Langley Arts commission considers rotating public art

Frank Rose holds a band in place while stone fabricator Justin Haffner tries to clamp it atop a piece in progress by Lloyd Whannell. Behind them is Hank Nelson, who is a member of the Langley Arts Commission with Rose, the chairman.  - Ben Watanabe/ The Record
Frank Rose holds a band in place while stone fabricator Justin Haffner tries to clamp it atop a piece in progress by Lloyd Whannell. Behind them is Hank Nelson, who is a member of the Langley Arts Commission with Rose, the chairman.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe/ The Record

Instead of shelling out $20,000 on a pair of sculptures the city would own, the newly-formed Langley Arts Commission has a better idea.

Rotating sculptures at different sites on Second Street, starting with two different pieces in the plaza for one year from this November to next October.

“They felt as a first approach that we should approach it as an outdoor gallery,” said Langley Director of Community Planning Jeff Arango, the city employee assigned to the arts commission.

Later, he added: “It gives us more flexibility but also gives more exposure to different artists.”

Last month, the seven-member arts commission met for the first time. Frank Rose, a sculptor and chairman of the Whidbey Island Arts Council, was promptly voted in as the board’s chairman, then came the long discussions about what a publicly-financed arts program could and should look like in Langley.

Those talks continue this month when the arts commission meets for the second time. On the draft agenda is a vote on a request for proposals, which some members titled a “call to artists,” for existing sculptures which will fit on the already made and installed pedestals. The sculptures will stand for at least one year, and the artists will get a $600 stipend. At any time, the city has the option to buy. During the year, however, the city has the option to sell the art and take a 20 percent commission.

“It’s a different approach to developing a public art program,” Arango said of Langley’s developing arts commission.

Langley has a long and strong arts identity. Marc Esterly, executive director of the Langley Chamber of Commerce, said at least 10 galleries are within city limits, and many more artists reside in Langley and the surrounding area. He envisions the publicly-financed art, and any more to come from capital projects, to be a boon for the city as a whole.

“Overall, I clearly think if there’s one overriding reference to Langley, it would be arts and culture,” he said. “Anyone on the street would make that reference.”

“I think Langley still has room to grow,” he added.

Expanding city art

Arango said a while back the mayor of another town, after visiting Langley, asked him to send him the city’s ordinances and regulations about public art. At the time, the city did not have any, but Arango said that mayor had observed all the pieces put on display by businesses and galleries and assumed it was all city-sponsored.

“Now it’s time for the city to step up and participate,” Arango said.

Formalizing that character into a citizen board was the next step. Now that commission has the task of finding a way to spend $20,000 — 1 percent of the Second Street redesign project’s total budget — on public art along Second Street. But expending all of that money at once was not the will of the commission, which wanted to use the space as an outdoor gallery rather than a permanent installation.

“We don’t want to spend 20 grand on a chunk of rock that the city’s going to own forever,” said Callahan McVay, an arts commission member and owner/operator of Callahan’s Firehouse in Langley, which has a front-row view of the plaza.

Sculptures were selected as the medium before the arts commission was formed. Two foundations are already in place on opposite corners of the plaza, which acts as a glorified crosswalk and pedestrian hub with tables and benches. On those pedestals will stand sculptures up to 12 feet high, with other specifications about needing to be maintenance-free, weather-durable and safe.

Arts commission members envisioned dotting Second Street between Anthes and Cascade avenues with up to eight sculptures. Rose said the commission has identified 11 places around the city where more sculptures could one day be installed.

Public patrons

On Monday, McVay reflected on ways the group could have incorporated art into the Second Street project had it been formed earlier. He pointed to the concrete bench walls that serve as a garden wall and bench and said fish or whales could have been patterned into them.

Like the street’s redesign, the city’s commitment to budgeting 1 percent from capital projects for public art is an attempt to create a place people want to live, visit and explore.

Esterly said Langley has two main draws for visitors: the location as the Village by the Sea and its art offerings. Now the city is joining the effort to promote what already exists in its commercial core.

“Art is everywhere,” Rose said. “We’re covered with galleries, we’re covered with performances. An arts commission is really needed to tie this city to all these things going on. One of the major reasons is economics.”

Future projects will incorporate art elements in their design from the start, Arango said. With Second Street wrapped up earlier in July, Langley’s next likely capital projects are the elevator-and-bridge to connect Cascade Avenue to the marina, a connection for Third Street to Cascade, and improving Cascade Avenue. The former may be on hold for a while as the city’s potential partner, Paul Schell, died on July 27. Improvements to Cascade Avenue may be coming soon, depending on federal funding options, and one of the coveted artistic elements is a promenade, a walkway overlooking Saratoga Passage that could have public art along the sidewalk.

Drawing from his past, Arango said the city will look to add artistic features and elements to public projects. He cited his time as a planning intern in Seattle when a stormwater holding tank was installed in the Washington Park Arboretum. Rather than adding a massive metal structure to the park and hiding it with brush, the city came up with a design that had a decorative facade, a staircase around it and a viewing platform on top.

“They took what was otherwise a mundane project and created it into an asset for the park,” Arango said.

Other examples

Differing opinions on which pieces should be selected is a potential problem. Three years ago in Oak Harbor, three members of the Oak Harbor Arts Commission resigned after the city council approved only two of the five pieces recommended by the commission, which spent seven months selecting the finalists.

Art, being subjective, means that Langley’s two levels of government may not agree on which pieces go up.

Rose said he plans to avoid similar problems by keeping the council informed of its decisions in a more timely manner than once a month — the scheduled public meeting frequency of the Langley Arts Commission.

“We could fall prey to the same problem, but we won’t,” Rose said.

Ahead of the arts commission at its next meeting, scheduled for 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. at City Hall, is a timeline for developing the group’s bylaws and a five-year plan and discussion of the sculpture competition.


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