23 years ago when I moved to Seattle with my husband, who grew up on nearby Vashon Island, I had some inkling of Seattle’s 1% for Art program, since the architectural office where we worked up until our move had received a commission to reimagine Piers 62/63 on the Seattle waterfront. Even in those days when the City of Seattle’s Public Art Program was not quite two decades old, it served as a national model of a robust effort to include the work of artists in the envisioning of the public realm.
For someone who had mostly lived in Manhattan, the shock of the move (I’d only lived in apartments and now suddenly was in a house that came with a yard that needed tending and a feral cat that looked to me for food and, oh yeah, I had to learn to drive, too) was offset by all those things that make Seattle so “liveable” – its natural beauty, its easy access to outdoor recreation and its creative culture with its multiple art, theater and music venues. And that other unique aspect of Seattle – its abundant public art.
Fast forward to 2013: I work at the city’s Office of Art & Culture, where we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of Seattle’s public art program.
In 1973, enlightened city officials put in place what is known as the 1% for Art ordinance; they wanted Seattle to become a national leader in the fledgling field of municipally funded public art. Today, the city boasts more than 400 permanently sited artworks in public places such as parks, transfer stations (yes, at the dump), libraries, streets and bridges. Many community groups and other agencies followed suit, adding more artworks that you can find in just about every corner of Seattle. These projects create a sense of special place and enrich the viewer’s experience of the urban environment.
I recently picked up a houseguest arriving by train at the newly renovated King Street Station and, wanting to show off the riches of my adopted city, I drove her past the world-famous Hammering Man by Jonathan Borofsky at the Seattle Art Museum. When my visitor wanted to explore Seattle by walking to downtown, I suggested a route over the Thomas Street Overpass, framed by Roger Fernandes’ Snoqual, then over to Myrtle Edwards Park where she could see Michael Heizer’s Adjacent Against Upon, one of the program’s earliest commissions, and then on to the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park. From there, she walked through Pike Place Market and on to the Seattle Central Library; there you can experience some high-tech projects inside, such as Tony Oursler’s Braincast, talking “heads” that appear to be breaking out of the escalators, or George LeGrady’s Making Visible the Invisible which gives you a look into what library users are reading and checking out. In contrast to those contemporary installations, you can head further south and admire traditional
Native American carvings at Pioneer Place and Occidental Parks.
To give people an added sense of Seattle’s vibrancy, I recommend that visitors swing by Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill, the city’s densest neighborhood. In addition to being located near great shopping and eating, this park features something for everyone – playfields for organized sports (I’ve spent countless hours watching my kids play soccer at Bobby Morris Playfield), a tennis court that doubles as a bike polo court, children’s play areas and a wading pool, as well as gracious walking paths that wind among heritage trees. The centerpiece is a large water feature that was designed with the help of artist Douglas Hollis. Waterworks looks like a volcano with water pouring out of it and down through a runnel with diverters you can move into calm reflecting pools.
In addition to all its other attractions, Seattle Center is loaded with artworks, from older to modern totem poles, large steel sculptures from the 1980s to bronze whales and sea creatures that children can play on and around. At South Lake Union Park, you can walk out onto the water – on Blanche, an artwork that floats like a dock on the lake next to the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI).
I haven’t even touched on the art in all the other corners of Seattle. Wander through Seattle’s many neighborhoods and you can find art in parks and community centers, at the fire station or the police precinct, on street corners and in the sidewalk, beneath your feet and above your head. Help us celebrate our 40th birthday by finding public art on your next trip through the city.