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Tuesday 02.21.12

« Presidents Day Links | Main | Ten Thousand Things at PCC Sylvania »

Preserving Washington State's Public Art

Washington State's most famous bit of public art, Barnett Newman's Broken Obelisk (1963) technically not at risk but it is a slippery slope

The idea to sell off works in Washington State's public art collection is such a bad idea. Also, the wolf in sheep's clothing tactic of using sales to fund scholarships and more art acquisitions doesn't make it any better.

Weve been down this road before with both the Rose Art Museum and the Oregon Cultural Trust. Both of which ended up getting support from conservatives and non arts people... here's why:

1)Public collections are kept in trust for the public. The thing about trusts is that you don't go radically altering (in this case selling) the asset kept in trust. If you treat a trust as a rainy day fund it simply ceases to exist.

2) This is particularly short sighted since the elements of the collection are acquired for the way they engage and complete specific sites and buildings. That context building is a sort of running civic commentary and selling said works becomes tantamount to book burning of civic memory. Often the artwork outlives the original buildings and provides a thread through the past.

3) Selling works when you think they are worth a lot of money is foolhardy. For example, though it isn't at risk here Barnett Newman's Broken Obelisk in the Red Square of the University of Washington's Seattle Campus is indeed worth a great deal of money but as one of only three (and the best of Newman's sculptures) replacing it with something of similar importance is extremely unlikely and it will likely be worth infinitely more both monetarily and as a cultural touchstone/icon 100 years from now. Once again, each piece comes from a certain point in history... sell the piece sell that history (it never comes back and because it goes to the highest bidder it is generally lost to the public).

4) This is a dangerous precedent. When you treat a collection like a liquid asset it changes the way you collect and for what reasons. Public art is an investment in the public's access and enjoyment. A monetary investment comes with different performance expectations, which have nothing to do with the public's access and enjoyment. The two dynamics are at odds. Public art managers should not be investment portfolio managers.

Here's Jen Graves take

Posted by Jeff Jahn on February 21, 2012 at 10:48 | Comments (1)


I think that it is essential to preserve a state's public art collection to place importance on the regions' history and culture. The collection can be displayed in any museum in Washington State for the benefit of the people. It is important to recognize a regions' history and this act helps to do this.

Posted by: Calvin Taplay [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 26, 2012 08:55 PM

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