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All the island’s a canvas for public artwork

Aesthetes may seek a boost in funding for public installations around the island.

By CHAD SCHUSTER

Staff Writer

Six years ago, when Bainbridge swimmers first plunged into a new aquatic center, many deemed it a splashing success.

The most noticeable improvement was increased utility. But had it not been for the inclusion of art, the project’s aesthetic ripples would have been harder to trace.

“It was not an especially attractive interior space,” said Janice Shaw, who manages the city’s public art program. “It was basically a warehouse with a hole in it for water.”

Enter “Island Water Quilt,” a ceramic tile mural by island artist Maggie Smith that Shaw and others believe improved the visual, historical and cultural qualities of the aquatic center.

Along with being a fixture on the wall near the diving board since 2002, the mural has the distinction of being the most recent permanent public art installation funded by the city.

The island has since seen multiple temporary efforts – among them the “Collocation” exhibit at Pritchard Park in the summer of 2005 and the poetry banners that once hung at the ferry terminal – but none have matched the scale or staying power of the pool mural.

The dearth of new additions, said city Public Art Committee Chair Toby Quitslund, is due to a lack of money, rather than a lack of inspiration. Hence a plea by PAC members for an increase in city funding.

“We’re sensitive to the fiscal situation at the city,” Quitslund told the City Council’s Community Relations Committee Monday. “But we’re here to say, don’t forget us.”

The city’s public art program was created by ordinance in 1989 and is overseen by the Bainbridge Island Arts and Humanities Council and the 12-member volunteer PAC.

No decisions have been made, but CRC and PAC members said they will jointly seek ways to increase the program’s funding, which now stands at about $24,000 per year.

The program costs $13,000 annually to maintain; that leaves an average of $11,000 for projects.

Because that isn’t enough for the creation of permanent public art, PAC members say they aren’t able to meet the city’s public art goals stated in the Comprehensive Plan. And, while the community has been generous to the arts in the past, private money may not be enough to fill the void.

“Given the demands on people with deep pockets in this community, I don’t think we can expect to be fully funded by private donors,” said BIAHC Executive Director Zon Eastes.

The dollar amount contributed by the city to public art isn’t fixed; instead the public art fund gets one percent of the cost of all capital projects at the city, an amount that fluctuates from year to year.

Underground utilities, property acquisition and grant-funded portions of projects are excluded from the funding formula.

A proposal that would retain the exclusions but increase the allocation to two percent is scheduled to go before the City Council at its Jan. 23 meeting.

Planners say the change could mean an additional $66,000 per year in the public art coffers, though PAC members believe that projection may be high.

The additional money could be used to fund projects ranging from Streetscape art to neighborhood-specific pieces to art on new transit shelters.

PAC members said the specific funding mechanism isn’t as important as simply securing a consistent and ample supply of money.

Other possible solutions include setting a fixed line item amount in the city budget, though CRC members on Monday agreed more discussion is needed.

Islander Robert Dashiell said a fixed budget amount makes more sense than the current proposal.

“I think the public strongly supports public art,” he said. “That’s not the debate. (But) I’d just lock it into the budget and totally divorce it from Public Works.”

Doing so, he said, would eliminate the laborious process of tabulating the amount owed to the fund by each capital project.

Though most capital projects must contribute money to the cause, not every project is the recipient of public art. Road projects, for example, require less aesthetic consideration than buildings frequented by the public.

Proposals for new art projects go through a selection process that includes review by an independent panel of artists; projects over $10,000 require the approval of the council.

The PAC’s request comes at a time when the rest of the city is dealing with budget cuts. Prior to the public art discussion, CRC members learned from Police Chief Matt Haney that – aside from Emergency Preparedness Specialist Ed Call – the city has no money to spend on emergency preparedness in 2008.

Councilman and CRC member Barry Peters said he favors greater public art funding, but not at the expense of public safety.

Still, public art supporters say that relative to other causes, their request is small and would yield big returns, not just culturally but financially.

Some pointed to a study initiated by the BIAHC and released earlier this year that said the arts bring $9 million into the Bainbridge economy each year.

“It’s so easy to say art is an extra,” said former PAC Chair Ginny Brewer. “But it’s so much a part of our lives – it speaks to who we are, especially on Bainbridge Island.”

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• This is the first of several storiess about funding island arts. On Saturday: The history of public art, from the current landscape to the coming Streetscape.

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