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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Public art for prisons may end

Richard Roesler Staff writer

OLYMPIA – If you’re a state taxpayer, you’re a patron of the arts. But be careful about going to see some of what you paid for.

Taxpayers are picking up the tab, for example, for a $109,000 landscaped planter and nearly $63,000 in murals at the McNeil Island special commitment center for sex predators.

The state commissioned $155,000 in artwork to decorate the state prison at Airway Heights, including “Relentless Curve,” which consists of $30,000 worth of nylon banners hanging over the inmates’ living units. Another $31,000 bought life-sized bronze statues of animals and birds for the prison’s main courtyard.

In Connell at the Coyote Ridge Correction Center, Washingtonians paid for a $41,500 landscape work titled “A Desert Garden for Coyote.”

Now, as the state struggles to scrape up more money to build schools, community centers, college classrooms and a crime lab, some members of the Legislature are questioning the wisdom of spending money on art that most people will never see.

“I’m a big fan of public art and I think it ought to be maintained,” said Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett. “But how public is it if it’s inside a place that most people can’t go to unless they’re a guard or convicted of an offense?”

Complaints from a citizen prompted Sells to sponsor House Bill 2014, which would exempt correctional facilities from the requirement that public buildings spend half a percent of construction costs on public art. The only exemptions now are for temporary buildings, warehouses and highway construction sheds.

When taxpayers hear that they’re spending tens of thousands of dollars on art for sex predators at McNeil Island, Sells said, “I think they begin to say we’re not spending it wisely … and there’s a tendency sometimes to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

His bill is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday morning in Olympia.

When state lawmakers approved the half-a-percent-for-art law in 1974, Washington was one of only two states doing so. Even today – when many other states have similar laws – Washington is one of only four that applies the requirement to public schools. There are now more than 4,700 works of art in public places throughout the state.

For some lawmakers, it’s not just a question of spending wisely.

“I just think it’s highly inappropriate to be spending $160,000 to give art to people that rape men, women and children,” said Sen. Mike Carrell, prime sponsor of Senate Bill 5795, an attempt to cut off the artwork money for the McNeil Island sex offender center. “It just sends absolutely the wrong message.”

A dozen other senators have signed on to Carrell’s bill, including local Sens. Bob McCaslin, R-Spokane Valley; Brad Benson, R-Spokane; and Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville. No hearing has been set.

Under Washington law, prisons don’t have to put their public art on prison grounds. When the state built the $194 million Stafford Creek Correction Center several years ago, about $900,000 was earmarked for art. But half of that went to build art in the nearby communities of Aberdeen and Hoquiam. Hoquiam’s projects, for example, consisted of a lighthouse-like structure built of iridescent glass and a ship sculpture.

“I understand taxpayers. I’m a taxpayer, too,” said Stafford Creek superintendent Doug Waddington. “They’re probably resistant to spending public moneys on this type of art. But while correction centers have benefited from art, the majority of the art we did here went to the community.”

Of the remaining money, about $209,000 was spent on two urethane-resin sculptures of scores of birds in flight. Those works, “Migration I” and “Migration II” were suspended from the ceilings of the prison’s lobby and visiting room.

“I just really wanted a piece where some kid could sit on Dad’s lap and they would have something to talk about,” said Waddington. “And it’s actually worked out that way.”

He’s also bought paint and paid inmates 30 to 42 cents an hour to paint seascapes and wildlife murals. They painted cartoon characters in the children’s play area in the visitor room.

“Art serves a definite purpose in this environment,” Waddington said. “It softens the environment. Prisons are a hard place, and for good reason … But it’s not the families and the kids that are doing the time.”

At the Special Commitment Center, a $60 million Department of Social and Health Services compound that houses 213 sex offenders, superintendent Henry Richards said there were some community complaints about the planter, which was rumored to be a million-dollar fountain.

“It’s still a hundred thousand dollars, which is a lot of money,” he said. “But it’s not a fountain.”

He described it as a landscaped rendition of McNeil Island. It’s the centerpiece of the courtyard outside the complex’s administration building, he said. It’s built, but the plants aren’t in yet.

Like Waddington, Richards said that art is useful for people in state institutions.

“We have residents, program participants that we want to have a more elevated view of life,” he said. “That doesn’t mean a fancy hotel, but art that points beyond their own selfish concerns, I think, is useful.”

Carrell is profoundly skeptical that the sex offenders will adopt a more elevated view of life.

“Pardon me, I’m sorry – I’ve been out there many times. I’ve talked to some of these individuals,” he said. “Butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths.”

When told that his bill to halt the artwork might be too late – that the landscaped planter has already been built – Carrell was unfazed.

“If there is a planter out there,” he said, “let the weeds grow.”

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