Public Art Scene: Seattle's Olympic Sculpture Park

Katy Jeffery

Directors at Seattle Art Museum hope to create a new landmark in Seattle to join Pike Place Market and the Space Needle - a new showcase for public art in the city in the form of the Olympic Sculpture Park due to open later this summer.

The idea behind SAM's park bears notable similarities to Chicago's Millennium Park and New York's Storm King, but will be unique on the West Coast. So what role will the OSP perform in Seattle? On a similar theme to Storm King, the design team at SAM has placed emphasis on the relationship between art and nature and environmental sensitivity. The Olympic Sculpture Park covers 8.5 acres - a large plot considering its location on Seattle's Downtown Waterfront. The design team has taken on a gargantuan reclamation project - with many environmental and safety issues to resolve on the site, previously property of Unocal.

OSP will differ from the other parks in that, although the central theme incorporates sculpture since the 1970s, in addition to this, the park will house new media work. There is also a strong historical and ecological emphasis to the design.

The park will present the traditional style of public art through its major pieces including Alexander Calder's Eagle, Tony Smith's Stinger and Richard Serra's Wake. It also has space to house contemporary and temporary works of art including new media work and performance. Essentially the sculpture park should become a forum ­ a place of social interaction for the city's residents.

Since the 1970s Seattle has sustained a reputation on the West Coast for cultivating the arts, particularly public art, maintaining its status as 'Most Livable City' in 2006 - an analysis of the volume and quality of public art on view in urban centers. Seattle's public art scene has traditionally been detached from the widespread trend of 'urban décor'- with emphasis instead on land reclamation, restoration and environmental issues promoting a strong sense of community spirit. The OSP design as a whole can be considered a public art in its reclamation project. The design involves the transformation of the site - an ex-fuel storage and transfer unit belonging to Unocal which had become a toxic plot - into an environmentally sensitive public space where SAM can showcase public artworks. Unocal began clean up of the site in the late 1980s, which according to an SAM press release involves the excavation of 120,000 tons of polluted soil and millions of gallons of water. Sensi! tivity towards the environment and to the particular ecology of the Northwest is paramount in the regeneration of the site.

The Olympic Sculpture Park is coming at a time when contemporary art in Seattle could do with a boost - looking slightly stale compared to its Oregon neighbor. Portland has recently hosted a plethora of new media and alternative art, with artists like matt McCormick, Vanessa Renwick, Laura Fritz, Harrel Fletcher and Miranda July leading the way. October last year saw the newly revamped Jupiter hotel host a massive new art fair, which was shortly followed by 'Fresh Trouble' - a festival of video and unorthodox sculpture designed by Jeff Jahn, held in a disused industrial building on Southeast Belmont St.. SAM, however, still holds precedence over PAM which is still avoided by such alternative artists, but the city of Seattle needs to generate some excitement.

Aside from essential CCTV monitoring and security staff, the park will be refreshingly unrestricted to maintain accessibility and will not be enclosed in fencing or otherwise restricted. This along with free entrance will ensure the maximum number of visitors - so it is hoped that the works will reach those who would not necessarily otherwise be aware of them. In discussion with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2005, Tom Lunhow, Director of Seattle Men's Chorus and member of the Stu Smailes Committee, stated that the park's proximity to Myrtle Edwards Park is perfect for attracting passers-by - attracting around 100,000 on July Fourth. Myrtle Edwards is already home to Michael Heizer's Adjacent, Against Upon (1976).

Reintroduction of art into the city in the 1970s - which we can loosely refer to as the public art movement - was substantiated by the development of Percent for Art laws. The main incentive for this movement in the US stemmed from a desire for urban decor and the ambition to encourage urban resettlement. The box canyon effect caused by the volume of standardized modernist architecture was becoming uncomfortable to live amongst.

In his essay 'Earthworks: Land reclamation as Sculpture', Robert Morris, in part, accredited the initial transition of sculpture from indoor to outdoor in the late 1960s to artists' desire to operate in the 'real world' outside of the gallery system. Many such initial large scale artworks were privately funded, thus allowing artists to bypass what Morris referred to as the "crassness of the marketplace". 1

What resulted was a tendency towards high modernist aesthetic themes in public art during the 1970s. A generic system evolved whereby often large scale modernist sculptures were placed in open plazas and referred to as unique ­ reminiscent of the formal roots of public art in the nineteenth century which was characteristically concerned with the monument.

During the 1970s, restrictions on access to plazas and public spaces habitually sited for public art placement increased in an attempt to crackdown on inner-city crime rates. This overshadowed modernist architectural groundbreakers like Mies de Rohe and Phillip Johnson's Seagram Building, famed for its innovative 100ft deep and block wide plaza. In conversation with Kenneth Baker at San Francisco Chronicle in 2003, Vito Acconci remarked "I used to think that a public place is where people gathered and started to talk and change things. Now I see it as a place where it can be easier to bring them under surveillance". 2

There was a general longing for urban regeneration, for a time when artists were considered in the design process of construction and this became constituted in the Percent for Art scheme in the 1970s. Mierle Laderman Ukelas and Vito Acconci formed the reaction to the theme of autonomous modernist art in the US. Acconci's first venture into the realm of public art in 1969 ­ Following Piece ­ involved Acconci following randomly selected individuals everyday for a month until they entered private property. Ukeles and Acconci worked to increase the fluidity between art and the city and to challenge the modernist tradition. Shortly after in 1970 Percent for Art laws were passed in Seattle, Chicago, Miami, Cambridge and Portland and art allocation was made mandatory by the Federal Government.

Difficulties are inevitable in a situation where the art world and the public as a whole are required to not just coexist but also to interact and engage. The reality of the remoteness of the general public from the art world was evident. What design teams struggled with was refraining from dumbing down artwork to suit the public audience. Situations began to arise where design teams had to adopt a 'you will like this in the future' approach to designs like Chicago Picasso. In 'Dialogues in Public Art', Finkelpearl remarked:

It is strange to think of Picasso, so avant-garde in Paris just after the turn of the century still shocking people on the streets of Chicago sixty years later. 3

The initial public distaste for Chicago Picasso eventually faded to the extent that it has developed into a symbol for the city. A modified version of Alexander Calder's controversial La Grande Vitesse - also initially met with disapproval in the 1980s - now constitutes the logo carried by Grand Rapid's municipal garbage trucks in Michigan - perhaps not the most glamorous claim to fame, but certainly a sign of grass roots acceptance. Consequently it became a stamp or logo - a mark of familiarity and pride. Calder's Eagle is being used similarly in Seattle to advertising theme for OSP and has been described by SAM as an 'anchor piece' for the park in a press release. Seattle's public art projects have always been widely covered by the media, as Robert Morris points out in his essay, 'Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture' - cynics might say that seeking media attention for public art is an effort to legitimize vast spending on such projects. But his personal view on! the matter will sit better with SAM - that relevance and openness towards the public in such projects is a significant part of the non-elitist practice external of the white cube. 4 There is also something very precious about the tuned in public of Seattle, which projects like the OSP may safeguard in generations to come.

So what exactly has public art come to mean in the context of a contemporary city? In its most simple form, it's those artworks not located in galleries or museums which often use public funds. Its essence is temporality. This constitutes a problem and can be a source of criticism for permanent projects like OSP.

A prerequisite for a successful piece of public art is its creation of a dialogue - its ability to pose questions and analyze public subjects. This does not, however, mean that it must represent a common perception. It provides a forum for the exploration of collective issues, which are, by nature, transient. Morris identifies dialectic relationship to site as a prerequisite for successful pieces, particularly those which deal with reclamation. He establishes several features through which this relationship may be achieved - geological, topographical, social, historical, or economical features. 5

There seems to be a longing for a permanent solution to this exploration - for a public artwork, which is fresh and current but with longevity. One of the problems about a such a public art site, even if the pieces may not be permanent, is that the site is - future pieces may not be suited to the site possibly lacking in such a dialectic and becoming static. However, if used effectively, the park could be used as a forum - a modern take on the idea of the common. SAM has attempted to facilitate this in the design of OSP. Vito Acconci's work is further evidence of the temporal nature of public art. Take his phone booth project at SFO. Acconci stated to San Francisco Chronicle at the time "When you design a building you're designing people's behavior". Plans started rolling for the project almost eight years before its completion in 2003. The final piece involved light sculptures which house payphones along a glass transfer corridor. Acconci concedes, however, that after seven years of planning, the concept doesn't hold as much weight - as the majority of people carry cell phones. 6

What is perhaps most striking about the design of the Olympic Sculpture Park is New York architects Weiss/Manfredi's commitment to environmental sensitivity. In an Audience Q&A Session at the Museum, SAM Director, Mimi Gardner Gates, wife of Bill Gates Snr, stated that it was the ability to carry off this sensitivity that won Weiss/ Manfredi the contract. SAM has been awarded a total $1,051,000 as an Environmental Remediation Grant from Washington State Department of Ecology.

The park itself stretches over three distinct areas, divided by the railroad and also by Elliot Avenue. Bridging structures have been created by artist Teresita Fernandez to bring the areas together in a sort of 'z' shape. Within this structure the park is divided into four distinct ecological zones: The Valley, on Western Avenue and Bay Street is designed to evoke romantic reminiscences of the region's temperate rainforest, with dense planting of fir, cedar and ferns. This area will also house Calder's Eagle and Serra's Wake. In the central area of the park - referred to as the Grove - visitors will find further native planting of aspen, birch and maple trees.

Probably the most exciting and unexpected of the environmental challenges set by the design team is to create a 'pocket beach' at the shoreline of the park. A key of aim of which is to aid the recovery of salmon inhabitation in Elliot Bay, The development of this pocket beach involves excavation of the entire existing shoreline and approx 100m into the bay itself which will then be replanted with a kelp forest, algae and underwater grasses to create a saltwater marsh inter-tidal habitat in the early summer.

In addition, the 0.64 acre pocket beach provides a run-off for waste water from the entire park, the majority of which is on permeable surface, thus relieving the water treatment plant. The ground level of the Park has been raised significantly to recollect an original feature of Seattle's landscape - Denny Hill. Raising the ground level also conveniently makes fluidity between the three areas much greater and provides panoramic views over Elliot Bay and the Olympic mountains, also ensuring that the park receives as much light as possible, despite the fact that it is in part surrounded by high rise developments. Coinciding with the OSP construction is a further project to expand the downtown SAM gallery. Sellen Construction has utilized the excavated material from the Downtown expansion to fill half of the total needed to create the OSP design. According to a press release, in total, the ground will be raised around 40 feet above its initial level using a relatively new method called 'mechanically stabilized earth structure'. This involves 18 layers of rock, steel cages and plastic, the main benefit of which is its stability - in the event of an earthq! uake the layers would move with the earth rather than keeling over, creating far less of a hazard.

According to SAM, the park has been designed to ensure that it changes with time to remain a dynamic public art space. Options for future adaptation have been left open in areas such as the meadows, which have been left fairly blank for the time being. In conversation with Regina Hackett at Seattle Post-Intelligencer, recently retired SAM Deputy Director of Art, Lisa Corrin, stated there is space in the park for around 30 sculptural pieces with only around 10 being filled at this stage. According to the plans, in addition to some permanent sculptures, the park will house video projections, temporary installations and loaned pieces of work. It is good to see that SAM have created space to embrace these temporary artworks, particularly video - with Portland's alternative art scene creeping ahead in this field.

In her essay 'The Object of Process', Lucy Lippard argues that no place is static and so outreaching art needs to change along with that place. It is absolutely paramount with any public art project that this change is implemented, if it is to be truly a piece of public art - in the sense that it interacts with its audience - a changing society.

Perhaps most exciting about the entire project is the construction of an amphitheater in the Valley, which is entirely set aside for performance work and outdoor projections against the backdrop of the carefully chosen trees. There is certainly something very charming about the image this setting creates in the context of an environmental oasis within an urban environment. A 7000sq ft glass pavilion is also being constructed along Western Avenue which will be used for other special events, temporary exhibitions and public programs, with the obvious advantage of being covered, in the damp region.

The artists so far involved in the project represent regional, national and international backgrounds; the artworks themselves also represent a fairly broad spectrum of public art. Among those artworks confirmed in the park's artistic program are Alexander Calder's Eagle and Richard Serra's Wake, referred to as modern classical sculptures, which represent an authoritative public art background. Eagle (1971) purchased for the park with a private donation stands at 40ft. The piece will certainly have prominence, a logo form having been created to advertise the sculpture signature piece for the park. The inclusion of this piece evokes recollections of the tentative initial stages of the US public art scene and of placing a pre-existing modernist sculpture within a landscape.

Serra's Wake (2002-2003), also with titanic proportions, and through private donations, has been purchased specifically for the Park. Its suitability is clear. Despite Serra's earlier modernist autonomous ideals, and anti-environment stance, there is a strong contextual dialogue between Wake and its site within the OSP. The acid washed steel denotes connotations of the ocean and is also reminiscent of the site's historical use as a fuel transfer unit for the Puget Sound and the Northwest's shipbuilding industry. The sheer size of the piece - each of the five elements at 14'2'', the total installation at 14' high, 75' long and 45' wide - dwarf a visitor as he walks among them and one cannot help but be reminded of giant battleships. The piece sits well within the park - the dialectical relationship between the piece, the region and the ecological landscaping within the park is strong and makes for a more longstanding impact as it represents the historical nature of the s! ite.

Among the projected pieces is British born, Stephen Murphy's Butterflies. The 40 second loop plays on idealistic notions of reality and collective memory. The film opens with a picturesque summer landscape which is gradually filled with butterflies. As the film goes on the computer generated nature of the projection becomes evident as the movement of the insects becomes jerky and the momentary fantasy crumbles. I was, however, disappointed to read in the Artistic Program that Butterflies - one of few initial projected pieces - is to be located in the park's underground parking lot.

Integral to the construction and flow of the three marked areas in the park is Miami born Teresita Fernandez's Seattle Cloud Cover (2004-2006) - The first of Fernandez's permanent installations. Her glass corridor bridges the gap between the Shore and the Valley, spanning both the railroad and the busy Elliot Avenue. Seattle Cloud Cover demonstrates the functional side of public art while still maintaining aesthetic integrity. Fernandez's installation characteristically hovers between architecture, sculpture and new media, using light and the natural sounds of the city. According to the plans, as a visitor walks through the corridor they will see a vivid film of clouds and changing skies projected onto the glass ceiling of the structure which are set against the actual skyline. The entirely glass structure has been designed so that in bright sunlight, the projection will be cast onto the railroad below. The bridge will have its greatest impact, however, at night, when ! the vivid film will be visible from some distance. A water sculpture is being designed by Louise Bourgeois to be sited close to the entrance to Myrtle Edwards Park. This piece has been funded privately by the late Stu Smailes, who bequeathed $1million for the creation of an artwork involving a male nude to be placed in a public site. Smailes' lawyer approached SAM because of the prospect of the Olympic Sculpture Park and negotiations have been made to secure the project and Bourgeois' involvement. Smailes also stipulated that the piece should contain moving water and that the nude be realistic. Both Antony Gormley and Glenn Ligon also submitted proposals for the artwork. Ligon's was a subtle sculpture of a man considering his reflection in a small pool. Gormley's design, by contrast, involved water flowing from a sculpted erect penis - rejected for being too explicit even for Seattle's audience. Bourgeois' design is intended to represent emotional nakedness - Father ! and Son, portrays two male nudes, alternatively concealed from each ot her by constantly flowing water which. The volume of water changes, according to a timer to mark the 24 hours of the day.

Mark Dion has continued his theme of challenging the boundaries of art and audience participation. In Seattle Vivarium Dion adopts methods of sculpture, architecture and education, which consists of a 60ft fallen nurse log from the region's temperate rainforest encased within accustom built. eighty foot greenhouse. According to SAM's artistic Program, inside the ecosystem of the greenhouse, the nurse log will be maintained via a complex mechanical life-support system which will be visible to the spectator. Seattle Vivarium is to be located on the corner of Elliot and Broad. The log will gradually change and become inhabited by thousands of organisms over a period of time demonstrating cycles of ecosystems. Against the base of the greenhouse Dion has created drawings as tiles of the types of creatures and plants he expects to inhabit the nurse log and its ecosystem.

The artistic program covers a broad range of public art - one can't help but wonder what Richard Serra - famously quoted for saying "any use is a misuse" concerning sculpture - would think about Wake being sited alongside Roy McMakin's picnic area, Love/Loss, and Louise Bourgeois' Eye Benches both of which are primarily functional pieces.

Whether the OSP will maintain its dynamicity is unknown. For now, I maintain my concerns over the concept of a permanent public art park, but I would love to be proved wrong. The Olympic Sculpture Park will definitely be worth a visit this September.

Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park opens September 2006.

1 Robert Morris, 'Earthwork: Land Reclamation as Sculpture', Critical Issues in Public Art: Content, Context and Controversy, ed. Harriet F Senie and Sally Webster, (New York: Harper Collins, 1992) p.250
2 Kenneth Baker, 'Vito Acconci's beams of light transform SFO corridor into bank of 'twisted phone booths', San Francisco Chronicle, < > [July 1 2003]
3 Tom Finkelpearl, Dialogues in Public Art, (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2001) p
4 Robert Morris
5 Robert Morris
6 Kenneth Baker

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