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Exploring Seattle’s Vast Underground Public Art Collection

KUOW Photo/Arwen Nicks

Seattle's got art. A lot of it. You've probably seen at least some of the city's vast public art holdings: sculptures in public library branches, decorative paving tiles on the sidewalks, the giant murals in the downtown bus tunnel.

But the city of Seattle owns another public art collection that you only see when you're visiting, say, the Department of Transportation office or Seattle City Light offices. It's called the Portable Works Collection and contains more than 2,800 paintings, photographs and sculptures installed in various city departments.

The program is more than 40 years old, and it's funded by 1 percent of the city’s capital construction projects, the so-called percent-for-art ordinance.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Ceramic bust at Seattle Portable Works Collection", "fid": "8294", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201401/IMG_0237_0.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Arwen Nicks"}]]Right now, most of that money comes from projects undertaken by City Light or Seattle Public Utilities.

Deborah Paine oversees this vast art collection, on behalf of its owners – Seattle citizens. You'll find her on the ground floor of Seattle Municipal Tower, where many other city offices are housed.

Unlike those offices, though, Paine's domain is behind an unmarked door that fronts on Interstate 5. It's a huge storeroom filled with cubbies and cubicles that hold the artwork that hasn't been chosen for display. A very large painting by Northwest master Guy Anderson sits in storage; Paine says it's too big to fit in most of the offices. There are also ceramic sculptures by artist Patti Warashina that are hard to place because they're breakable.  

Paine is the collection curator, but she doesn't decide where art goes. That's done by the city employees themselves. If workers in a particular department decide they want to have art in their office, they contact Paine. She asks them to assemble a three-person selection panel.

"I'm very strict about three," she says. More panelists than that, she's found, leads to indecision.

The panelists, in consultation with Paine and her assistant, choose the art they like, and decide where it will be displayed. Paine says they usually rotate out artwork every two or three years.

City workers cannot, however, put dibs on art from other offices. Paine laughs when asked if that's how her system works. "No," she says.

Art appreciation is in the eye of the beholder, and Paine says some of the Portable Works collection might be considered offensive or risque by some viewers. If such art is chosen by the committee, Paine says she spends some time talking about possible complaints they'll receive if the potentially offensive work is in a part of the office that's accessible to the public, such as a permit application counter.

Seattle's public art program is not without controversy. In 2004, a King County Superior Court judge agreed with plaintiffs that the city was spending money inappropriately when it came to sending for some public art. The percent-for-art ordinance was still legal, but the judge created a stricter definition of what funds could be used and what art they could purchase.

Still, Seattle is a national leader when it comes to public art. Next time you're at Seattle City Hall, or the Municipal Tower across the street, take a second to check out the walls. What you're looking at is, most likely, part of the Portable Works Collection. Your art collection.