquam created an aluminum black cat sculpture that crawls over Station 9 in Fremont, called Nine Lives (2013). Rob Ley created a steel tube Wind and Water (2014) sculpture for Station 20 in West Queen Anne/Interbay, and Sean Orlando created a large-scale toy fire truck in steel for Station 32 in West Seattle, called Engine 32 1/2 (2017).
Roads, Bridges, and Bike Trails
Beginning in the early 2000s, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) utilized 1% for Art funds for projects that provided visual interest to roads, bridges, bike trails, and more. Just off "The Ave" in the University District, sculptor Brian Goggin created Traffic of Ideas (2005), a series of 21 bronze books set atop the University Heights Community Center gateway. Artist Jennifer Dixon conceived five different series of colorful photographs that created Flipbooks (2008) for cyclists riding along the Interurban Trail. She also created a work for the Bitter Lake/Broadview Community entitled Playland (2013) that utilized repurposed SDOT road signs to create a colorful collage that mimics a roller coaster and references a former amusement park located on the site at Linden Avenue N.
Claudia Fitch (b. 1952) produced Beads Along a Thread: Beaded Poles, Loop Stitch Bollards, Eye of the Needle Poles (2014), a series of works focused on streetcar lines running through Capitol Hill, the Central District, and the International District. The oversized structures reference needlework, beadwork, and other sewing crafts. In 2012, Ellen Sollod created Origami Tessellation 324.3.4 (Fractured) for the South Lake Union neighborhood. The 28-foot-high lighted steel structure referenced the biotech and high-tech industries that had transformed the neighborhood. She created another work for the neighborhood: Lost in Thought (2014), a series of three 7-foot mosaic roundels inset into the sidewalk at the south end of Lake Union that included speech bubbles and imagery that encouraged pedestrians to complete the thoughts.
In 2016, artist Martha Jackson Jarvis (b. 1952) created Union, a sculptural seating arrangement and freestanding sculpture based on African and Indigenous forms, for a curb bulb near the intersection of 23rd Avenue and Union Street in the Central District. In 2019, Vicki Scuri and Alexander Polzin transformed a pedestrian bridge over Aurora Avenue North: Aurora Bright Dawn (2019) included hundreds of colorful translucent "fins" that line the bridge's sides. "Inspired by the sunrise, the project adds color and pattern to an aging pedestrian bridge" (Scuri and Lindsay).
The AIDS Memorial Pathway (AMP) was created in the early 2020s around the Capitol Hill Light Rail Station and had a prominent public art component meant to "create a physical place for remembrance and reflection, utilize technology to share stories about the epidemic and the diverse community responses to the crisis, and provide a call to action to end HIV/AIDS, stigma, and discrimination" (The AMP). The design firm Civilization created We're Already Here (2021), three groupings of colorful signage in Cal Anderson Park. Inspired by demonstration signs during the AIDS crisis, the signage text was taken from the words of Brian Day (1960-1990), a Seattle activist who focused on social-justice issues for the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities. "The specific messages incorporated ... were sourced from actual demonstrations, parades, and vigils that took place throughout the region – messages that are just as important today" (Office of Arts & Culture).
Christopher Paul Jordan's andimgonnamisseverybody (2021) was installed in the Central Plaza of the block facing the light rail station. Created with stereo speakers, the 20-foot-high sculpture forms an X (or a positive sign on its side). The artist described the piece as being a portal to spaces forged by BIPOC, poor, LGBTQ+, and other excluded communities to take care of their own. Three laminated and stacked glass sculptures – Ribbons of Light: Lambda, Monolith, and Reveries (2021-2022) by Horatio Law – are sited in Cal Anderson Park. These works represent remembrance, and the struggles and liberation of the LGBTQ+ community, and encourage visitors to explore their feelings.
To date , the City of Seattle's civic art collection includes more than 430 permanently sited works and more than 3,600 portable works. The Office of Arts & Culture continues to oversee the collection, working toward eliminating institutional racism in its public art program, integrating artworks and ideas of artists into a variety of public settings, and advancing Seattle's reputation as a cultural center for innovation and creativity.