By Isaac Bonnell
At a Port of Bellingham meeting last month, commissioners and staff received several strongly worded letters from the public. They weren’t about the waterfront or the airport, but rather about art.
Since April, the Port has been working with Bellingham-resident George Drake to bring an outdoor sculpture exhibit to Zuanich Point Park. The exhibit would feature 19 pieces by Mexican artist Sebastian, who has sculptures around the world and donated a piece in 2000 to Big Rock Garden Park.
When the plan was announced, it received mixed feelings from the public. The main concern expressed at the Port meeting was that the exhibit — with its 8-foot to 24-foot-tall metal sculptures — wouldn’t fit with the maritime theme of the park and would distract from the two sculptures that are already there.
But to Drake, this exhibit is not about blending in with the local pieces of art. It’s about putting Bellingham on the map as a major destination for outdoor art.
“Our goal is to promote northwestern Washington as a destination for cultural tourism,” Drake said. “If you take a step back and look at the region, we have one of the ten best outdoor sculpture collections in the nation up at Western.”
Drake then lists local parks and other private collections in the surrounding area that are must-see attractions in the art world.
“This four-county region is very rich in outdoor sculpture and we’re promoting it as a cultural tourism center,” he said.
Drake is now looking at other places in Bellingham to host the 10-month exhibit. But the brouhaha that arose at the Port meeting raises questions about the role of public art in general.
Should it highlight the local arts scene? Is it really that much of a tourist attraction? Is Bellingham the place the showcase an internationally acclaimed artist?
“Why can’t it be in Bellingham? It doesn’t have to be in a big city,” Drake said.
Kelly Hart, executive director of Allied Arts, agrees. Allied Arts is partnering with Drake and recently received a $25,000 grant from the Washington State Tourism Board to bring the Sebastian exhibit to Bellingham.
This is the first time that Allied Arts has worked on a project like this, Hart said. Most of the exhibits that the nonprofit organizes, such as the annual Holiday Festival of the Arts, are for local or regional artists. Hart estimates that the holiday show attracts about 34,000 people each year.
“We figure that about 30 percent of them are from out of town,” she added.
Art exhibits are part of a growing trend in cultural tourism. This is the idea that people travel to experience the culture of a particular area, be it the nightlife, restaurants or museums.
“Tourists tend to spend more on cultural exhibits like museums,” Hart said. “They typically spend more on cultural attractions than local people in the community.”
The hope is that bringing in an internationally acclaimed artist will also bring attention to Belingham’s other cultural attractions, such as the outdoor sculpture collection at Western Washington University.
Sarah Clark-Langager, director of the Western Gallery, oversees the 28 pieces in the contemporary collection and sometimes leads tours of the collection. Tour groups vary from students to business people here for a conference to people who simply saw the sign on the freeway and were curious, she said.
“Most people are extremely surprised that it’s not just a garden — it’s spread all over campus,” she said.
Clark-Langager is getting ready to add another piece to the collection. The gallery jury is set to meet this month to select an artist for a piece to accompany the new Academic Instructional Center.
“At this time we are planning to put work inside buildings becasue there is so much outdoor work on campus,” she said.
The role of art
Art isn’t for tourists only, though. Shirley Erickson, a local sculptor who has served on the Bellingham Arts Commission for 10 years, believes art brings a community together.
“I believe that art is a form of communication and it should evoke some form of response, even if its shock and awe. It gets people talking,” Erickson said. ” I think art creates community. These pieces become community landmarks.”
Erickson points to the new wind-powered sculpture, called The Axiom, at the downtown bus station as an example of how art can enhance a public space.
“If half the population walks by and doesn’t notice it, that’s Okay,” she said. “If it can cause one person to pause and think, that’s good.”
Whether or not people look for a deeper meaning in art, or even think a piece qualifies as “art,” it usually gets people talking, Erickson said. And that is enough for her.
“Controversy is also a part of art — it gets people talking,” Erickson said.
So far, the Sebastian exhibit has already caused some controversy and it’s not even up yet.
“There’s room in the world for all kinds of taste,” Drake said.
He added, though, that this exhibit is not just for local art lovers: “We’re really aiming at the national and international audience.”
Learn more about the Sebastian exhibit
The final details of the exhibit still have to be hammered out, but Drake said it will have about 19 pieces. Twelve of the pieces will be works from the Zodiac series, which are each between 8 feet and 12 feet tall. Another piece, called Las Palomas (meaning The Doves) stands at 24 feet tall.
To learn more, visit sebastianbellingham.org.