Public plays important role in arts debate

Olympia has had numerous successful public arts projects.

Who doesn’t like the kissing statue at Percival Landing or the orca or motherhood statue on the boardwalk? Who could possibly criticize the stunning otter family sculpture by Tony Angell in the Olympia Library? And the artwork on the new Fourth Avenue bridge is simply outstanding. The benches in downtown Olympia are artistic expressions and some might consider the Heritage Park fountain interactive art.

The point is, Olympia has gotten it right in a long list of public art projects.

It’s unfortunate, then, that the city stumbled so badly on the selection of artwork for the new City Hall.

The proposed bronze bubbles by Seattle artist Dan Webb were a complete bust.

Selection of public art is risky business. What one observer sees as beautiful, inspiring and full of creativity, the next might condemn as outlandish and a waste of precious tax dollars.

Make no mistake, arguments over public art and its appropriateness can be heated and lengthy.

Longtime South Sound residents will remember the Legislature’s 12-year tumultuous battle over the “Twelve Labors of Hercules,” a set of stark black-and-white murals that once hung in the galleries above the chamber of the House of Representatives.

Lawmakers got into all-out wars over the appropriateness of the murals that were labeled everything from ugly to tasteless to pornographic.

In 1993 House members voted to strip the murals from the chamber walls. They were crated up and stored in a warehouse at the Olympia Airport for a decade before the brave folks at Centralia College brought them out of storage and displayed them at Corbet Hall. The artist wanted the murals destroyed rather than moved, but he lost that argument. The controversy over the public art rendered the Spafford murals perhaps the most infamous work of art in the state’s history.

That same controversy threatened to erupt at Olympia City Hall over the Webb proposal. The artist planned to hang 10, 2-foot-tall speaking bubble sculptures on the outside of the City Hall. A 40-inch thought bubble sculpture would be inside. Webb had said the art was meant to symbolize the voices of the people.

But the artist’s conception did not sit well with the public when they got their first look at the proposal in The Olympian. The artist’s plan drew an immediate — and visceral — reaction.

Beyond the bubbles themselves, city officials were hammered for the selection process and the proposal to spend $180,000 for the bronze comic-strip bubbles.

The council reacted last week voting 5-1 to scrap Webb’s proposal and start the art selection process all over again.

It was the right decision. Let us hope lessons were learned.

The original selection process seemed a bit elitist. A citizens advisory group first discussed the subject a year ago. A jury was empaneled in October and later recommended the artwork. The Olympia Arts Commission, a volunteer citizen advisory group, unanimously recommended approval of Webb’s proposal.

The fact that the Arts Commission was unanimous in its support and the public was pretty much unanimous in opposition exposes a huge divide. Artists judging fellow artists clearly did not work this time around.

That’s why a different decision-making plan is needed — one that is more inclusive of public comments early in the selection process.

Members of the public who chimed in also said they wanted public art that was reflective of Olympia and the Northwest. That’s a solid recommendation. What’s needed is artwork that says “Olympia” much as the Capitol dome says “home of state government.”

Council members need to reexamine how much they want to spend on the artwork, as well. Olympia has an ordinance dedicating a full 1 percent of the construction budget to art ($265,000). Given the status of the economy and budget cuts at every level of government, it would be wise for the council to consider a lesser amount.

Public art must be an integral part of the new City Hall. It’s just that Olympia officials need to get back on track and ensure that its the right art project and the right dollar amount.