Nearly every time Seattle has built or renovated something in past 40 years, the city has used 1% of the project’s cost to buy art — and usually that art is displayed on site.
There’s the skyscraping installation next to the new Denny Substation that looks like a transmission tower mashed up with a tree, and there’s the tangle of orange rebar outside North Seattle’s new dump that’s supposed to conjure the topography of Wallingford. There are about 400 works like that.
But art can’t be displayed at some capital projects, like electric work overhead and sewer work underground. So Seattle also uses money set aside under its 1% For Art law to buy paintings, photographs and sculptures that decorate city offices and are stored in a dedicated, vaultlike room below the Seattle Municipal Tower.
Jammed with works serious and whimsical, large and small, the secret chamber was where newly elected City Councilmember Andrew Lewis and his four legislative assistants showed up earlier this month to nab pieces for their digs at City Hall.
Though most of the 3,000 pieces in Seattle’s portable art collection are displayed in offices, the works are rotated over time and about 300 are kept in the storage room on any given day, waiting patiently to be selected by a discerning city employee.
“This is actually going back to (Councilmember) Lisa Herbold,” Blake Haygood warned as Lewis eyed a quilted map of America adorned with antique motel soaps from every state (the piece had been taken down to allow repainting in Herbold’s office).
Haygood is Seattle’s art curator, and he’s worked with the collection for 19 years.
“We’re going to ask you not to touch, but we’re happy to pull out anything that you see and want to look at,” he told Lewis and the assistants, scanning the room’s wooden compartments. “OK, are you ready to look at some art?”
Seattle was one of the first municipalities in the country to adopt a law reserving dollars from capital projects for art, and its portable collection also includes some pieces from an earlier program, according to the city’s Office of Arts & Culture.
When money is made available for the portable collection, the department carrying out the construction project works with the arts office to put out a call for submissions.
For example, Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) in 2016 asked for pieces addressing the relationship between people and water systems, limiting the call to artists living in the Pacific Northwest. When the submissions rolled in, a panel with professional artists and SPU representatives chose which works to buy. Last year, the city spent $137,700 on 78 portable pieces. That’s $1,743 per work, on average.
The collection, Haygood said, lends flavor to the city’s offices and is meant to inspire employees and visitors. “An office without art just feels blank and corporate,” he said. “When you put art up, it energizes your space.”
When he started as curator, Haywood tried to predict which works a particular council member or department director visiting the storage vault would grab. But he mostly guessed wrong, so he eventually gave up.
With Lewis looking on, he pulled out one canvas after another. A woman with cherry tomatoes covering her eyes and a garlic bulb in her mouth. Tree stumps abandoned in a mountain lake. Wild animals in what Haygood described as “a nocturne scene.”
“I think I’ll pass on that,” the council member said.
Lewis and his team chose some abstract works, like a white canvas sprinkled with colorful, hat-wearing silhouettes, and some pieces with political undertones, such as a lithograph of a child playing inside what looks like a WWII internment camp.
The union-backed council member also selected a photo of Seattle City Light line workers and a series of photos snapped at Seattle Center, inside his district.
Haygood and his assistant, Benjamin Gale-Schreck, later rolled the works across Cherry Street on a dolly. They asked Lewis to treat the pieces with care.
“We want to keep the art safe,” Haygood said. “That’s our job.”