Opinion Columns & Blogs

Politicians, not artist, responsible for City Hall fiasco

Thanks to continuous efforts over many years by our local arts commission, public art as we know it has steadily been circling the toilet bowl. Instead of creative and inspirational artwork, we are seeing artisan crafters and modern pseudo artists take taxpayer money and splatter their art all over our cities public buildings.

But hey, it’s art — right?


This most recent Olympia City Hall debacle truly encapsulates the failures of the ineffective bureaucratic mess that is our arts commission and the general loss of understanding as to what makes “art.”

The jury’s job in the City Hall project was “to recommend a short list of applicants best suited to this particular project, who in addition to exhibiting artistic excellence, met the established criteria ... to realize the expected outcomes associated with the project.”

A pretty tough job, considering that among the architects, Evergreen faculty, and museum curators sitting on the jury, not a single person was an artist. That’s right — despite the purported ideal of having “artists judge artists,” not a single member of the jury was an artist by employment or experience.

And I don’t mean a doodle-on-the-side, self-proclaimed Rembrandt. I mean an artist who lives and breathes their work and for whom it provides the primary method of day-to-day income and sustenance.

Would you go to a weekend doctor for a diagnosis? Then why are we allowing weekend artists to tell us what art is?

What we have in the case of our arts commission is a case of the blind leading the blind. Instead of instituting practicing artists or professionals with practical art degrees we are appointing self-proclaimed connoisseurs and armchair artists.

Is it really much of a surprise then that bungles like this City Hall mess come about? Screw-ups such as this art disaster are a perfect example of what happens when you let politicians and self-anointed artistic authorities run the show.

And we know how well they can run it, don’t we?

What exactly did nearly $200,000 of public money buy us in terms of artwork on the 4th Avenue bridge?

Stone in-lays that not a visitor can see unless told to look for them? Or perhaps it was the concrete wall at the top roundabout that serves primarily as an eyesore which blocks the vision of commuters coming up the bridge? In the case of the City Hall fiasco, instead of focusing on the true problem — a complete lack of real artists making art-related decisions to represent our city — we as a public are misled to place the blame on artist Daniel Webb himself.

I want to be perfectly clear when I say that none of this is Webb’s fault. While his artwork might not fit the bill, his connection to this project came from the jury created to screen him and not from Webb himself.

He is the punching bag who is bearing all the blame for the jury and art commission’s bureaucratic bungles and lack of artistic know-how dumped squarely on his shoulders. We as a public seem to be unable to see the forest through the trees.

The true victims of this dreadful comedy of errors are the public at large. Instead of receiving well- considered opinions from local artists, we are told that art is whatever some bureaucrat thinks it is.

It is time to reclaim our artistic dignity and utilize the talented local artists we have to help guide our city’s artwork, rather than continue giving too much power to self-interested volunteers and artistically-impaired politicians.

Mark Kogan, a 2005 graduate of Capital High School, is in his senior year at Stanford University. He can be reached at mkogan@stanford.edu.