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Central Library, Seattle

Library Public Art Plan

Jessica Cusick and Rick Lowe's 'Public Art Plan for the Seattle Central Library', was researched and written very collaboratively by the two independent consultants over an intensive 9-month period, and was published in July 2001. During the research period Cusack and Lowe conducted interviews and held focus group meetings with library staff and artists, and key city cultural organisations, and made numerous site visits. As a result they were able to conduct an "informal asset inventory" of "Seattle's extensive and diverse cultural landscape", familiarising themselves with the library's activities and the nature of its clients. They also held regular planning meetings with the project team, and met with the architects in Seattle and Rotterdam.

Cusick and Lowe concurred with the planning team's conviction from the outset that the opportunity existed for art commissions to intersect with the new library's public space not just in a physical way, but also conceptually. "We were interested in exploring projects that might change or evolve over time", the plan stated, and in giving consideration to opportunities for artists within the day-to-day activities of the library, rather than seeking simply to realise a number of discrete commissioned works that would be in place when the library opened. In considering the library to be a "cultural centre", Cusick and Lowe wanted to enable the possibility for artists to "draw upon the library, its mission and programs, systems and collections, as their subject matter, making it a key focal point in the community cultural dialogue". They wanted international, national and local artists to undertake commissions for both permanent and temporary works of art, creating art works that would explore "the relationship between the library users, the building, its collections and systems." To these ends, the Art Plan's recommendations included:

  • commissioning a series of temporary projects during the period of the new library's construction, "to create dialogue and build excitement about the new facility."
  • commissioning a series of site-integrated works by internationally renowned artists
  • commissioning a series of 'process' works that explore the library's functions and its clients.

The plan's list of recommendations also included the following proposals, that have not been acted upon and await further assessment, or which were incorporated into other aspects of the project:

  • commissioning a literary artist to create a work for the library. (The decision was eventually taken to spend the funds that might have been devoted for this commission to the Library Unbound projects.)
  • developing policies that address the Library's role in collecting art, including an assessment of the care and disposition of the works in its art collection, and the incorporation of selected works from the existing collection within the new building.
  • designating a space in the new building for the creation and display of artists' projects, including the design of display cases as part of the book shelving system with the proposal that they might "provide artists with a venue to create random treasures [from the library's collections], works meant to serve accidental discoveries". (This proposal is still under consideration, but hindered by lack of funds and staffing considerations.)
  • establishing a Center for Humanities and the Arts, with a dedicated arts programmer funded through an endowment, and forming an arts advisory committee to support the development of ongoing arts programming within the library.

Cusick and Lowe did not restrict themselves to proposing site-integrated and process-based commissions. In accord with the architects' essentially democratic idea of creating "a new library that functions as a living room", Cusick and Lowe saw the library as "a permeable membrane between cultural providers and audience", as such incorporating an ongoing programme of arts activities (such as regularly scheduled artists' talks) and residencies, funded as partnerships. The plan's recommendations in this respect (seen as "a starting point for exploration and not as an exact prescription") included a residency programme for artists of all disciplines, comprising both short term residencies resulting in new work to be exhibited temporarily within the library, and longer residencies "connected with in-depth research and exploration of a particular aspect of the library's collections". Cusick and Lowe viewed the Library Unbound commissions as examples of this longer type of artists' residency.

The plan concluded that its full implementation would require additional funds to those already allocated, in order that the arts programme attached to the new library should be commensurate with the Library Board's vision in selecting a world-renowned architect to design the new Central Library’. Alongside its breakdown of expenditure based on a budget of $900,000, the plan set an 'enhanced budget' of more than four times that amount, which it suggested might be secured from corporate business donors, local art patrons, plus funding for specific projects from other sources via the Seattle Arts Commission.

Jessica Cusick runs a Los Angeles-based consulting firm specialising in public art planning and policy development, and community development initiatives within which art functions as a tool for regeneration. As director of civic art and design for the Cultural Arts Council in Houston , she developed the Houston Framework, a plan to involve public art in the improvement of the city's environment.

Rick Lowe is an independent Houston-based artist and activist. He was founder in 1992 of the award winning Project Row Houses in Houston, described as "one of Houston's most famous public artworks", a neighbourhood of 22 abandoned 1930s houses re-vitalised as art galleries, artists' workshops and low-cost housing.

© Copyright David Briers 2005