Marvin Oliver unveils his wall mural at the opening of the Broadview Branch of the Seattle Public Library on December 15, 1975.

  • By Fred Poyner IV
  • Posted 9/04/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20856

On December 15, 1975, Northwest Native American artist Marvin Oliver (1946-2019) unveils a set of four carved and painted murals of Haida designs at the Seattle Public Library branch in the Broadview neighborhood. He is one of the first artists to benefit from a newly created city arts fund in the 1970s. His project supports the objective of the new Seattle Arts Commission and its role in promoting site-specific public art projects.

A new organization and funding for Seattle arts

By the mid-twentieth century, efforts to expand support for public art and artists within Seattle had built incrementally toward a publicly funded municipal arts program. The creation of the first Municipal Arts Council in 1955, and the development of the Seattle Center as the site for the World's Fair in 1962, presaged the Seattle City Council passage of an ordinance creating the Seattle Arts Commission on June 1, 1971.

Part of the new Arts Commission mandate was the development of a new city-funded arts program beginning in the early 1970s. A consortium that included Mayor Wesley Uhlman (b. 1935), the Seattle City Council, Allied Arts of Seattle, and other stakeholders such as Pike Place Market historical preservation activist Victor Steinbrueck (1911-1985), conceptualized a "1 Percent for Art" program. On June 30, 1973, Uhlman signed into law a new city ordinance that expressly expanded city's role in promoting Seattle's cultural and artistic identity. It established the 1 Percent for Art fund.

The Seattle Arts Commission was put in charge of program administration. Funding came from a designated 1 percent of municipal construction projects. The money was set aside for the selection, acquisition, and installation of artworks into public spaces. Seattle was one of the first major cities in the nation to have such a program.

An early 1 percent for Art recipient

One of the early art projects to receive funding through the new program was a commission awarded to Marvin Oliver, a sculptor and printmaker with Quinault Indian Nation and Isleta-Pueblo heritage, for the new Broadview Branch of The Seattle Public Library. Instead of buying an existing piece by the noted sculptor, the commission's five-member Art in Public Places Committee asked Oliver to create a wall carving that was site-specific for the library. Challenges included space restrictions of the artwork's planned location, and the need to complete the piece while the library was under construction. Oliver's reputation as an established artist working in both the Northwest Coast and Coast Salish styles also weighed favorably in his ultimate selection to undertake the mural carvings in a series of four large wood panels.

As a result, Oliver worked closely with fellow artists Donna Edwards (the Broadview Branch's first librarian) and Roman Mostrar, along with the architect of the library to ensure that the Haida-style, multicolored painted and carved wood panels that comprised the mural would have a suitable display space. Among the large-scale central motifs represented was a Sea Bear figure rendered in black, blue, and red pigments.

Oliver's mural uniquely emphasized the building's design, showing "how artworks can energize a space and give it a stronger identity and presence" (Furesz). On December 15, 1975, the mural was unveiled at the official opening of the Broadview Branch to the public.

The finished artwork was an example of how contemporary artists such as Oliver could offer a new visual dimension to the city's public spaces. His successfully installed mural also represented a new public artwork that benefited from city funding, yet still predated the first Municipal Art Plan created by the Seattle Arts Commission in 1977.

The Broadview mural was just one of Oliver's noteworthy public artworks of his long career, which he summarized as "merging the spirit of past traditions with those of the present ... to create new horizons of the future" ("Marvin E. Oliver Biography"). He was awarded funding again from the 1 Percent for Art fund in both 1993 and 1994 to install a 27-foot tall bronze Orca sculpture with Salish motifs at the Department of Youth Services (DYS) facility in April 1995.


Sources:

Andras Furesz, "1 Percent for Art -- A City becomes an Art Collector," brochure (1977), Seattle Municipal Archives; "Marvin E. Oliver Biography," MarvinOliver.com website accessed July 28, 2019 (http://www.marvinoliver.com/The_Artist/Biography.html); "Seattle City Council Passes Ordinance Creating the Seattle Arts Commission on June 1, 1971," (by Paula Becker), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed July 28, 2019); "Broadview Branch, The Seattle Public Library," (by David Wilma), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed July 28, 2019); City of Seattle Ordinance No. 102210, "An Ordinance authorizing allocation of certain funds for art in the construction of public works; providing for a review of suitable capital projects and for an artist selection process; and establishing a special fund designated 'Municipal Arts Fund,'" passed May 21, 1973, Seattle Municipal Archives.


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