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Spotlight on City of Seattle’s 1% for the Arts 50th Anniversary

June marks the 50th anniversary for the City of Seattle’s 1% for the Arts program. In recognition of the 50th anniversary, Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture is holding a reception on June 1 from 5 to 8 p.m. at ARTS at King Street Station. We hope you can attend, and please RSVP here.

The exhibit The First 50 Years: Highlights from the Civic Collection, 1973 – 2023 showcases the City of Seattle’s 1%-for-Arts program by displaying the breadth and depth of the civic collection. The exhibit is on view from May 4 through September 7, 2023.

With the celebration marking 50 years of public art, let’s look at a brief history of the program and what we can expect the next 10 years of art to focus on.

Art sculpture Day/Night located in Pioneer Square next to the bust sculpture of Chief Seattle shows the Lushootseed language.
Art sculpture Day/Night in Pioneer Square shows the Lushootseed language next to a bust of Chief Seattle.

50 Years of Art

On June 30, 1973, Mayor Wes Uhlman signed an ordinance that established all City departments should include “an amount for works of art equal to at least one percent (1%) of the total cost of any such construction project.” Seattle joined only a handful of cities at the time – Baltimore, Philadelphia, San Francisco – in establishing such a directive.

Seattle City Light was the first City department to take part in the program. Since 1974 we have continued to allocate up to 1% of eligible capital construction funds for the inclusion of art and have contributed to help build the City’s collection of over 400 permanently sited artworks and over 4,000 portable artworks.

Seattle City Light and the Office of Arts & Culture have worked together over the years on projects and fund allocation. A collaborative City Light Energy in Arts committee (EIA) was formed to vet requests for 1%-for-Arts expenditures and to hire an artist-in-residence. The EIA includes representatives from throughout the utility, provides guidance on art proposals and works closely with the artist-in-residence in the development of the art plan.

Switchwall at night showing how the three faces of Denny substation’s façade are arrayed with thousands of light “switches” that are flipped by the wind.
Switchwall covers three faces of the Denny substation with an array of thousands of light “switches” that are flipped by the wind.

An Art Plan to Guide the Next Ten Years

Throughout the years, there have been multiple art plans. Our current artist-in-residence, Kate Clark, has been tasked with creating an art plan to help guide art projects over the next 10 years. This plan, managed and administered through the Office of Arts & Culture, will serve as a roadmap for making equitable investments in public art for future City Light projects. The goal is to make sure projects equitably serve the communities of Seattle.

Transforest sculpture with the sun shining behind it, towering over the Denny substation.
Transforest references the true scale of the great Douglas fir trees that once stood in the Cascade lowlands.

With the assistance of City Light’s Strategic Planning and Performance Manager, Leigh Barreca, who also chairs the EIA, Clark was able to connect with members across the utility and visit its service areas and power generation facilities. The utility has a lot of property, so learning how those sites overlap with Seattle’s racial and social equity index and other available resources has helped Clark with prioritization. She notes that there are plenty of opportunities for public art, and that “it’s important to identify places that are malnourished instead of just making shiny places more shiny.”

In focusing on those places that are malnourished, Clark has emphasized education on the utility’s behalf and equity drivers as big parts of the forthcoming art plan. For example, she says, “If I have a project, how do I go about requesting this from the Energy in Arts Committee? It’s important that the line of communication is open and the process is demystified.”

So, what can we expect from the art plan once it’s released?

Clark’s goal is to emphasize equity in the arts by offering a new perspective in terms of where funding for art should be directed. This means considering places in the past that the utility has not invested in and providing opportunities for including marginalized groups to participate in meaningful projects.

Clark’s hope is that the plan can help the utility’s art projects “go beyond the light bulb.” In other words, developing and supporting art projects means developing and supporting the artists themselves. When artists aren’t pressured to just “put a lightbulb on it” (aka stick with the status quo), they feel empowered to share their knowledge and skills with the community, allowing them to do what they do best.

We’re looking forward to seeing the release of the art plan later this year. In the meantime, take a look at a collection of City Light’s permanently sited artwork, and we hope you visit The First 50 Years exhibit, on view from May 4 through September 7, 2023. And if you have any questions about City Light’s 1%-for-the-Arts program, please reach out to Leigh Barreca at