On a wooded hilltop overlooking Bellingham Bay, grand-scale sculptures by some of the world's top contemporary artists dot the campus of...

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On a wooded hilltop overlooking Bellingham Bay, grand-scale sculptures by some of the world’s top contemporary artists dot the campus of Western Washington University — a collection ranked among the top 10 university outdoor sculpture collections in the country. Sharing the list are Yale, Stanford, Princeton and the University of California at Berkeley.

Adding to the prestige, Western recently announced the promised gift of seven small- to medium-size sculptures from the private collection of Seattle patrons Virginia and Bagley Wright. Yet even as university officials celebrate the generous gift, the collection’s longtime curator Sarah Clark-Langager is grappling with unresolved problems that have been dogging her work for a decade.

“We don’t want to become the graveyard of sculpture,” Clark-Langager said earlier this month in her office in the art building at WWU. “We now have a very firm, coherent collection from the 1960s through the 21st century. We are stopping. That’s what’s so important about the Wrights’ gifts: It gives us an opportunity to stop and think what we are doing.”

Such an acclaimed university collection may seem isolated from the upheavals and issues public-art administrators are wrestling with in Seattle and King County. In fact, WWU’s sculpture collection, generated by state and federal funds as well as private donations, is a microcosm of the problems facing many public-art programs around the country. Seventies-era “percent-for-art” laws, which reserve part of government building-project budgets for art, are showing their age. They fail to provide for long-term issues that arise as collections continue to expand.

What happens, for example, when public-art programs accumulate more art than can be properly placed and cared for? Who makes the decisions when permanently sited artwork needs to be moved? How do we pay for long-term conservation and repair of artwork? Under what circumstances can public artwork be removed?

WWU’s Outdoor Sculpture Collection Highlights

Western Washington University, take I-5 to Bellingham, exit 252, follow signs to Bill McDonald Parkway and visitor’s center. (360-650-3900 or www.outdoorsculpture.wwu.edu). A book about the collection, “Sculpture in Place: A Campus as Site,” by Sarah Clark-Langager is published by WWU and distributed by University of Washington Press.

Richard Serra “Wright’s Triangle,” 1979, mixed public and private funding.

In the decades since Serra’s imposing steel sculpture was sited by the artist on Western’s campus, he has gone on to become one of the world’s most sought-after sculptors. Serra’s 75-foot sculpture “Wake” will be installed at Seattle Art Museum’s new Olympic Sculpture Park when it opens next year.

Magdalena Abakanowicz “Manus,” 1994, state percent-for-art program.

The Polish artist’s work, located in sites around the world, speaks metaphorically of human dignity and courage. She visited WWU and proposed the 15-foot-tall bronze “Manus,” installed in 1994, from her “Hand-like Trees” series.

Nancy Holt “Stone Enclosure: Rock Rings,” 1978, public and private funding.

The circle within a circle of Holt’s 40-foot-diameter “Enclosure” is built of stone quarried nearby. With archways aligned to the North Star, the piece evokes the ritual spaces of Stonehenge and other ancient sites.

Mark di Suvero “For Handel,” 1974, Virginia Wright Fund.

Di Suvero’s 27-foot-high steel sculpture soars outside the Performing Arts Building and is one of the campus’ most distinctive landmarks. The Wrights have recently promised a smaller di Suvero sculpture, to stand inside the building’s lobby.

Recently, WWU announced the promised gift of seven smaller sculptures from the private collection of Virginia and Bagley Wright, among them are Jenny Holzer’s marble bench “Selections from Truisms,” Beverly Pepper’s cast-iron “Normanno Column” and Mark di Suvero’s steel “Mindseye.”

These issues have come into high relief at WWU as a building boom on campus generates state percent-for-art funds even as it muscles out the space where new sculpture might be situated. Meanwhile, existing works in the collection stand in need of costly renovations, without adequate funding in place.

Western’s outdoor sculpture collection began in the late 1950s, when Paul Thiry — principal architect for the Seattle World’s Fair — commissioned Seattle sculptor James Fitzgerald to create his first fountain outside Thiry’s new Haggard Hall.

In the 1960s, Seattle architects Fred Bassetti and Ibsen Nelsen expanded the collection as their own buildings took shape on campus. Bassetti infamously commissioned himself to create one sculpture, “Alphabeta Cube.” But it was Nelsen’s forward-thinking contribution — commissioning Isamu Noguchi’s “Skyviewing Sculpture” — that really set the direction of WWU’s collection toward large, site-specific outdoor sculptures by internationally known artists.

Many of the innovative works that the university acquired thereafter would reflect the new way sculptors were combining art and landscape. WWU also became a model for the way public percent-for-art programs would work, holding aside a small portion of construction budgets to commission works of art.

Impressed by the beauty of the setting and the university’s interest in outdoor sculpture, patron Virginia Wright got involved with WWU in the 1970s. Armed with a million-dollar trust from her father, timber baron Prentice Bloedel, and the mission to purchase artwork for public places in Western Washington, Wright saw the campus as an ideal location. Over the years, she purchased or helped fund many important artworks there, including major sculptures by Mark di Suvero, Richard Serra, Nancy Holt, Anthony Caro and Bruce Nauman. The recently announced donation from the Wrights consists of more-compact works currently displayed at the couple’s home north of Seattle.

Drawing the line

Clark-Langager, a former curator at Seattle Art Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Art, and educator at the Yale University Art Gallery, has overseen WWU’s collection for the past 17 years. Backed by the university’s outdoor-sculpture advisory committee, she has directed purchases and accepted gifts with a curator’s eye toward building a collection of enduring quality in the context of WWU’s existing conjunction of art, architecture and landscape.

Now Clark-Langager says she is ready to draw the line. She would like to see incoming percent-for-art money spent for conservation and bold temporary art installations, rather than new permanent artwork. “I cannot see just adding and adding to a collection when there’s no way to take care of it,” she said.

Conservation is a problem because the Washington State Arts Commission pays only for restoration of artwork acquired through the state’s percent-for-art program. The program, established by the Washington State Legislature in 1974, allocates one-half percent of construction budgets for state-owned buildings to purchase art. So even though WWU — a state-funded university — owns more than 20 major outdoor sculptures, all subject to intense wear and tear from weather and human contact, only four of them are eligible for conservation with state art funds.

With assistance from Virginia Wright, WWU obtained a $100,000 Kreielsheimer Foundation endowment for care of the collection. But the endowment’s annual proceeds, ranging from $1,000 to $4,500, don’t cover even routine maintenance of the collection — about $16,000 a year for cleaning and painting.

Running out of ‘Steam’

That’s why Robert Morris’s magical “Steam sculpture” — a unique earth-art installation of steam vents designed to waft a cloud of white vapor through a 20-by-20-foot rock pad — hasn’t been working since 1999.

The artwork was purchased in 1972 with building funds from the university’s Central Cooling Plant. Six years ago, vandals unearthed the underground pipes supplying steam to the piece, creating a campus hazard, Clark-Langager said. Engineers got involved and found the pipes, which lead underground to the Cooling Plant, were corroded and would need to be replaced. The cost: $75,000. Clark-Langager has raised about a third of it from grants and donations.

“It is an issue that must be addressed and I can remember when in the early days, when we were talking about public art, the word ‘maintenance’ didn’t even enter our radar screens. Now it is an issue and you need to have money in place,” says Virginia Wright. Asked if she would consider donating funds to help maintain the campus collection, Wright replied: “Not really.”

“We’ve done so much,” she continued. “The ball is in their court now.”

Clark-Langager says maintenance may not be a sexy topic, but it’s an issue that public-art administrators urgently need to solve. She would like to see all artworks in the WWU collection cared for with percent-for-art funds.

“It seems to me [the arts commission] should be willing to be flexible in their interpretation. [The university] spent its capital monies on art before percent-for-art funds, so my position is: Why can’t we use state funds for maintenance?”

State of Washington Art in Public Places Project Manager Patricia Hamilton says it isn’t that simple. Many state agencies own artwork that was acquired before the percent-for-art program began in 1974, but state legislation defines the collection as only those works that were purchased through the program.

“Unfortunately, as I’m sure you know, we are working in an environment with fairly limited resources,” Hamilton said.

No room

Space is another pressing issue.

When the first sculptures were purchased for WWU, the wooded campus stretched over open acres of lawn and trees. But the university has been growing rapidly.

New and proposed buildings butt up against sculptural installations that were carefully sited by the artists to consider cross-campus views and the existing environment. Several pieces, including the Fitzgerald fountain, Bassetti’s “Alphabeta Cube” and Lloyd Hamrol’s “Log Ramps” already have been relocated. “The first solution by an architect is, ‘Let’s move it.’ ” Clark-Langager said.

One of the most massive artworks, Bruce Nauman’s site-specific, 50-foot-long, 163-ton concrete “Stadium Piece,” was dedicated just six years ago and already needs to be moved to accommodate campus changes.

Clark-Langager has been negotiating between architects and Nauman to find a solution workable for everyone. She said, “It’s one person’s sense of aesthetics over another.”

In the past, siting new artworks was a snap. Western’s outdoor sculpture advisory committee would invite an artist to come to campus, choose a site and design a piece to suit it. These days, with new construction and foot-traffic revisions cropping up all over campus, that’s out.

“Now an artist chooses several site possibilities and I work with them,” Clark-Langager said. Turf wars sometimes fire up between architects and the committee over which artists should be chosen and where the work should be placed. “When you think of it, we really don’t have space for another huge sculpture,” Clark-Langager said. “Why are we forced into having to have so much art?”

Hamilton says that the art-selection process is designed so that the university can choose where to place the artwork that its committee selects, and that WWU has the option of commissioning smaller, interior artwork for the campus if space is a problem. “Right now,” she said, “we do not have a program for funding temporary art.”

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com