Public Art Initiative Works to Reinvigorate a Community

Creatives know that art and design can change the world, simply by having a huge impact on the community. That said, getting city managers or other government officials on board can be a bit challenging at times. Lucky for South Lake Union, a neighborhood north of downtown Seattle, a public art initiative has been working to engage its residents since 2003. Today, there are more than 15 art pieces on display with two exhibitions planned for early this year.

This public art initiative is the brainchild of the real estate arm of Vulcan, investor and philanthropist Paul G. Allen’s company. Vulcan Real Estate owned 60 acres of land in SLU and wanted to help along the area’s real estate revitalization by incorporating art installations. These works are primarily from Pacific Northwest creatives, including some students. In order to better understand the project and its objective, HOW caught up with Greg Bell, senior curator for Vulcan.

How did the SLU public art initiative get started?

One of our goals in redeveloping South Lake Union is to create a thriving pedestrian environment with the introduction of dynamic spaces for people to enjoy and explore. The incorporation of public art into the public realm is one of the ways we are activating the street level experience and creating a sense of place. It also aligns well with Vulcan’s cultural mission; the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation has been a generous supporter of the Northwest arts community and Vulcan Real Estate’s policy to allocate ½ a percent of each development project’s construction cost to art is an extension of that commitment. There is no city or county law that requires developers of private projects to invest in public art but it is at the core of our ethos.

Vulcan’s vision for the South Lake Union art program aimed at working with local and regional artists to create pieces that would pay homage to the neighborhood’s history or connect to its industrial roots. In one case an artist created a piece from timbers that were salvaged from the building that formerly stood on the development site. Another artist used modern industrial materials to create tree-like forms that are reminiscent of the old growth forest that once defined the neighborhood in centuries past.

What’s happening with the project today?

Vulcan installed the first commissioned artwork in 2003 and today there are more than 15 public art pieces on display. We believe the inclusion of art has enhanced the transformation of South Lake Union and celebrates the deep talent of the local and regional artists who designed and created the pieces.

How will the public art initiative look in the future?

With more art installations planned for 2014, the vision and approach to public art that guided the first installation in 2003 remain central to our mission.

To showcase what the SLU art installations look like, Vulcan Real Estate provided two examples:

Akio Takamori Three Women public art installation

Akio Takamori’s Three Women public art installation

Artist: Akio Takamori
Piece title and year: Three Women, 2006
Materials: Fabricated and cast aluminum, urethane epoxy paint
Location: 2200 Westlake Ave. N.
Description: Drawing on memories from his childhood in Japan, Akio Takamori’s Three Women is a collection of cast-aluminum sculptures depicting a girl, a young woman and mother with her baby. The figures are all about the same size, suggesting that these three people are of equal prominence in Takamori’s mind’s eye. Though they have come together and stand facing one another, they aren’t interacting, preferring instead to avoid each other’s eyes and keeping a close watch on the space around them.
Commissioned by: Vulcan Real Estate.

Jenny Heishman Woodpile public art installation

Jenny Heisman’s Woodpile public art at Amazon building. Periscope by Deborah Aschheim.
© Benjamin Benschneider All rights Reserved.

Artist: Jenny Heishman
Piece title and year: Woodpile, 2012
Materials: Stainless steel, bronze, urethane paint
Location: Headquarters, 207 Boren Ave. N.
Description: Woodpile is a playful response to the steep slope of Boren Avenue between John Street and Thomas Street: a large pile-up of stainless steel cylinders comes to rest against a makeshift prop, exposing the potential energy of this piece of topography. Stacked like cordwood on one side of the entrance stairs, this exaggerated backyard form has been moved to a place of prominence at the front door, transposing an everyday object for the more formal, symbolic marker that might be more commonly placed at the entrance of a building. In 2013, this artwork was recognized as one of the best public art pieces in the nation in the annual review by the Americans for the Arts Public Art Network.
Commissioned by: Vulcan Real Estate.


SLU’s community-revitalizing initiative is a good example of how art and design projects can lead to great stories. In Graphic Content: True Stories from Top Creatives, big-name artists and designers share the stories you’d only hear at dinner parties or over a few cocktails. Check it out at My Design Shop.

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