Bill would sell off state’s art collection

So how broke is the state of Washington?

It’s so broke it could start selling off its art collection — including some masterpieces — and using the money to pay for low-income students to go to college.

That’s the gist of a new bill being introduced by Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent.

Her idea with Senate Bill 6597 is to auction off works from the state art collection every two years. The bill directs the Washington State Arts Commission to choose which of the more than 4,000 pieces in the collection to sell, with a goal of raising a minimum of $5 million each time.

Under the bill, 60 percent of the funds would go to State Need Grant program, and 40 percent would be directed back to the arts commission to conserve, repair and acquire art.

“I know the arts community might feel like it’s under attack by individuals but this is not an attack. This is an attempt to be creative,” Keiser said. “It’s what we call down here a win-win, all parties benefit.”

The bill is receiving some heat.

Kris Tucker, the commission’s executive director, called the bill a “very problematic approach” to generating money and voiced several concerns, including the upfront cost to the state to manage and initiate the auctions without any guarantee the sales would generate the kind of money Keiser is talking about.

“We are not in the business of selling artwork,” Tucker said.

The arts commission is responsible for protecting the state’s cultural legacy for everyone. Selling off public art work would put it into private hands — not only once, but every biennium, Tucker said.

Among the 4,000 pieces in the state’s collection is “Bloom,” a work of eco resin, LED lights and stainless steel hanging at Everett Community College.

“Arts are often seen mistakenly as a kind of a frill … but selling the collection would be at the expense of the public engagement for those pieces, now and into the future,” Tucker said.

Keiser said she was motivated to introduce the bill because the state’s roughly $1 billion budget gap is forcing cuts in higher education financial aid programs at a time when people wanting to go to college are being turned away because they cannot afford the cost.

More than 26,000 students who qualified for the State Need Grant were denied last year, Keiser said.

State Need Grants help the state’s lowest-income undergraduate students pursue degrees, refine skills,and retrain for new careers.

“The State Need Grant program is terribly underfunded,” Keiser said. “There were so many students who were turned away this year, who could not get a dime.”

Auctioning 250 pieces, at an estimated auction price of $20,000 each, would raise the $5 million. Keiser said there’s a piece in the state collection by famous artist Jacob Lawrence valued at more than $350,000, but there also are simple pastel pieces worth $500.

“It isn’t a state priority to maintain an art collection. We don’t have a museum,” Keiser said. “It is our job, however, to help make higher education attainable for middle-class families.”

Senate Bill 6597 has been referred to the Ways and Means Committee and has yet to receive a hearing.

Camano Island artist Jack Archibald, whose artwork graces many public buildings including Everett Station, agreed with Tucker that selling off the artwork would generate just “pennies on the dollar.”

“These pieces are worth much more in situ than in some sort of antique road show,” Archibald said.

Archibald estimated that half of the artwork in the state collection are made to be part of the building or structure.

The state art collection is made up of artwork acquired through Washington’s Art in Public Places program. The art is located at state agencies, public schools, colleges and universities and is bought through the state’s capital construction budget. Each time a new state building is built, one-half of 1 percent of the state’s portion of construction costs goes to purchase artwork for that building.

Archibald compared taking away public art from public buildings with the “Vatican selling off its statues and peeling off the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.”

Keiser pointed out that many pieces in the state art collection need repair, or are deteriorating in closets. Also, hundreds are in state offices, including regional State Patrol offices, where few members of the public can see them.

The senator’s bill also would help generate money to repair these pieces of art. She proposed the first public auction would take place by June 2013.

And she emphasized not every piece would be sold.

“All of our programs are under threat of extermination,” Keiser said. “Horrible cuts are quite possible and here is one area where we can do some good.”

Archibald said the state art collection is for the public and for places such as elementary schools, where the are can be inspirational for the kids.

Archibald recalled he was at a dedication last year for a series of glass pieces he created for the new Panther Lake Elementary School in Kent — Keiser’s hometown.

Archibald recalled telling the students that the state didn’t just build them a box but put a little more money into the building to secure a piece of culture for future generations.

“And now that building, it lifts up their imaginations,” Archibald said. “Most people kind of get it but evidently that lady from Kent sees these as pieces to be recycled.”

Theresa Goffredo: 425-339-3424;

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