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State Senator Wants Ban On Tax Dollars For Out-Of-State Artists

Karen Fusco served on the committee that selected an Arizona artist to create this publicly-funded sculpture at Olympic College in Bremerton. Photo by Austin Jenkins
Karen Fusco served on the committee that selected an Arizona artist to create this publicly-funded sculpture at Olympic College in Bremerton. Photo by Austin Jenkins

OLYMPIA, Wash. – In Washington, it's the law that ferry boats be built in-state. But when it comes to taxpayer-funded art, the world is the palette. There's no requirement that public art contracts go to Washington artists. Now a Democratic state senator wants to change that. But his proposal is meeting resistance from Washington's art community.

I'm standing on the campus of Olympic College in Bremerton, Washington looking at a large sculpture called 'Signs and Symbols.' It's basically a big archway made out glass blocks that light up at night. This sculpture was paid for by Washington taxpayer dollars, but the artist who made it is from Arizona.

"It's a good piece, definitely, but I thought it was someone who was local," says Josiah Beaushaw, a student at Olympic College. He's always liked this sculpture. He calls it a "doorway" to the campus. But he's a bit disappointed when I tell him the six figure commission to create this work went to an out-of-state artist.

"Ya, definitely should be someone from the state, let alone the area maybe especially if you're paying a $100,000," Beaushaw says.

Democratic State Senator Steve Hobbs agrees.

"These are taxpayer dollars," he says. "We are not giving out foreign aid. This is for Washington state."

We're standing in the rotunda of the state capitol in Olympia. Nearby is a bronze bust of George Washington, his nose rubbed shiny by countless fingers. Hobbs wants to require that public art commissions go to in-state artists only.

"It seems to me that the argument out there that it creates jobs, okay I'm going to buy that argument but let's do it for Washingtonians," Hobbs says.

Washington has a robust Art in Public Places Program. Since 1974, one-half of one percent of every state-funded building project has been dedicated to buy art.

$30 million later, the state's collection includes more than 4,000 pieces statewide. Nearly a third of these works were produced by out-of-state artists — although some have strong ties to the state or are from the Northwest region.

In addition, the state maintains a roster of pre-qualified public artists for selection committees to chose from. About 40 percent of the names on that list are from elsewhere.

One of them is Tom Otterness, a controversial artist from New York. Here he is in an interview with a local TV station: "It's my first love is the public work."

The reason Otterness is controversial is that in 1977 he filmed himself shooting a tied-up dog. He's since admitted it was "inexcusable" and "indefensible." Today, he's known all over the world for his cartoon-like sculptures of animals.

Mike Sweney of the Washington State Arts Commission is showing me slides of Otterness' latest public work in Washington. Picture human-sized bronzed animals sitting around picnic tables. These whimsical sculptures are on a main street in the eastern Washington town of Connell. A prison expansion funded this $400,000 installation -– one of most expensive in the state's collection.

But Sweney notes much of that money stayed in Washington. That's because the sculptures were fabricated in Walla Walla.

"Walla Walla has a world class foundry," Sweney explains. "Artists from all over the world use their facility and their workers to create their works of art. So even though Tom Otterness is a New York-based artist, he would use Walla Walla for pretty much anything he did world-wide."

Sweney worries a ban on out-of-state artists could do more economic harm than good. Mark Gerth with the Washington State Arts Alliance agrees.

"It sends the signal that we're only focusing on Washington state artists so why should Utah, California, Oregon hire Washington state artists to work on their projects," he says.

For his part, Senator Hobbs says this is a reasonable compromise. Some Republicans propose to suspend the Art in Public Places program altogether.

On the Web:

Wild Life, by Tom Otterness - in Connell, Wash.:

Copyight 2012 Northwest News Network

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.