Seattle's 1 Percent for Art Program

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 10/18/2013
  • Essay 10645
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In 1973, Seattle passed a 1 Percent for Art ordinance, which sets aside 1 percent of capital-improvement-project funds for the commission, purchase, and installation of artworks in a variety of settings. The Seattle Arts Commission, renamed the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, advocated the program. Although Seattle was not the first city in the nation to pass such a law, it was one of the earliest, and its 1 percent program has been emulated by other cities across the nation.

Roots of the Program

The nation's first percent-for-arts program was created in 1934 as part of the New Deal program of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945), when the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture mandated that 1 percent of a federal building's cost be set aside for artistic decoration. The program lasted less than a decade, until the section was disbanded in 1943.

In 1959, Philadelphia became the first city in the United States to pass a percent-for-arts ordinance, thanks to the efforts of that city's Artists Equity Association. Baltimore passed a similar ordinance in 1964, followed by San Francisco in 1967. That same year, Hawaii legislators passed the first statewide percent-for-arts measure.

A Federal percent-for-arts program was set into motion during the Kennedy administration. The program was overseen by the General Services Administration but was cancelled in 1966 due to budgetary pressures and indifference. A new program was instituted in 1973, with support from President Richard Nixon (1913-1994), who had issued a directive for federal aesthetics in 1972.

Recommended by the S.A.C.

In January 1973, the Seattle Arts Commission proposed 1 Percent for Art programs to both the Seattle and King County Councils. The proposals stipulated that "All requests for appropriations for construction projects from eligible funds shall include an amount equal to one (1) percent of the estimated cost of such project for works of art" and that those monies would go for the "selection, acquisition, and/or installation of works of art to be placed in, on, or about public facilities" (The Seattle Times, January 24, 1973).

The proposal also gave the Seattle Arts Commission and the King County Arts Commission respectively, authority as advisory board to determine the method of selection and the commissioning of artists, as well as to review the design, execution, and placement of artwork funded by the ordinance. They would pass along these findings to the Seattle City Council for final approval.

Public construction projects that did not merit an art installation, such as an underground sewer replacement, would still be subject to the 1 percent calculation. Money collected from those projects was placed into an arts fund for more appropriate projects.

Proposal Accepted

King County adopted the ordinance less than three weeks after it was introduced to the county council, becoming the first county in the nation to implement such a program. The county ordinance included a new provision that allowed the inclusion of performing arts facilities as potential recipients of the fund. King County Arts Commissioner Yankee Johnson (1939-2000) noted that this funding would probably not go for lavish facilities, but instead be used for informal spaces used for workshops, classes, and casual performances.

Seattle instituted its own 1 Percent for Art program, which was approved by the city council (Ordinance 102210) on May 21, 1973, and signed into law a week later by Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935).

With the ordinance in place, the Seattle Arts Commission was tasked with creating procedures for selecting art for municipal projects. Their results were finalized in September. A committee was set up to continually review Capital Improvement Program requests and then establish criteria for each project in which artwork was deemed feasible. A rule was put into place that at least 50 percent of the artists selected must be residents of Washington state.

Heavy on Light

In March 1974, the Seattle Arts Commission announced that approximately $20,000 was available for the first 1 Percent for Art project, to be placed in two public auditoriums under the management of Seattle City Light. After much deliberation, the jurors chose works by 22 Washington state artists. The art was placed in the lobbies, halls, and outer walls of City Light's North Service Center and South Service Center.

In 1975, the program paid for a variety of projects, including a statue at the Capitol Hill Viewpoint, and an earthworks project at Elliott Bay Park. The program also paid for the Chief Seattle statue at Tillicum Place to be relocated into a granite pool, and for restoration of the vandalized Statue of Liberty in Alki Park. But most of the program's money was spent on buying smaller works of art for municipal buildings, the majority of which were managed by City Light.

Unlike Seattle City Light, six city departments, -- fire, police, public health, building, library, and engineering -- had never signed a letter of understanding on 1 Percent for Art expenditures, and the distribution of artwork was somewhat lopsided. When it became apparent that City Light was receiving the lion's share of new art, the program came under scrutiny.

Fine Tuning

In late 1975, Walter Hundley (1929-2002), director of the city's Office of Management and Budget, proposed sweeping changes to the 1 Percent for Art program. The proposal redefined eligible funds as coming only from new construction, and not from building remodels or additions, rewiring, or sewer construction. City departments would also have veto power over the art selections.

The Arts Commission balked at these changes, claiming it would disable the program. The proposal was withdrawn, but lesser revisions modified the process for selection, funding, and placing works of art in public places. A new ordinance took effect on April 15, 1976, calling for the creation of a Municipal Art Plan through public discussion and involvement.

By this time, the program was already getting some heat from the public, as well as some municipal departments. Some park board members were annoyed when two statues were placed on park property without board consultation. More than a few taxpayers were upset that much of the art that had been purchased was tucked away in City Light hallways, where few would see them. Arts commissioners agreed that the program had its rough spots, but that it was an experiment worth continuing.

Because of public grumbling that much of the new art was too avant garde to be enjoyed by most people, the Arts Commission held an exhibit in November 1976, where citizens and public employees were given a chance to view 55 works by Northwest artists. Based on their requests, a committee chose which of the pieces would be installed in the sites selected.

Program in Danger

In 1977, the 1 Percent for Art program faced its biggest challenge when the Seattle City Council voted to cut Seattle City Light's contributions to the program. The power utility -- like many throughout the United States -- was struggling through a worldwide energy crisis, and had proposed a six-month electric-rate surcharge of 61 percent to offset losses. City Light superintendent Gordon Vickery (1920-1996) recommended severe budget cuts to lessen the surcharge, including cutting the contribution to the 1 Percent for Art program.

Seattle City Council recommended $2.6 million in cuts from City Light's 1977 budget, of which the 1 Percent for Art program was only $192,000. Unfortunately, City Light funds represented more than 75 percent of the program's budget, effectively gutting the program. The council voted 8-1 to cut the funding, with only Randy Revelle (b. 1941) voting against it.

The arts community was outraged, especially at the manner in which the cuts were made. "We were given no advance warning, and couldn't respond," said arts commissioner Peter LeSourd (b. 1938). "There has been a lot of talk among the members of the council about open government. Now it turns out the government isn't even open to its own agencies" (The Seattle Times, May 20, 1977).

After a storm of protest from arts advocates, the city council voted to restore half the program. When asked whose idea it was to cut funds to the program in the first place, Seattle City Council staff and Seattle City Light officials each blamed the other. Full funding was later restored.

Successes and Growth

In 1984, an article in The New Yorker referred to Seattle's 1 Percent for Art program as the "most adventurous" in the nation. By this time, there were more than 200 Percent for Art ordinances across the nation, and many cities used Seattle's program as a model. In the mid-1980s, Seattle's program was generating between $300,000 and $500,000 a year for art, and had paid for such notable works as a series of downtown manhole covers designed by Nathan Jackson (b. 1938) and Ann Knight, and the Broadway Avenue sidewalk's inlaid bronze dance steps, designed by Jack Mackie.

As municipal construction began to boom in the late 1980s, so did the amount of money generated by the ordinance. In 1988, more than $767,000 was collected, and paid for more than 30 artworks, including Jonathan Borofsky's (b. 1942) Hammering Man statue, which was installed in front of the Seattle Art Museum in 1991. The recession of the early 1990s led to a drop in funding, but the dot-com boom at the end of the century led to huge amounts of construction and increased funds. In 2000, the program gathered more than $16 million.

When Harborview Hospital expanded, the new building gained a plethora of new art. So did the former Opera House at Seattle Center, when it was transformed into Marion Oliver McCaw Hall. When the new City Hall opened in 2003, it was filled with artwork, unlike the drab municipal building it replaced.

As of 2013, Seattle's 1 Percent for Art program had paid for a collection of more than 380 permanently sited and integrated works and 2,800 portable works, valued at over $39 million.


"Public Art Ordinances Proposed," The Seattle Times, January 24, 1973, p. E-14; "New County Law," Ibid., February 21, 1973, p. G-6; "Law to Add New Art to CIty," Ibid., June 1, 1973, p. C-1;  "Arts Group Eyes Half Million," Ibid., September 12, 1973, p. E-14;  "City to Cut Back Arts Budget," Ibid., March 6, 1974, p. F-3;  "City Light Gets 22 Works of Art," Ibid., June 8, 1974, p. A-4; "Oregon Sculptor Gets Commission," Ibid., February 25, 1975, p. A-14; "Arts Commission Recommends New Art," Ibid., August 7, 1975, p. D-7; "Arts Group Approves Earthwork Commission," Ibid.,, September 3, 1975, p. D-6;  "1% Plan is in Trouble, Commission is Told," Ibid., November 5, 1975, p. H-1; "One Per Cent for Art Program Gets a Facelift," Ibid., November 14, 1975, p. Tempo-3; "Budget Details for Arts Commission," Ibid., April 6, 1976, p. B-6; "Progress Report on the One Per Cent for Art Program," Ibid., April 12, 1976, p. A-13; "Cities, Public Employees to Select Civic Art," Ibid., November 1, 1976, p. F-7; "Surcharge Can Be Cut, Says City Light," Ibid., May 1, 1977, p. A-14; "Money For Arts May Be Restored," Ibid., May 20, 1977, p. Tempo-1; "Council Restores Half of Program," Ibid., May 24, 1977, p. C-3;  "Council Restores Half of Program," Ibid., May 24, 1977, p. C-3; "The Public's Place in Public Art," Ibid., December 14, 1984, pp. E-1, E-9; "Commission Must Often Read Between Lines of Art Proposals," Ibid., November 13, 1986, p. E-1; "New Artwork Will Bust Out All Over Town, Cities 1% Law to Pay for 30 Pieces," Ibid., August 20, 1988, p. A-1; "Take The Art to the Ball Game -- a Team Effort is Bringing Visual Hits to Safeco Field," Ibid., August 20, 1988, p. A-1; "State of the Art," Ibid., September 29, 2013, p. H-3; John Wetenhall, "A Brief History of Percent-for-Art in America, "Public Art Review, Fall/Winter 1993, No. 9, p. 4.

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