Story & Photos by Nicholas Johnson
Imagine a temporary installation of interactive pizza art … that lights up at night … with lasers.
Topped with a healthy dose of laughter, that half-baked idea for public art in Burien came from the city’s planning commission, clearly in jest, at the conclusion of a big-picture, round-table discussion of the future of public art throughout the city.
During Wednesday evening’s meeting, arts commissioner Tess Rossi-Busichio solicited suggestions from planning commissioners as part of a broader effort to collect ideas from the community to inform the city’s development of a long-range, 5-to-10-year Public Art Plan.
In an effort to engage residents and gather ideas, the city has created an interactive map featuring 54 pieces of public art – from murals and decorated signal boxes to sculptures and architectural works. The city has also launched a community survey in order to get a sense of residents’ public art priorities and preferences.
“I think by understanding the art we have in Burien, we can better see what we need, or what’s missing,” said Rossi-Busichio, encouraging the planning commissioners to share the new map and survey far and wide as the city continues its outreach campaign through November.
Of the 54 pieces featured on the map, a majority are located between 146th and 154th streets while 12 can be found on the city’s north end and none exist in the largely residential areas of Gregory Heights and Three Tree Point. The map features 20 decorated signal boxes, 15 sculptures and eight murals, among other forms of public art.
First, Rossi-Busichio asked the planning commissioners where public art should be located in the city, such as in parks, on buildings, along streets or in specific neighborhoods.
“My response to where should we have public art in Burien is yes, all of the above,” commissioner Amanda Kay said.
Other commissioners agreed, with many embracing the idea of using public art to enhance neighborhood identity throughout the city.
“I love the idea of doing neighborhood-based artwork rather than having it all jammed into the city center,” said commissioner Joe Hauser. “I love our city center but right now our commission’s focus is on neighborhoods and Boulevard Park and the Ambaum corridor, and I think it would really be a cool piece of our neighborhood development plans to encourage some thematic art in the neighborhoods.”
Rossi-Busichio said the arts commission has been thinking about this question for a couple of years already and is excited to hear what residents think.
“Do we sort of create a central creative district that has the majority of public art installations,” Rossi-Busichio said, “or do we branch out into the neighborhoods and really look at what does art need to look like in a particular neighborhood at that level?”
Commissioner Hugo Garcia echoed Houser in saying that public art should be incorporated into “areas that have been underdeveloped to bring in eyes and potential investment, like in Boulevard Park.”
Commission Vice Chair Ryan Davis suggested placing some kind of public art in otherwise-empty green spaces near freeway on- and off-ramps. Kay agreed, saying “I like the idea of utilizing the spaces we have that are unattractive or ugly, to improve them.”
Next, Rossi-Busichio asked the commissioners whether the city should consider adopting a common theme for public art, such as history, culture, industry or nature. While each commissioner had their preferences, most agreed any theme for public art should be specific to and informed by the neighborhood that would host the art.
“I think we have to look at each individual project as unique and tailored to the space it would be fitting into,” Kay said. “I’m a huge proponent of asking the community what they would like to see in their neighborhood, what resonates with them.”
When Rossi-Busichio asked the planning commissioners what scale and form future public art should take, Kay said those details should also be informed by location. Davis suggested art that lights up, maybe with lasers, especially to lift everyone’s spirits during the dark winter months.
“I like art pieces that pop up, that glow in the night, that really have some interest and draw people into conversation about the art, that get people to utilize our city centers and commute here to see something,” Davis said.
Commissioner Rose Symotiuk said she, too, would like to see art that makes Burien “a destination where people come from beyond King County,” such as installations that entice people to pose with the art for Instagram photos or feature the art in TikTok videos.
“Burien has almost no presence on TikTok, which is not just for the kids – everybody’s on it,” Symotiuk said. “How could we improve art where people can dance in front of it or move it?”
When visiting other cities, Davis said he and his wife always keep an eye out for public art, particularly murals, which he said seem to have had a resurgence in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“During COVID, I saw some beautiful murals painted on the plywood that boarded up a lot of the businesses throughout the city,” Davis said, “and I’ve often wondered what happened to those.”
Davis also suggested a mural challenge pitting various neighborhoods against each other as a way to bring neighbors together, leverage the talents and ideas of local residents, and foster each neighborhood’s creative identity.
Commission Chair August Hahn said the city should not shy away from controversial art, citing murals he saw when visiting the city of Derry in Northern Ireland that depict “the troubles,” a violent 30-year civil war of sorts over control of Northern Ireland.
“I would say we should have community input,” Hahn said, “but we should also make sure that we don’t just constrain ourselves to what everyone wants to see as art but maybe push it a little bit.
“Art is meant to be controversial at times,” Hahn said. “It is meant to sometimes push the bounds of what’s permissible as a way of exploring new topics.”
Kay pointed out that available funding is also an important consideration. Rossi-Busichio agreed, acknowledging that the city budgets roughly $20,000 per year, based on a per-capita assessment, for the Burien Art in Public Places Fund.
“I think we’d all love to paint the town or put big monumental sculpture installations wherever we can,” Rossi-Busichio said, “but sometimes what’s possible is more temporary installations.
If not all those annual funds are used, they can be carried over into future years, Rossi-Busichio said.
“And there are other [funding] mechanisms, such as when other development projects are going on, they can include art,” she said. “But as far as our budget, it’s pretty small.”
After receiving 12 applications totaling $35,000 for the 2021 funding cycle, the arts commission whittled those proposals down to 10 in order to meet its $20,000 budget, and the majority of those projects focus on arts programming through nonprofits such as the Burien Actors Theatre, the Highline Heritage Museum, The Hi-Liners Inc., Momentum Dance Ensemble, Northwest Associated Arts and Northwest Symphony Orchestra, among others.
“Doing one monumental sculpture installation is a six-figure endeavor,” Rossi-Busichio said, “so funding is obviously something we’re going to have to look at and figure out.”
Nevertheless, the city is looking to the future, making a plan and asking residents to weigh in. Rossi-Busichio said she also plans to collect thoughts from members of the city’s Business & Economic Development Partnership in September.
Once the outreach phase is complete in November, Rossi-Busichio said, city staff will parse the community’s thoughts and ideas and present that information to the arts commission, which will work to develop a Public Art Plan.
- Burien Public Art Map: https://magazine.burienwa.gov/burien-public-art/
- Burien Public Art Survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/BurienPublicArt
- Burien Arts Commission: https://www.burienwa.gov/city_hall/boards_and_commissions/arts_commission