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Manager seeks delay to City Hall art after response

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)

City Manager Steve Hall recommends not going forward with a controversial, $180,000 proposal for bronze sculptures depicting comic-strip speaking bubbles on the outside of the new City Hall. Olympia residents and others overwhelmingly opposed Seattle artist Dan Webb's design in public comments.

"The public is not connecting to this art," Hall said. "They're not understanding it. ... I want to honor what we heard from the public."

Hall recommends the council start over with a new public process and a new art project for the outside of City Hall, after the building is built. Interior art should be selected before the building's completion, Hall said.

Asked if Webb's artwork should be part of it, Hall said, "I think it's a do-over."

The Olympia City Council could make the final decision on the proposal at its meeting Tuesday.

Olympia is building a $35.6 million City Hall in the 600 block of Fourth Avenue East, the former site of a Safeway store. Hall said pile driving is set to begin on the site later this month, and "vertical construction" will be apparent by June or July. Completion is set for next year.

Webb's proposal would attach 10 of the 2-foot-tall speaking bubble sculptures on the outside of the new government headquarters. A 40-inch thought bubble sculpture would be inside.

Webb said the 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," Webb told The Olympian earlier this month. "That's what our government is based on."

He sure got the voices of the people talking.

"Help! Our new city hall is being attacked by tad-poles," Amos Callender wrote in comments to the city.

"What garbage!" Donna Dole wrote. "This city and it's administration are jokes enough in themselves without illustrating the fact in cartoon fashion."

Nancy Stratton writes, "I love art, but this art does not represent the City of Olympia. We live in the Capital city ... please something more Northwest and more understandable by the public in general."

A minority of commentators liked the project.

"I really like Dan Webb's expressive 'bubbles', the panel's choice for artwork for the new city hall," wrote Jeanette Hawkins, a former City Council member who now works for developer Triway Enterprises. "Their texture and form transcends the natural and technological worlds, and their placement really grounds the expanse of glass at the entry of the building. Besides, they are quixotic and fun!"

Mike Sweeny wrote: "Dan Webb is one of the most interesting artists of the Puget Sound area. I'm thrilled at the prospect of having this work in Olympia."

Artist reputation

Webb has established a reputation in the Puget Sound. Seattle alternative newspaper The Stranger listed one of Webb's pieces, "Little Cuts," as one of the "25 Greatest Works of Art Ever Made in Seattle."

The selection process for the City Hall artwork goes back to at least May, when a citizens advisory committee met about the subject. A jury was empaneled in October and later recommended the artwork. A third, all-citizen group, the Olympia Arts Commission, unanimously recommends approving Webb's proposal.

The project's $180,000 cost isn't all the city plans to spend on art; it plans to spend $265,000. An Olympia ordinance requires that 1 percent of the cost of major construction projects goes for public art.

Hall said the delay on picking art will give the city time to look at the criteria and the process for that.

"Sometimes you can have a good process and everything goes right, but the product isn't right," Hall said.

Matt Batcheldor covers the city of Olympia for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-704-6869 or mbatcheldor@theolympian.com.

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