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"Rebuilding Sea-Tac Airport with an eye for art"
Sunday, December 10, 2000
Rebuilding Sea-Tac Airport with an eye for art
Hoping fliers' spirits will soar
By Jen Graves
Tacoma (WA) News Tribune
When the current cycle of construction is finished at Sea-Tac, the airport
will have spent more money on public art for one site than any agency in
Consider the collection a gift from travelers, who fund all of the airport's
construction by paying $3 per plane ticket and other fees - on parking and
food, for example - each time a trip takes them through Sea-Tac Airport.
The three phases of Sea-Tac's expansion project are expected to be completed
around 2010. The first phase, budgeted at $2.6 billion, will yield $6
million for art.
Budgets for the next two phases are still being formed. But the airport's
art manager estimated that the second phase would provide less art funding
and the final phase, more.
That means the new and improved airport will show at least $12 million of
new art gathered over 10 years.
In 31 years, the airport has spent only about $2 million on art (in 2000
Sea-Tac is not the only airport expanding its art collection. A building
boom that started in the 1990s has meant new public art at airports across
For instance, San Francisco International nearly tripled what was a $5
million art collection during construction of a $1 billion terminal that
And new airports, such as Denver International and Ronald Reagan Washington
National in Washington, D.C., opened in the 1990s with extensive art
collections and architecturally integrated artworks.
It's too early to detail the art travelers will see when the scaffolding is
removed at Sea-Tac. The project's 16 major artists have been hired -
including nine from the Puget Sound region - but most are still developing
The range of imagined art is broad, from a sound-light installation by an
artist who has a piece at the Experience Music Project to a giant
three-dimensional object that's formed by viewers' mental addition of small
objects suspended in air.
At the end of it all, airport officials hope to boost tourism and make the
airport a destination for locals, rather than one hurried stop on a ride to
High-quality contemporary art
Because of the scope of the project, the airport has hired King County's
public art program staff to manage the bulk of the commissions.
Here's how the process works:
Artists are chosen by a panel that includes Seattle visual artist and writer
Barbara Thomas; Tacoma Art Museum contemporary art curator Greg Bell; Marcia
Iwasaki, project manager for Seattle Arts Commission's public art program;
and two representatives from the Port of Seattle, Keith Gillin and Dave
The panel is guided by the airport's art-collecting mission statement: "To
obtain high-quality contemporary art that engages and reflects the Northwest
culture and environment as experienced by diverse cultures."
No preference is given to Northwest artists, but their work makes up more
than half of the existing collection.
The panel's recommendations must be approved by an oversight committee that
includes the port commission president, a member of the commission,
representatives from the port's airport and marine divisions, an architect
familiar with the airport's design guidelines, an artist and an arts
Finally, the committee's decisions are taken in front of the whole port
commission to gain approval.
Keep your eyes out in the coming years for evidence of those decisions. This
is what we know so far:
* Ralph Helmick and Stuart Schechter were selected for the airport's biggest
job after an international competition based on all of the artists' previous
The pair will complete the airport's largest commission to date, a $500,000
piece to be installed in the expanded central terminal's Pacific
Marketplace. Shops, restaurants and landscaping will be located in the
spacious hall, which will have a view of the airfield.
The Boston artists are known for large-scale projects involving a smattering
of small parts suspended from cables that cohere into one immense
three-dimensional image - a little like 3-D impressionism.
They'll present a range of ideas to the panel in January.
For the south terminal expansion project, three artists will complete
large-scale commissions, two will make building parts and nine will create
glass-mosaic designs that will hug the terminal's columns.
These are the large-scale commissions, with budgets of $250,000 each:
* German-born Seattle artist Trimpin, whose tornado of hundreds of guitars
is a centerpiece of the Experience Music Project, uses his work to create
and explore connections between sound and sight.
He proposes to transform a south terminal's moving walkway into an
interactive musical instrument with "hundreds of colorful, whimsical
elements and figures, gears, pulleys and percussive mechanisms."
* Known for conceptual yet suggestively figurative three-dimensional works,
Peter Shelton, of Malibu, Calif., is developing "cloudsandclunkers."
Translucent forms, "clouds," and cast-iron shapes, "clunkers," will be made
from the same molds and installed to associate with each other, with airport
visitors and with the urban and natural landscapes of the Northwest and the
Shelton's work will be on Concourse A.
* Cappy Thompson of Seattle is considered the master practitioner of
transparent enameling in the American glass art movement.
She creates narrative, figurative scenes on glass using a medieval,
cathedral-style stained-glass technique that makes the color appear to
She'll create "I Was Dreaming of Spirit Animals," a nighttime scene of a
slumbering couple surrounded by animals and constellations, that's 33 feet
high and 90 feet wide.
It will be the largest painted-glass installation in the region, located at
the end of Concourse A.
* The two artists commissioned to create airport walls are Linda Beaumont
and Erin Shie Palmer, both of Seattle.
Palmer's work will be a curved metal wall, mostly copper, that's almost 200
feet long and varies in height from 4 to 13 feet. The wall's uneven patina
will reflect changing light, resembling the way a climber experiences light
going up a mountainside of trees.
"When you get to the end of it," at the open-hall end of the south terminal,
"you're in this very large atrium, which has that expansive feel," Palmer
She has a $400,000 total budget, including construction credits for work the
contractor would otherwise complete.
The same goes for Linda Beaumont, who has $277,000 to conceive and build a
painted and silk-screened glass wall for the south terminal.
Not all of the nine artists selected to design glass mosaics for the
terminal's columns have public art experience.
"One of our goals was to provide them with an opportunity to spread their
wings and learn a new skill," said Cath Brunner, executive director of King
County's public art program.
Those artists are:
* Painter Juan Alonso of Seattle, known for his over-sized fantasy flowers.
* Photographer Peter de Lory of Seattle.
* Robert Yoder of Seattle, who works with recycled road signs.
* Natural-material sculptor Susan Zoccola of Seattle.
* Joanne Hammer of Vashon Island, whose work shows Northwest native
* Influential ceramic creator Rudy Autio of Missoula, Mont.
* Acrylic painter Marlene Bauer of Portland.
* Amy Cheng of New Paltz, N.Y., whose paintings are influenced by Chinese
* Renowned artist Sam Gilliam of Washington, D.C., who makes sculptural
The third wave
Because it's under the jurisdiction of the Port of Seattle, the airport is
not bound by law to spend 1 percent of its public construction funds on art,
as are Seattle, Tacoma and many other cities and counties across the
But since 1969, the airport has voluntarily purchased art when building or
repairing structures. That has led to a collection of some 60 works, mostly
bought in 1972-73 and 1992.
The major 1970s acquisitions, bought on a budget of $300,000, are still the
big names in Sea-Tac's collection.
A large, low-relief wood sculpture by Louise Nevelson, Robert Rauschenberg's
serigraph on mirror, Frank Stella's abstract canvas and Robert Maki's
free-standing wing-like aluminum sculpture stand out.
The 1990s brought $614,000 in new work, including Norie Sato's winged-ladder
scene on the south end of Concourse B, Larry Kirkland's totemic canoe and
"bones" of hand-blown glass by William Morris.
Not all of the airport's collection is displayed during construction. Some
pieces, like Judith and Daniel Caldwell's stream of "Flying Fish" on the
floor in Concourse B, will be removed and replaced in the same area. Other
works, like Stella's painting, will move permanently.
Why does the airport bother with art when it doesn't have to?
"We do it to enhance the passengers' experience," said Jolene Culler,
Sea-Tac's art program manager.
Friendliness doesn't necessarily make good business, though. And $12 million
is a lot of money to spend without any promise of financial return.
Public art is also a political risk, since taxpayers sometimes grouse that
the spending is frivolous even when they like the artwork.
But government agencies and nonprofits alike have begun to stop thinking of
the arts as needy independents.
In 1999, the City of Tacoma moved its cultural resources division into the
economic development department. The city's goal: to acknowledge the arts as
a viable contributor to and engine for the local economy, including a
So far, the city's projections have been borne out. The Washington State
History Museum and renovated, Chihuly-stuffed Union Station on Pacific
Avenue - as well as the promise of two new art museums - no doubt have
helped attract an influx of high-tech companies, as well as pronouncements
of Tacoma's revival in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal articles.
A Corporate Council for the Arts study showed that, in 1997, $559 million in
business was generated by cultural organizations and arts-patron spending in
Plus, "we know that for every dollar spent on the arts, there's three to
five dollars in additional monies that are generated," said Josie Emmons,
Tacoma's cultural resources division manager. "It's everything from the dry
cleaners to baby sitters to parking to going out to dinner to gas."
Likewise, airport managers believe that art helps promote tourism by
changing a stark hull into the start of an experience travelers might want
Governments are often taken to task wrongly for being irresponsible with the
public's money and trust, said Brunner, who's managing the airport's major
It's true that public art administrators love art more than money, but they
understand art must make financial sense, too, she said.
"Our goal is to create a good, welcoming first-time impression, which we
think is very important for the whole region," Brunner said. "As the
entryway, we're trying to be very responsible about that goal.
"A lot of this money is being circulated right here in our own local
economy.... Most artists in our region are small-business people. They hire
other subcontractors here and buy their materials here."
Brunner remembers coming to Western Washington before she moved here.
"The first time I flew into Sea-Tac, I understood when I got off the plane
that this was a place that valued culture," Brunner said.
"There was a (Louise) Nevelson and a Frank Stella and information about what
was happening at the opera and the Burke Museum. And I think that says a lot
about us in the region."
SIDEBAR: A sampling of Sea-Tac's art collection
'Your Factory A' by Frank Stella
Location: The esplanade north of 'The Maki.'
Price paid: $35,315.29.
Notes: This has been the most besieged of Sea-Tac's artworks. Ten years ago,
a passenger ran into it with a baggage cart, puncturing the large-scale
canvas on its lower half. It has been repaired and secured with an alarm
'Night Flight' by Louise Nevelson
Location: During construction, this piece is not accessible to the public.
It will be reinstalled on the new Concourse A.
Price paid: $32,822.96.
Notes: 'Night Flight' is a grand example of this late Russian American
artist's shadowy, modernist wood sculptures.
'The Maki' by Robert Maki
Location: Behind EVA ticketing counter on the esplanade.
Price paid: $97,143.54.
Notes: This is the collection's largest work, by the Walla Walla native who
has become an esteemed Northwest abstract sculptor. After repairs warranted
by years of errant feet and luggage, 'The Maki' eventually will be moved to
a garden located outside Concourse A.
'Star Quarters' by Robert Rauschenberg
Location: Just south of gate C10.
Price paid: $10,940.40.
Notes: This major pop-art star from Port Arthur, Texas, assembled everyday
objects and toyed with mass media images alongside such luminaries as Jasper
Johns and James Rosenquist.
'Journey/Home' by Larry Kirkland
Location: At the north end of Concourse D.
Price paid: $143,906.
Notes: Kirkland, originally from Oregon, now lives in Washington, D.C. He is
working on a commission for Portland's airport.
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