City of Olympia seeks input on city hall display

These are some of the bronze sculptures one artist has proposed for outside of Olympia City Hall.  (Images courtesy of city of Olympia)
These are some of the bronze sculptures one artist has proposed for outside of Olympia City Hall. (Images courtesy of city of Olympia)

A $180,000 plan to adorn Olympia's new City Hall with 10 bronze sculptures meant to represent speaking bubbles like those used in comic strips has drawn heavy criticism.

Each of the "bubbles" would be 2 feet tall. They would hang on pillars outside of City Hall. A 40-inch thought bubble sculpture would be inside the building.

In about 50 comments to the city, residents have come out overwhelmingly against the plan, which is posted on the city's Web site.

"I hope this is a joke!" wrote Pam Barker. "You can't possibly be serious about wasting funds on this ridiculous ... I don't even know what to call it, but it certainly is in no way artistic."

Julie Triplett of Olympia wrote, "I would like to see something much more positive, vibrant and relevant to our community at our new City Hall."

Oliver Stormshak thought differently. "This is nice work," he wrote. "It's smart, funny and engaging."

The plan isn't final, and the city is taking public comment until Monday. The Olympia City Council will have the final say on the project.

Olympia is building a $35.6 million City Hall in the 600 block of Fourth Avenue East, the former site of a Safeway store. The building will house most city departments, now scattered in buildings around town. Construction is set to begin this year and completion is expected next year.

A jury of four artists — three at the end of judging — picked Seattle artist Dan Webb's design from 43 submitted for the building's art, said Stephanie Johnson, arts and events manager for the city.

"I'm hearing that people like the concept," she said. "They have concerns about the execution."

Webb said his City Hall art was meant to symbolize the voices of the people.

"The idea was really hatched because of the use of the building itself, which is kind of bringing together a lot of disparate voices hopefully into consensus," he said. "That's what our government is based on."

He said his concept was not aimed at detracting from the architecture of the building.

Each sculpture is a variation on a theme. One is designed like a tea pot, representing a dispenser "of either wisdom or comfort." Another is block-shaped, representing the pixels of electronic conversation, such as e-mail. Yet another represents empathy.

Webb said he picked bronze because of its permanence, built to last millions of years.

"The reason that the Romans used it is the same reason we use it," he said.

Webb already has done three public art projects. One is in the Bank of America tower in Seattle, another will be in the Burien Town Hall and a third will go in front of a water pump station in Bellevue designed to look like a Tudor house.

Seattle alternative newspaper The Stranger listed one of Webb's pieces as one of the "25 Greatest Works of Art Ever Made in Seattle." Webb's piece, "Little Cuts," was made in honor of his brother, who died of a brain tumor, according to the paper.

The selection process for the artwork dates to at least May, when a citizens advisory committee met about the subject. After that, a jury was empaneled. A third group, the Olympia Arts Commission, gets a say as well before the City Council votes on the process.

The project's $180,000 cost isn't all the city plans to spend on art. The city requires that 1 percent of the cost of major construction projects goes for public art. Given the construction cost of the City Hall — without other costs — the city has to spend $255,000 on art, Johnson said.

She said the rest of the art will be selected to decorate the inside of the building.

"The public-comment period is part of the public process," she said. "We really value the comments."

To comment To send a comment about the proposal for art at Olympia’s new City Hall, e-mail olympiaparks@ci.olympia.wa.us.