Federal Way is a visual arts desert

If this city wants to improve its image, don’t check the “we got it partially done box, complete the project properly and in a way that people see and feel the pride.

Keith Livingston

Keith Livingston

The language of life is expressed best through the arts. Think about how you navigate your day and what you see. Your senses – sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch – all define how you consume information. But with sight the universe expands exponentially.

Art and design are part of our landscape. Creativity supported by education and access to opportunity expands possibilities. As residents of Federal Way or employees working here, what is your take on this city’s visual arts opportunities, programming, galleries and public art? How would you define this city’s visual style?

We all make judgments and over time become visually complacent and accepting of our man-made and often mediocre visual surroundings. Uninteresting architecture, poorly maintained landscaping, absence of public art or public art plopped somewhere with no context screams, “boring.”

Federal Way is a city with no visual “wow” factor. Fortunately the natural beauty that defines most of this region is a worthy counterpoint. The former Weyerhaeuser corporate headquarters building and their campus with the still active Rhododendron and Bonsai Gardens are exceptions. But the fate of the campus under new ownership is aesthetically uncertain.

The city has two visual art galleries managed by the Arts Commission. One is at City Hall and the other is at the Dumas Bay Center. Neither gallery is capable of making a statement, enhancing an artist’s reach or building community. They are good at serving a base of local pastime artists. If you are looking for a local art center for classes or a more active gallery experience, one does not exist.

Several years ago, the city and the Arts Commission initiated a program of placing vinyl-wrap art images on utility boxes in public rights-of-way to reduce graffiti. The city now has a lot of colorful utility boxes that provide a sense of fun. But, at the same time the city failed to connect this program to local artists in a way that could have built community interest and ownership. They chose the easy path of buying clip art from a catalogue.

Choosing expediency over working with local artists was a missed opportunity. The Arts Commission could have worked with the Federal Way Historical Society to tell this city’s story with well-chosen photographs. Combining images from local artists and historic photographs would have been a strong community-focused statement.

Public art used well builds civic identity. This city has a story to tell and could be telling it with art, enhanced landscaping and increasing its outreach to artists with the intent of establishing a regional cultural presence. A positive visual style is good marketing.

The city missed its opportunity to have a regional visual arts gallery when it chose to not consider including one in the design and construction of the Performing Arts and Events Center. The facility fortunately has a unique sculpture designed around visually displaying the sound spectrums of birds common to the Hylebos watershed. This piece of sculpture was acquired using the city’s 2% of project cost for art requirement from the cost of new construction.

Sadly, the sculpture looks unfinished. The landscape plan required to match the columns’ intent of displaying a sound pattern lofting from native grasses has not been properly established to give the art piece its full dignity. Would you accept a bad paint job on a brand-new car?

When the art we have is treated with no respect it is an indicator that what the city builds, maintains and provides as services is being done on the cheap, staff may not have a clue how to make it work, or shortcuts were chosen. Unfinished projects or poor style choices get seen by all of us. If this city wants to improve its image, don’t check the “we got it partially done box,” complete the project properly and in a way that people see and feel the pride.

The mayor in his State of the City address talked about the construction of a downtown staircase in front of the PAEC as the next step for rejuvenating and establishing a new city center. On April 2 the city held its groundbreaking for the staircase project. What will its 2% for the arts project look like and when will it be unveiled?

That area of the city will be experiencing a multi-year transition. Adding a community art center to the mix would provide an essential cultural building block.

Light rail coming to this city will be a catalyst for change. As part of this change process the city’s major entry-ways should be designated as aesthetic transition-zones designed to evoke a sense of entering someplace special. If Federal Way is going to improve its image and grow into its potential, it needs to expand its visual “IQ” and take an honest look at how all the visual pieces and opportunities fit.

This city is currently a visual arts desert. To become a city with style, culture and vision requires a strong visual arts and urban design presence. For Federal Way to upscale its identity and make a lasting impression, it needs to embrace visual art opportunities, imagination and define a unique cityscape style. No shortcuts please!

Keith Livingston is a longtime Federal Way resident and community observer. He can be reached at keithlivingstondesign@gmail.com.

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