Yakima putting art in vacant downtown windows

YAKIMA — The idea behind Andy Behrle’s water-and-light sculpture “a drop, a wave,” is that a single drop of water can create a ripple effect.

It’s a fitting metaphor for the Yakima Arts Commission’s new downtown art project “Windows Alive,” which places pieces such as Behrle’s in windows of vacant downtown buildings. The show’s organizers and participating artists are hoping to be that drop and hoping that over the next several years they cause a wave of cultural and economic revitalization downtown.

“That’s the idea,” Behrle said. “To get people into downtown again and get businesses to come back.”

The $2,000 project, half of which is funded by the city, is based on two ideas: that art looks better than empty storefronts and that cultural activity downtown can spur economic interest. The other half of the funding comes from private donors, including the Yakima Visitors and Convention Bureau, local businesses and individuals. It officially opens with a reception at 4 p.m. Saturday, after which passers-by can see art in windows that used to house things like the Yakima Bears office and former Yakima Mall stores such as Eddie Bauer and The Gap.

“It shows that things are happening,” said Yakima Economic Development Director Sean Hawkins. “It shows that we care and are putting some things into our downtown.”

The idea for “Windows Alive,” which features work by seven local artists, came from Arts Commission member Cheryl Hahn, who saw a similar project in Great Falls, Mont. Commission members were looking for projects that could complement the city’s overall downtown revitalization project.

“When people come downtown and see we’re not ignoring the empty spaces, that we care about enriching their lives, they’ll be impressed,” Hahn said. “People can appreciate that our downtown is struggling, as are hundreds of downtowns in this country. But the fact we’re doing something about these empty spaces — we’re seizing the opportunity to turn this negative into a positive.”

There is a definite psychological benefit to having art displayed in a place that would otherwise be a reminder of economic failure, such as an empty storefront, said Eloise Damrosch, executive director of the Portland-based Regional Arts &Culture Council. A consultant on public art projects nationwide, she could not speak to the potential economic benefits. But she did say that a similar project she worked on in Portland definitely brightened the neighborhood.

“A lot of cities have actually tried this, including Portland,” Damrosch said. “Even if you know you’re not going to fill the building anytime soon, it’s certainly better for morale … and hope for the future to have something nice to look at instead of an empty floor.”

The key, she said, is to sustain the effort over time. That’s something the Arts Commission hopes to do. The seven displays opening the project will be taken down in January and replaced with seven more starting in February, Hahn said. By then, Hawkins said, it might be self-sustaining. The project’s budget includes $250 stipends for participating artists as well as promotional materials.

“The hope is for the next go-round that we should be able to raise the next couple of thousand pretty easily,” he said.

Hahn said the Arts Commission plans to keep the project going for years to come, switching out art every few months. Ultimately, of course, the hope is that they’ll lose some of their display spaces — because the buildings will no longer be vacant. “Windows Alive” won’t accomplish that on its own, but it may help, Behrle said.

“One single drop into a container of water can set off a wave,” he said.

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