James Washington, Jr. on Queen Anne: Where’s our Public Art?

Georgia Gerber’s dog in front of Trader Joe’s notwithstanding, I may be barking up the wrong tree when I worry about the lack of public art in our neighborhood.  But truth to tell, Seattle Center aside, we simply do not have many works of public art on Queen Anne!

I was drawn to this subject of Queen Anne’s public art when the Landmarks Preservation Board included James W. Washington, Jr.’s sculpture The Oracle of Truth in its designation of the AME Zion Church on Madison Street.  I am really thrilled by this decision to landmark one of Washington’s sculptures.  With Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence, James Washington Jr. was one of the most important African-American artists in Seattle’s 20th c. history.  To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time a sculpture has been folded into a landmark nomination, so the designation is momentous.

Two Birds. James Washington Jr. at Betty Bowen Viewpoint

Many of us know about the two-headed bird at Betty Bowen Viewpoint that James Washington contributed to the memorial installation at Marshall Park.  It is owned by the Department of Parks and Recreation.  Not unlike the wonderful totem Senator Warren Magnusson’s staff gave him when he retired from the Senate, which is just to north of the Viewpoint at 8th West and W. Lee Street, it is not part of the City’s 1% for Art collection.  Now, the totem sits carefully restored on its original site no longer being rotted away by the Magnusson’s sprinkler system.

Public Art means works of art commissioned by local governments from a percentage (in Seattle it’s 1%) of funds spent on capital projects such as roads, electrical sub-stations, or, for example, improvements at Seattle Center.  Created it in 1973, Seattle’s 1% for Art program is one of the country’s oldest and most successful programs.  The City’s collection is huge.  For legal reasons beyond this humanist’s ken, you can’t see the largest part of the Portable Collection which has been amassed through City Light’s portion of 1% for Arts, but the City regularly exhibits works in its collection at Seattle Municipal Tower and in City offices.  The City’s portable collection has climate controlled storage, a workshop for collection conservation and a permanent staff that manages it.  Other staff members oversee the acquisition of new pieces for both permanent installations and the Portable Collection, most often through a jury process.

You’ll immediate recognize some of the big collection pieces such as Hammering Man by Jonathan Borofsky, 1992, outside the Seattle Art Museum, the two totem poles at Steinbreuck Park adjacent to the Pike Place Market (Untitled Totem Pole by Marvin Oliver and James Bender, 1984, and Farmer’s Pole, by Victor Steinbreuck and James Bender, 1984) or the exquisite Adjacent, Against, Upon by Michael Heizer, 1976, along the water in Myrtle Edwards Park.  You can find a list of works at http://www.seattle.gov/arts/programs/public-art.  But large or small, there are but very few Public Art pieces in Queen Anne.

There is no question we are lucky to have the 2014 addition of Rob Ley’s beautiful Wind and Water at Fire Station 20 (W. Armour Street at 15th Ave W.) to Queen Anne and the intriguingly mysterious 2010 Quarry Rings by Adam Kuby in Thomas C. Wales Park (Dexter Avenue North and Sixth North).  Doris Chase’s imposing Changing Form at Kerry Park Overlook is also in the City’s collection, but Kerry descendants gave it to the City before the 1% for Art program existed.  James Washington’s piece at the Betty Bowen Overlook and the ten flat pieces that share the space and inadvertently celebrate the Northwest School are also gifts that predate the program, but they are not in the City’s collection.

So why has Queen Anne been neglected?  There certainly are lots of spots where the City could put the art.  I’d love to see a gracious modern piece at the little plot at Garfield and Queen Anne Ave that is cared for by Picture Perfect Queen Anne or at our branch of the public library.  For all the mayoral talk over the years about paying attention to neighborhoods – it goes back in my mind at least to 1989 and Mayor Norm Rice   – Queen Anne has nothing to show.  Messy Mercer has public art in the median strip near the freeway, but it seems we should have had at least one delightful work of art on our scrap of that big capital project.

I hope every citizen of Queen Anne joins me in requesting more 1% for Art projects in our neighborhood.  We deserve the enhancement such works of art provide and could probably find temporary indoor locations for some of the City’s Portable Collection, if it wanted to share.