Art for the Bremerton masses

The Olympic College mosaic used to be attached to the school’s math and arts building. The building was demolished in 2007, leaving the mural to wait for a new life in the corner of a parking lot.  - Edward Sponholz/courtesy photo
The Olympic College mosaic used to be attached to the school’s math and arts building. The building was demolished in 2007, leaving the mural to wait for a new life in the corner of a parking lot.
— image credit: Edward Sponholz/courtesy photo

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then what’s in Bremerton’s eye?

As residents and city officials clash over the merits — and costs — of public art, the civic discussion has veered into a conversation of the value of art in Bremerton. Though required in city construction projects, Bremerton public art faces opposition, and even abandonment, in the case of a historic Olympic College mosaic mural mothballed in a corner of the school’s parking lot.

But despite the critical voices questioning the wisdom of spending dollars on art when so many people are out of work, some believe it is just what the city needs.

And though once slated for destruction, the mosaic built by Kitsap County’s first college-level art teacher and his star students will likely be returned to its former glory.

Public art has become a flashpoint among city officials and the public, rivaling parking as a heated debate topic, as demonstrated by the recent fish and fisherman sculptures set to be built at the corner of Pacific Avenue and Fourth Street. After the artist’s design envisioned the fish catching the fisherman, the City Council in December voted to change the plan to the fisherman catching the fish, before reverting back to the original plan last month. Two councilmembers, Cecil McConnell and Roy Runyon, voted against the construction of the sculptures altogether in December, arguing the $250,000 allotted to the statue could be put to better use.

“I think people’s jobs are more important than having a piece of art,” McConnell said, adding that art is an inappropriate use of money during a tough economy.

McConnell’s sentiments are shared by residents who have spoken at Council meetings in the past month, opposing the construction of new art and beautification projects.

But according to a city ordinance, a sliver of the money designated for construction projects, 1 percent, must be spent on public art, such as the police station and Evergreen Rotary Park sculptures.

Not all of Bremerton’s public art comes from the one percent fund, however.

In the case of the fish and fisherman, it’s a state redevelopment grant designated for infrastructure and art work.

“I think there’s a misunderstanding as to how the money can be used,” said Pam Bykonen, Bremerton Arts Commission clerk. “People think we can take the money and pave the street with it or feed the hungry or house the homeless.”

The One-Percent for Arts Program was passed in 2005. Former Councilwoman Wendy Priest, who introduced the measure, says public art is integral to a community’s identity, beautifying buildings, attracting tourists and telling a story about the city’s history to future generations.

“To me, the whole idea of public art is it’s representative of the citizens,” Priest said.

Other cities such as Wenatchee, Chehalis, Puyallup and Walla Walla have a one-percent program, as well as larger cities such as Seattle and Tacoma, she said.

Even in 2005, before the plunge of the national and state economies, the measure was controversial. Some city councilmembers thought the city had more pressing needs than art projects. But the ordinance passed on a 5-3 vote.

With the ordinance came the establishment of the seven-member Bremerton Arts Commission, meant to review and select the art built as part of the program. One of its main goals is to select designs by local artists.

But the recent fish and fisherman debacle, which isn’t attached to the one-percent ordinance because it is paid for by a state grant and not the city, ruffles feathers for reasons beyond whether the fish should catch the man.

For one, the statues were designed by a Colorado firm and will be built by a Mukilteo company. The Arts Commission was left out of the selection process, Priest said, leaving the decision to the City Council.

“None of them are artists,” Priest said.

Also, she added, the $250,000 would have been a boon for local artists and the commission should have been given the lead. The glass badge and stainless steel sculpture at the police station cost about $45,000 altogether and the three-part Evergreen Rotary Park sculpture cost $20,000.

“That’s a huge sum of money,” Priest said of the fish and fisherman budget. “Frankly, I think it makes people really distrustful of government.”

Even if more people understand how the art is paid for, people will always think it’s a waste of money, Arts Commissioner Joanie Pearson said.

“Any new art is going to create controversy,” she said. “I don’t think that’s ever going to change.”

Even with supporters in city government and the arts community, a half-century-old gem that reflects Bremerton’s history has only barely survived and now sits inside a chain-link barrier in an Olympic College parking lot.

The piece is a glass mosaic mural that was built into an outside concrete wall of the college’s old math and science building. Finished in the late 1950s by former Olympic College arts professor Hank Blass, the 30-by-12 feet mosaic’s existence was threatened when the math and science building’s demolition was approved in 2006. Architects said it could not be spared from destruction.

Olympic College librarian Dianne Moore helped spread the word about saving the mosaic. They received a second opinion that the mosaic could be saved at a cost of $100,000. The school didn’t have the money and there wasn’t time to mount a public fundraising campaign before the mosaic’s slated destruction in the summer of 2007.

It took a former student and her contractor neighbor to step in and save it for about $15,000.

Since then, a committee was assembled in 2008 to determine what should be done with the mosaic.

“It’s no small task to put it back somewhere,” college Vice President of Administrative Services Barbara Martin said.

The committee only had one meeting, but it was decided that the mosaic should be incorporated into the next campus building approved by the state.

The problem is, the state doesn’t have a lot of money at the moment to pay for new campus construction projects, Martin said.

Meanwhile, the mosaic sits in three seven-ton pieces, covered by boards inside a chain-link fence, its new life on hold.

Martin said the mosaic committee hoped to incorporate the mosaic into a future theater and arts building, but the money for the building’s predesign was excluded from the 2009-2011 state budget, Martin said, delaying the process at least another two years. Getting planning and construction money for new buildings generally takes six years.

The main solace to Moore, another committee member, is that the mosaic was saved at all.

“It reflects both the history of the college and the history of the community,” she said.

Pearson said there shouldn’t have to be such a fight to save public art, nor should there be an ordinance that requires new art.

“I think it’s a shame that we have to put specific funds in the one-percent program and that it’s not part of the project already,” she said.

She also decried the lack of public input at Arts Commission meetings.

“We don’t have people showing up to public meetings,” Pearson said. “We don’t know exactly what their thoughts are.”

Bykonen shares that sentiment, saying that the public shouldn’t complain about art when they don’t come to the meetings to give input.

“Whether they choose to show up, that’s not our problem,” she said. “Anybody’s invited to attend and speak their mind. We just haven’t had anybody.”

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