The Seattle Arts Commission was formed in 1971. The commission evolved out of the Municipal Arts Commission, founded in 1955 with the aim of integrating artistic experiences into Seattleites' daily life through governmental support of historic preservation, resident performance groups, and the creation of opera and ballet companies. Leadership provided by many volunteer commissioners who served on the Seattle Arts Commission has given Seattle a public art collection that numbers in the thousands -- including many iconic works seen in area parks and public buildings -- and a robust roster of cultural experiences. Early commission policies and programs gained national recognition for their innovative and effective features. The Seattle Arts Commission -- and since 2003, the Office of Arts & Culture -- has played an integral part in building Seattle's international reputation as a serious center of the arts -- a place that values, funds, and celebrates performing and visual art as bedrock for a functional society.
Municipal Arts Commission
Allied Arts -- Seattle's most influential arts and urban design advocacy group -- was founded in Seattle in 1954. Among Allied Arts' many enduring projects, the Seattle Arts Commission (the creation of which was long advocated for by the many concerned citizens, lawyers, architects, artists, culture watchdogs, and forward thinkers who made up the group) perhaps had the broadest impact on shaping the city as experienced by Seattleites and as perceived by the rest of the world.
On June 7, 1955, the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance authorizing the formation of the Municipal Arts Commission. The commission was made up of prominent citizens who were charged with advising the mayor on emerging issues relating to cultural development and to urban improvement projects including historic preservation. Almost immediately, commission members showed forethought and audacity: They proposed dedicating 2 percent of city capital funds to purchase art works; staging an annual arts festival; hosting a world's fair; public funding for the Seattle Symphony; creating ballet and opera companies; burying public utility lines in order to improve the city's visual appeal; preserving historic landmarks; and planting street trees.
Progress and Change
One of the Municipal Arts Commission's early victories was winning approval, in 1964, from the Parks Department to convert a shabby public restroom facility at Westlake Avenue and Stewart Street into a small park -- the "Westlake Project" -- which ultimately evolved into today's popular Westlake Park. Another prescient move was the commission's 1965 declaration of the venerable Pike Place Market -- then being threatened by various urban-renewal development schemes -- as a historic site worthy of protection.
In 1969, Allied Arts proposed that the 5 percent admissions tax Seattle then levied on arts organizations be repealed, and replaced with a hotel and entertainment tax. This shifted the tax burden from struggling arts groups, placing it on the businesses that relied on visitors that enjoyed local arts.
Seattle Arts Commission
Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935) declared his support for Allied Arts' idea. His proposed budget included a line item of $22,500 for the establishment of the Seattle Arts Commission (SAC), whose volunteer members would serve alongside a paid staff member who operated as part of Seattle Center's development office. On June 1, 1971, the Seattle City Council approved (via Ordinance 99982) the formation of this commission that would, in part, "initiate, sponsor or conduct, alone or in cooperation with other public or private agencies, public programs to further development and public awareness of, and interest in, the fine and performing arts" (Ordinance 99982, Section 3). The ordinance allocated the new arts commission a budget and office space at Seattle Center.
The commission from the start (1971) through 1973 included:
- Anne Focke (b. 1945)
- Howard S. Wright
- Morris J. Alhadeff (1914-1994)
- Ellsworth C. Alvord Jr. (1923-2010)
- Jacquetta Blanchett (1906-1998)
- Betty Bowen (1918-1977)
- Donald I. Foster (1925-2012)
- Anne Gerber (1910-2005)
- Martha Kingsbury
- Christopher Kirk
- H. Dewayne Kreager (1913?-2001)
- Peter LeSourd (b. 1938)
- Dee Sanwick
- Floyd Standifer Jr. (1929-2007)
- Virginia Wright (b. 1929)
In autumn 1972, the commission established two financial support categories: Resident Performing Arts organizations and Arts Commission Projects (for new arts outlets and one-off presentation concepts). The commission worked with the Department of Community Development to inventory unused city-owned facilities that might be made available to local artists and arts groups.
The commission also allocated funds for the creation -- in partnership with the King County Arts Commission (later 4Culture) -- of a jointly produced monthly newsletter, The Arts, which debuted in October 1972, and helped launch local public-access TV -- the Seattle Community Service Television Project (SCSTP). Early Seattle Arts Commission funds also helped productions at venues including the Poncho Theater, the Empty Space Theater, and the Magic Circle Theater.
For Art: 1 Percent
In 1973, Allied Arts proposed the 1 Percent for Art ordinance, which required that 1 percent of every municipal capital improvement project budget henceforth be dedicated to the purchase of public art that would grace the site of the improvement, and that those funds would be held in a new Municipal Arts Fund to be administered by the Seattle Arts Commission. The new law stated, in part:
"The City accepts a responsibility for expanding public experience with visual art. Such art has enabled people in all societies better to understand their communities and individual lives. Artists capable of creating art for public places must be encouraged and Seattle's standing as a regional leader in public art enhanced. A policy is therefore established to direct the inclusion of works of art in public works of the City" ("Public Art Ordinance").
The 1 Percent law (Ordinance 102210) was approved on May 21, 1973. Seattle was one of the first cities in the nation to institute a percent-for-art program, a funding model that has subsequently been implemented by many other cities. This innovative method of ensuring continued arts funding -- simple, effective, and tied to existing city expenditures -- has been a prime example of Seattle's national leadership in arts funding, and in assigning continued value to enriching community life by ensuring that art and arts experiences are encountered everywhere.
Initially the fine art acquired with 1 Percent funds included previously existing sculptures, paintings, and drawings. The agency later transitioned to commissioning pieces from a wide variety of contemporary artists, greatly stimulating the creation of contemporary art. By 2013, the 1 Percent for Art collection included more than 420 permanently sited and integrated works (at sites including city streets, parks, community centers, libraries, fire stations, utility facilities, municipal offices, and Seattle Center) and nearly 3,000 portable works. Portable works include sculpture, painting, mixed media, prints, photographs, and textiles. These are displayed throughout the city in public buildings on a rotating basis, enriching the daily lives of employees and visitors. Portable artworks are also displayed in the Seattle Municipal Tower Gallery, the City Hall Gallery.
Attracting NEA Funding
In 1974, the city increased the commission's allocation to $507,000, and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) provided additional funding for several commission-supported projects, including the Independent Creative Artists Project (ICAP) designed to offer individual artists helpful information about work opportunities and workshop space. The commission helped support Seattle's quickly expanding arts fair, the Bumbershoot Festival, and the commission's Artists in the Classrooms and Poets in the Schools projects brought arts education programming into city schools.
The Seattle Arts Commission's growing vision, stature, and track record began to ease the process of attracting funding partners, including the National Endowment for the Arts. NEA funding was (and remains) a powerful stamp of national approval.
In 1976, Mayor Uhlman separated the Seattle Arts Commission from Seattle Center and elevated it to equal standing with other city departments in relationship to his office. A partnership with the Downtown Seattle Association led to a beautification program called "Seattle Walls," which enlivened downtown building exteriors with painted murals. In addition, federal funds provided by the Comprehensive Employee and Training Act (CETA) resulted in paid commissions for 54 artists to produce visual arts projects in a manner of their own choosing. As with the NEA funding, it was Seattle Arts Commission's strong track record that made it a viable candidate for federal CETA funding.
In 1977, the commission implemented a Municipal Arts Plan -- an effort to monitor and summarize the status of all its active 1 Percent for Art projects, and a means of establishing standardized policies guiding the interaction among various departments including Parks, Engineering, and the Seattle Arts Commission. In December city zoning rules were revised -- with the input of Independent Creative Arts Project leadership -- in order to allow living and working spaces for artists in areas previously restricted from residential use. In early 1978, the commission began collaborating with the Building Department in an effort to clarify rules regarding the renovation of buildings in those areas.
This growth and progress was the result of visionary leaders who fostered excellent working partnerships with mayors and the city council. Over the years the Seattle Arts Commission attracted numerous luminaries from the community to serve as volunteer commissioners including (to name just a few): arts patron Anne G. Hauberg, artist Norie Sato, poet Richard Blessing (1939-1983), former 1940s big-band leader and AFM 76 Musicians Union president Norm Hoagy, attorney and KING talk-radio pioneer Irving Clark Jr., Native American leader Bernie Whitebear (1937-2000), artist Alfredo Arreguin, University of Washington School of Music director Stanley Chapple (1900-1987), urban planner Claudio Arenas, philanthropist Samuel Stroum (1921-2001), and retail scion Illsley B. Nordstrom (1912-1996).
Thanks to the Seattle Arts Commission, numerous now-iconic pieces of public art were acquired and installed around the city. Among them were Larry Beck's circa 1974 metal sculpture Atala Kivlicktwok Okitun Dukik ("The Golden Money Moon," at Golden Gardens Park), Lee Kelly's 1975 steel sculpture Untitled (at Louisa Boren Lookout Park), Richard Beyer's (1925-2012) 1977 sculpture Waiting for the Interurban (in Fremont), Charles Greening's 1978 Sundial (at Gas Works Park), and Jack Mackie's 1982 Steps on Broadway (brass "footprints" embedded in the sidewalk along Broadway Avenue E), to name just a handful.
Public art projects are often accompanied by controversy, but many eventually become iconic works that represent the city. Such was the case with Michael Heizer's 1976 installation Adjacent, Against, Upon (at Myrtle Edwards Park). Essentially an array of gigantic granite slabs that rest adjacent to, against, or upon each other, the conceptual piece was apparently too minimalistic for some members of the community to grasp -- or place any value on -- and arguments about Heizer's work simmered.
Seattle Arts Commission executive secretary John Blaine told The Seattle Times, "Not everyone loves the sculpture by Michael Heizer. Not everyone loves Noguchi's "Black Sun," or Henry Moore's "Vertebrae," but Seattle and all of us who live here are the better for having works of art around us that touch us -- even punch us now and then" ("City Defends Sculpture"). Created relatively early in Heizer's career, Adjacent, Against, Upon gave Seattle an important example of what is called Earth Art, a type of sculpture in which Heizer's works are considered seminal.
The 1980s and 1990s produced many notable works. A new Artist in Residence program was especially noteworthy, placing artists into utility agencies such as Seattle City Light to learn from the workers and produce artworks based on their experiences. Olympic Iliad by Alexander Liberman was installed on the Seattle Center campus in 1984, the same year that Paul Marioni used 500 iridescent glass blocks to form a larger-than-life interwoven pattern on a curving wall that separates the Seattle Police Department North Precinct's lobby from its community meeting room, a work that the artist called Khadi. Downtown Seattle's Westlake Star Axis/Seven Hills by Robert Maki was created several years later in 1988, changing how Seattleites experience downtown shopping and holidays. Many of these works were created in a collaborative effort between artists and design teams that integrated the artwork and ideas of the artists into the sites.
The 1990s saw the installation of notable works that included Street Treatment by Kurt Kiefer (1996); Meadowbrook Pond by Lydia Aldredge, Kate Wade, and Peggy Gaynor; and Neototems by Gloria Bornstein as part of renovations to the Seattle Center International Fountain (1995), as well as several Artist in Residence projects including Lynn McCracken and Dan Corson at Seattle City Light.
A Changing Scene
Many changes that occurred in Seattle's art scene during the 1980s were accompanied by spirited public debates over the Seattle Arts Commission's role and policies. A central issue was funding city-defined art projects (in which artists had to adhere to proscribed design boundaries) versus artist-generated projects. Some artists experienced the first as limiting artistically, while the latter sometimes resulted in surprising experimental creations, but also controversies and time-consuming departmental reviews. Thus began a several-year trend towards more control over project assignments. In 1988, the commission rethought this approach and reorganized its processes in an effort to once again offer artists more freedom of expression.
Several years later, the "In Public: Seattle 1991" project was supported by Mayor Norman Rice (b. 1943) and coincided with the grand opening of the new Seattle Art Museum building in downtown Seattle that December. "In Public" brought a total of 38 artists to town from around the world to create both temporary and permanent pieces of public art. Perhaps the most prominent new artwork was Jonathon Borofsky's now-famous mechanized sculpture Hammering Man, dedicated at the downtown Seattle Art Museum in 1992. "In Public" occurred when Seattle and the new museum building were receiving global attention in the press, and was part of the subsequent elevation of Seattle's cultural profile.
Eyes on Art
In 1992, the commission's Arts Support Program funded approximately 3,000 projects that employed nearly 3,800 artists and were viewed by 1.5 million people. That year was also one in which many saw various artistic freedoms as under attack by the first Bush administration and other emboldened conservatives. The Seattle Arts Commission responded by adopting an official statement in support of freedom of expression. Meanwhile, Mayor Rice and the Seattle City Council unveiled a visionary 20-year cultural-resource planning document, Seattle 2010: Charting Our Course, which stated that "[t]he City shall promote conditions and contribute to a vital environment for the arts and artists" (Seattle Arts, June 1993).
Seattle's rapidly changing economy, demographics, and leadership during the mid- to late-1990s prompted the Seattle Arts Commission to embark on a major strategic planning process. Responding to a community in flux necessitated that the commission address community art issues from a thoughtful, creative, culturally inclusive position, in order to both reflect and challenge its changing community.
In March 1995, the commission's Arts in Education program and Diverse Views newsletter project were honored by the national League of Cities and the national Black Caucus of Local Elected Leaders. Meanwhile, commission-funded art installations continued throughout the city, including at Seattle Center Opera House, Woodland Park Zoo, and the area around the renovated Key Arena. The Seattle Arts Commission initiated a new program to display locally produced art in its own offices and at the offices of Seattle City Light. During 1995, the commission helped fund more than 180 projects featuring more than 2,200 exhibitions, performances, presentations, master classes,+ and readings attended by almost three-quarters of a million people, according to that year's annual report.
In 1996 -- the commission's 25th anniversary -- the City purchased the Key Tower, to which the Seattle Arts Commission, along with most City offices, relocated.
The New Millennium
In 2000, the commission published University District: Public Art & Culture Walking Map, the first in a series of neighborhood maps highlighting public art, architecture, historic sites, and urban lore. By 2013, 16 walking maps to public art throughout many city neighborhoods were available to download through the Office of Arts & Culture website.
Following the February 28, 2001, Nisqually earthquake, the Seattle Arts Commission helped mitigate the quake's impact on local artists, contributing to the Artists' Quake Aid (AQUA) project, which offered $40,000 grants to artists who reported losses of workspace, artwork, equipment, materials, and work time totaling nearly $1.3 million. Later that year, the ARTS UP (Artist Residencies Transforming Seattle's Urban Places) project paired community groups with artists to produce art projects that explored community issues. The commission also began co-sponsoring the Vera Project, which presented events -- including punk rock dances and a hip-hop panel discussion and show -- for all-ages audiences, and with intense participation by young people.
Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs
On November 18, 2002, the City department known as the Seattle Arts Commission became the Mayor's Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs (revised in 2013 to Office of Arts & Culture); the 16-person volunteer citizen-advisory board retained the old name. In 2003, the new Marion Oliver McCaw Hall (formerly Seattle's Civic Auditorium) at Seattle Center opened in June with a gala event; the annual Mayor's Arts Awards program (for which the arts commission recommended the recipients) made its debut in August; and on September 5 Seattle's new City Hall opened. Both McCaw Hall and City Hall featured commissioned art, as did Benaroya Hall (Seattle Symphony's downtown home, opened in 1998).
In 2004, the commission was forced to battle a ruling in a suit filed by several Seattle City Light ratepayers claiming that the utility's participation in the City's 1 Percent For Art program was an inappropriate use of utility fees. King County Superior Court Judge Sharon Armstrong held that Seattle City Light could not legally participate in the program that had so successfully contributed to the city's visual culture in the decades since its 1973 enactment. The dispute went to the appellate courts and was not fully settled until January 2006, when the Washington State Court of Appeals reinstated the 1 Percent for Art ordinance as applied to Seattle City Light (and, by extension, to Seattle Public Utilities). This meant that the funds could still be collected and art would continue to be installed or displayed at those agencies' facilities, as long as the artwork had some nexus to the agency.
In 2007, the Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs partnered with Seattle Municipal Archives and HistoryLink.org to produce an exhibit entitled "From Many: One: 1907-2007" to commemorate the Pike Place Market's centennial. From 2007 to 2009, the office was a key collaborator in planning and executing the citywide centennial celebration of the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.
As of 2013, Office of Arts & Culture funding, training, and advocacy inspires and enables artists to produce new work and blankets Seattle with visual and performing arts. Parks, libraries, community centers, public spaces: Fruits of Seattle Arts Commission/Office of Arts & Culture are there, enriching each moment of daily life, continually making Seattle a place where contact with the arts is an everyday occurrence, not something unusual or reserved for a privileged few. The Office of Arts & Culture's work -- and the work of the many citizens who shaped its past endeavors -- infuses Seattle with arts experiences, defining this city as a community that agrees art has value.
Arts Education was -- and remains -- an extremely important aspect of the Office of Arts & Culture's mission. Operating from the conviction that exposure to and knowledge of all aspects of the arts is an essential part of growing an educationally balanced citizen, the commission partnered with K-12 level public schools to bring art experiences to students in the classroom and to expose students to art throughout the community. Arts education is vital for young people who have limited access to all kinds of opportunities. A National Endowment for the Arts study showed that high school students who experience poverty, variable family employment, and other challenges and who receive little or no arts education are five times less likely to graduate. Further data showed that an arts-rich education for students of all socioeconomic backgrounds results in more A's, higher test scores, fewer school absences, and more academic awards for achievement.
Arts education not only works to give students opportunities to create art in many forms, and appreciate (as audience members) the artistic work of others, it also has the ability to provide students with skills like perseverance, creativity, critical thinking and collaboration that will allow them to lead in the future. Seattle Arts Commission leaders believe that the arts can be an economic development tool -- training the innovative workers and leaders of tomorrow through arts education today.
Resources for the Arts
In recent years, the Office of Arts & Culture widened its mission beyond supporting artists and organizations with grants, placing increasing emphasis on professional development. Workshops such as Dynamic Adaptability 2.0, among other offerings, helped artists and institutions gain the tools to remain viable in difficult economic times. Programs such as the Artist Resource Network and lists designating Emerging Artists demonstrated the lead role the Office of Arts & Culture took in supporting artists and arts organizations with more creative encouragement than purely financial support.
Through the Office of Arts & Culture, Seattle funds arts programming in organizations, youth arts programs, individual artists, cultural facilities, neighborhood and community projects, and (through the smART ventures program) creative and diverse smaller projects that might not qualify for other funding programs. More than half of these smART venture projects involved underserved communities and sometimes-marginalized individuals of all ages. Recent years have seen a shift away from exclusively funding for fine arts to funding cultural events in which all members of diverse communities can participate. These include neighborhood parades, community festivals, lecture series, and other events that encourage Seattleites to come together and experience their rich and varied cultures, and are an important component of the Office of Arts & Culture's participation in Seattle's Race and Social Justice Initiative.
These programs touch an ever-widening ripple of community: the artists and performers and audience members who experience them directly, but also their families, teachers, classmates, volunteers who aid their organizations in thousands of ways -- and in many cases, Seattle's economy. The Office of Arts & Culture counts some 500 organizational partners in its database, a testament to the broad impact of this funding.
As of fiscal year 2012, Seattle Arts Commission and the Office of Arts & Culture had granted more than $48,608,294 to individuals and institutions, representing a major investment in Seattle's cultural and artistic community, and in the city's greater civic life.
The Office of Arts & Culture is a key leader, watchdog, and advocate for cultural space in the city of Seattle. Cultural space -- defined not only as obvious locations such as formal art museums and professional theater facilities, but as protected spaces of all kinds in all neighborhoods where arts activities can occur and are fostered -- is essential to the process of integrating arts into all aspects of the city's structure. Such spaces feed the city's culture as parks and green spaces feed peace and recreation, allowing a place for artistic creation and interaction. Like parks, they greatly increase the city's livability.
Understanding of the need to conserve and protect Seattle's cultural space grew out of Seattle Arts Commission work during the early 1970s encouraging the city to better utilize facilities such as the bath houses at Madrona Beach and at Green Lake, and use these facilities to house arts programs that could support economic development. The Office of Arts & Culture in 2013 partners with other community organizations to facilitate programming in such facilities around the city.
In 2008, the privately owned Oddfellows Building on Seattle's Capitol Hill was sold and converted from low-cost studio space for artists to market-rate retail and business space. The artistic community raised protests, but ultimately had no control over the situation. The loss the redevelopment of the Oddfellows Building represented to Seattle's arts community became a catalyst for recent leadership undertaken by the Office of Arts & Culture to identify and protect at-risk space throughout the city.
In response, the Seattle City Council convened the Cultural Overlay District Advisory Committee (CODAC). This volunteer citizen group created recommendations to help develop and implement policies that would protect, preserve, and foster cultural space in Seattle's neighborhoods. In 2009, the council adopted a resolution accepting the recommendations.
The Office of Arts & Culture works with Seattle's Department of Planning and Development to help artists and arts organizations better understand how land use and building code developments will impact the use and funding of particular properties. With the Seattle Arts Commission, the Office of Arts & Culture created "Square Feet Seattle," a comprehensive guide to acquiring cultural space. The guide serves as a roadmap for artists and arts organizations seeking space to make and present their work.
The Office of Arts & Culture works to preserve and create arts spaces in communities throughout the city. In June 2013 the office created and filled the position of Space Liaison. This position is charged with serving as a matchmaker between artists seeking space and cultural space that is available or potentially available.
Making Art Work
The commission's acceptance by the greater community can in part be measured by the fact that the agency has supported many thousands of cultural events, offered employment opportunities to thousands of artists, as well as by the city's substantial -- and ever-increasing -- art collection.
The Seattle Office of Arts & Culture's mission is to activate and sustain Seattle through arts and culture -- or, as its tagline puts it, "Making Art Work." Decades of work -- thousands of volunteer hours -- careful thought and debate and civic engagement, and a city willing to set aside a percentage of funds to commission, create, and advocate for arts in all facets of community, have made Seattle a vibrant nexus of creativity, where arts are an equal partner with other constituencies, welcome at the table. This way of thinking -- encouraged, taught, and fought for by the Seattle Arts Commission -- has shaped a Seattle in which arts are woven inextricably through the city's life. Art is everywhere, in every public building, on corners, embedded in sidewalks, in performances that span the gamut from hip-hop to medieval music to circus arts to spoken word to chamber music to classical ballet. Art reflects the community, and Seattle's vibrant arts and culture environment remains exciting, innovative, and relevant with the continuing support of the Seattle Arts Commission and the Office of Arts & Culture.
Seattle Arts Commission/ Office of Arts & Culture Directors:
- Andrew Hyde (1971)
Anne Focke (acting) (1971)
John Blaine, 1971-1978
- Karen Gates, 1978-1984
- Carl Petrick, 1984-1988
- T. Ellen Sollod, 1989-1992
- Wendy Ceccherelli, 1992-1999
- Susan Trapnell, 2000-2002
- Michael Killoren, 2002-2010
- Vincent Kitch, 2011-2012
- Randy Engstrom, 2012-present