It's fast, but is it pretty?

Public art makes growing cities more humane.

Two stories in the news today are on a topic near to my heart: public art.

Rainier Beach station artBefore exercising great restraint in sharing his encyclopedic knowledge of Sound Transit construction methods, Seattle Times reporter Mike Lindblom offers a fun preview of the space-age art that will greet Beacon Hill boarders as they wait for their ride. Video of the Hubble Space Telescope, subliminal messages, purple starfish, green jellyfish, stars on the ceiling.

Even wierder is the project profiled in the LA Times, with the city of Seattle hiring an artist-in-residence to work in the northeast tower of the Fremont Bridge. To start, she’s collecting stories about the historic drawbridge, from those who curse its fickle, traffic-stalling ways to a woman who’d lived her whole life nearby and allegedly figured out how to fulfill her dream of riding it on the way up. (Read more about the project on the artist’s blog.)

As a reporter at the Seattle P-I, I liked writing about public art (here and here, for example). It was a good excuse to roam the city on foot, and I happen to believe that art and aesthetics in the public realm matter.

As cities change, grow and become more dense, it’s important not to overlook the little touches—a sculpture, a painted bus stop, a beautifully-designed amphitheater or green landscaping—that make urban areas feel humane. 

Fremont is certainly not the Seattle neighborhood most in need of public art. And questions about how the city can afford to pay artists when some taxpayers are struggling to feed families make perfect sense. But the residency was funded with a city program, started in 1973, that dedicates 1 percent of the cost of capital improvement projects to public art that enhances it. That stream of money doesn’t vanish in a recession.

With any public art, reasonable people can disagree about whether they like it or not. I haven’t seen the Sound Transit tunnel and don’t know what the Fremont Bridge artist-in-residence will come up with. But I think I’m still glad someone is trying to make a difficult economic time seem a little less dreary. And artists need jobs too.

Photo of Sound Transit Rainier Beach station public art courtesy of flickr user litlnemo via the Creative Commons license.

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