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Seattle Celebrates 50th Anniversary of Public Arts Program

Updated: Jul 2, 2023

Attendees stand at the front of the gallery displaying The First 50 Years: Highlights from the Civic Collection, 1973-2023, at the ARTS gallery at King Street Station on June 1, 2023. (Photo/Jonny Tran)

2023 marks a milestone of 50 years of publicly funded art in Seattle. To celebrate this anniversary, the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture (ARTS) is displaying the exhibition, The First 50 Years: Highlights from the Civic Collection, 1973-2023, at the ARTS gallery at King Street Station. The City’s Civic Collection has been made possible in part through a long-running ordinance for Seattle’s Arts program.

Watch the full interviews with Seattle Office of Arts & Culture Curator and Collections Supervisor Blake Haygood and Interim Director royal alley-barnes

Back in 1973, Seattle passed a “One Percent for the Arts” ordinance, one of the very first programs of the type in the nation, setting aside one percent of capital improvement project funds for the commission, purchase, and installation of public artworks in a variety of settings. It was during the exhibition’s reception on June 1 that the Mayor of Seattle’s Office unveiled a proclamation declaring the day “One Percent for the Arts” day.

Attendees attending the show reception clap at the announcement of June 1 being declared 1% for the Arts Day on June 1, 2023. (Photo/Jonny Tran)

“The ‘One Percent for Arts' program has been a catalyst for innovation and creativity in Seattle. It supports countless artists and cultural organizations, enabling them to share their talent and their stories with the world,” said Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales. “This program not only beautifies our city but empowers artists and strengthens the creative economy.”

Since the ordinance’s inception, the Seattle Civic Collection has grown to include 4,112 artworks–3,674 of which are displayed throughout buildings in city offices and public areas. The remaining 438 works are permanently housed in neighborhoods, parks, public buildings, and along roadways across the city.

The current exhibition at ARTS at King Street Station includes over 150 artworks curated from the Civic Collection by Blake Haygood, Seattle Office of Arts & Culture Curator and Collections Supervisor.

Attendees take in and discuss the art at The First 50 Years: Highlights from the Civic Collection, 1973-2023 exhibit on June 1, 2023. (Photo/Jonny Tran)

“This represents sort of a living history of artistic achievement in the city of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest region,” said Haygood.

The exhibit includes various mediums of art including graphic prints, video, 2D, and 3D objects with themes reflecting on heritage, race, spirituality, history, communal crisis, survival, protest, environmentalism, violence, and trauma. It features pieces from renowned artists Jacob Lawrence, Sherry Markowitz, Marita Dingus, Susan Point, Akio Takamori, and Jeffry Mitchell. As well as work from newer up and coming artists, including Humaira Abid, Robert "Running Fisher" Upham, Natalie Ball, and Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas.

Attendees observing B6594 (1994) sculpture by Sonja Blomdahl on June 1, 2023. (Photo/Jonny Tran).

With a collection ranging from over 3,500 pieces of artwork, Haygood said it was slightly terrifying to choose only 150 to showcase at the ARTS gallery. While the collection is a great document of artistic achievement encompassing a variety of mediums and themes, Haygood noted it has its gaps.

“So the Civic Art Collection is not a perfect living document,” said Haygood. “Unfortunately, the early years of acquisition, with minor exceptions, did not include a race and social justice lens.”

Curators of the past had a very different idea of what they believed an exhibition should and shouldn’t look like, Seattle Arts Commissioner Vanessa Villalobos explained. But this is something the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture has been moving rapidly to change in order to have the collection fully reflect and embrace all the beautiful, diverse communities of Seattle.

“If you have time to really look at the names behind the artists, there's plurality—representation matters. 50 years ago, the demographics were very different,” said Villalobos. “There's been this evolution, that brings us to today.”

Both Haygood and Villalobos describe the exhibit as a reflection of art history in Seattle.

“This exhibition represents where we started, where we are now, and a lot of the stuff in between, so [I] hope you see the multitudes and just the variety of artwork we have in our collection,” said Haygood.

Brenetta Ward posing for pictures in front of her piece Remembrance: Jacob Lawrence (2001) on June 1, 2023. (Photo/Jonny Tran)

And this variety of artwork is made possible and acquired not solely through one person but through a peer review panel consisting of community members.

“So we get people from the community—other artists, possibly other curators, community members,” said Haygood. “There are purchasing panels, so they actually look at the art and purchase it for us. That's where we involve community. They help us bring the art into the collection, and then we reach out to community partners to sort of find those new artists too.”

Commissioner Villalobos explained that it’s important to note that most of the people involved in this process are doing it on a volunteer basis and all come together because of a collective belief that inclusive art needs to be elevated and funded better to match Seattle’s incredible wealth.

“It's the importance of service. We don't have all the fun things that you get to go around to do if you didn't have volunteers contributing in some way,” said Villalobos.

Volunteerism is at the heart of making this art accessible; it’s what the city’s Civic Collection is a reflection of.

“We all know that art is not just a luxury, art is the lifeblood of our communities,” said Councilmember Morales. “It is the way that we breathe vibrancy into our neighborhoods, allowing our neighborhoods to flourish and to grow.”

However, ensuring the art selected encompasses the rich, diverse tapestry of Seattle has not come without its challenges. From non-inclusion to a lack of inclusion, Commissioner Villalobos shared it took some time to work around the bureaucracies to open doors for more artists.

Attendees stand in front of a gallery wall featuring art from Jacob Lawerence, Robert Jones, Jake Prendez, Michael Spafford, Etsuko Ichikawa, and Robert "Running Fisher" Upham on June 1, 2023. (Photo/Jonny Tran)

“Sometimes you have to break the rules to create inclusion…a part of that is you have to be out there,” said Commissioner Villalobos. “You might feel you're the only one, you really aren’t.”

Additionally, COVID brought its own set of challenges to the art scene by putting a pause on public gatherings. However, Interim Director royal alley-barnes shared that despite all obstacles, there has been a silver lining.

“[The pandemic] brought out new voices; it brought out work that we've never seen before, works that we've never heard before,” said alley-barnes.

For her, this exhibit is a celebration that the will to make that art has been reinvigorated. It signifies the power and significance of art for communities across Seattle.

“The artistic and social cohesion that comes from celebrating arts is central to who we are and to our collective well-being. It nourishes our spirit. It strengthens the fabric of our communities and our neighborhoods. And it strengthens the fabric of our city,” said Councilmember Morales.

Attendee taking a picture of Nine Lives: Forest (2003) by Michael Brophy on June 1, 2023. (Photo/Jonny Tran)

And when the city talks about what it means to build Seattle back better, art is central to that vision, according to Deputy Mayor Greg Wong.

“When we talk about our downtown activation plan. It's not just about bringing businesses back to the skyscrapers and reopening offices,” said Deputy Mayor Wong. “It's about how we are connecting people, neighborhoods—and doing it in ways where cultural expression is central, and [we] celebrate it because we know that is the lifeblood of a thriving creative community.”

In this case, that doesn’t mean adopting an existing model but creating one unique to Seattle. A model that gives diverse creatives throughout Seattle the recognition they deserve and celebrates that at every single turn. This is the sentiment reflected at ARTS at King Street Station where the session galleries strive to rotate exhibits, every two to three months, to include various artists from the local community.

“Every first Thursday is worth checking out because we'll have a new exhibit of a new artist; a new voice that we may have not been able to show somewhere else that we can show here,” said Curator Haygood.

The current featured artist showing alongside The First 50 Years: Highlights from the Civic Collection, 1973-2023 exhibit is Agustina Forest. Her collection “Spotted in Seattle” is on display at ARTS now through July 6. The First 50 Years: Highlights from the Civic Collection, 1973-2023 is running throughout the summer, now until September 7.


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