Art Workers: Interview with Tommy Gregory Part III

This interview is the first in a series about labor and art, a kind of “how the sausage gets made” of the visual world. We’re starting close to home (in fact inside my home) with my partner Tommy Gregory, who is the Sr. Project Manager for the Port of Seattle’s Public Art Program; at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and has ten years of experience in the field between San Antonio, Houston, and Seattle. The final part of our interview is looking to the future of public art for the Port, and a celebration of the Port’s return to 1% for the arts. **if there’s an art profession you’d like to see interviewed here, please suggest in the comments. I would like to make this a regular feature of the blog.

CATHEDRAL by Metz&Chew in North Satellite at Sea-Tac. Photographed 17 April 2018.

C: Imagine that you had total freedom to remake the public art program into your ideal vision. What would that look like? What things would you keep, and what aspects would you jettison and why?

T: First, if we are talking about a utopian set up for a 21st century public art program, I would need to hire a 3 to 5 person staff to manage a port-wide public art strategy with a budget that not only includes maintenance and conservation, but also temporary and performance art. Because of the way the funding is, that is not a realistic expectation.  Some of the most admired collections give a curator or director almost complete autonomy. 

The ideal policy for the public art program here at Sea-Tac would simply allow the public art manager the ability to use the funds generated through the % for art for three things:

  1.  Conservation/art handling of the current collection
  2.  Acquisitions/commissions
  3.  Temporary art

To have the autonomy to propose artists would give the program the ability to do what made the airport famous for public art to begin with; i.e. the early purchases of work by Frank Stella, Louise Nevelson, Robert Rauschenberg etc, staying within existing guidelines with a committee for review comprised of 7 specialists from:

  1.  The aviation Department- a manager and an architect
  2.  Three regional art professionals- former public artist, curator and a conservation specialist
  3.  Two elected commissioners

C: Why is performance and temporary art such an important part of your plan? 

From a maintenance and conservation standpoint, temporary art relieves the owner of some of those responsibilities.  By implementing exhibitions and installations with established timelines, you do not have to worry about ongoing costs of maintenance and conservation. Not only does it relieve the staff of additional work, and the budget of additional funding, but it also keeps the concourse or terminal looking fresh with a frequency with new exhibitions. Performance work is another way to keep airports fresh, and also gives the audience a wider range of cultural art forms. Ideally, I would add video works to future acquisitions as well. 

C: Do you think this kind of “curator-focused” public art plan would work for public art plans outside of an airport, or is there an argument for more committee-based curation in those programs? 

T: From my experience Committee based selections are set up to relieve people or institutions of certain accountability, you can’t point the finger at one specific person, I mean. I don’t think every program needs to operate that way, and also as a single curator, I don’t believe criticism is a bad thing. If individuals do find certain exhibits or artworks questionable, allow them to pose the question. Hopefully the art makes them think about things outside of their comfort zone. Public art does not always need to be simply beautiful or formal; it can challenge the viewer, and a single curator should not be afraid to defend a program decision.

That all being said, I like working with committees, especially when the bulk of the members are qualified art specialists.

C: Speaking of criticism…there’s a lot of (well-deserved) criticism of public art programs for not including marginalized communities and communities of color. Do you have a plan in place at the airport for addressing these critiques, diversifying the collection to reflect the population of viewers at the airport?  

T: From my experience, having a manager or director of a diverse cultural background helps make the participating art community more comfortable in applying. It is a perception that some artists may have that the art institutions that have selected predominantly older Anglo artists, have been run by mostly white employees.  I am a mixed race individual who is extremely focused on being connected to whatever art community I am in. The work I did within the Houston airport system can confirm my dedication in diversifying a collection. 

Not every artist is experienced in the rigorous public art application process, or in some cases not even aware of opportunities. Again, I have made it my goal to interact with a wide range of artists and based on their skill levels or strength of their work, I make solid efforts and encouraging their involvement in our open calls.

C: One last thing, now that the commissioners of the Seattle port have agreed to raise the percentage of arts’ funding from .5% to 1% (YAYYYYYY!!!!!!!), what’s the first thing on your to-do list?

T: That is a great question, the return to 1% brings the port of Seattle Art program back up to national standards and should generate a great buzz within our local and regional art communities. My hope is to get some great artists working, and hopefully make a few waves to get some national attention. I am looking to ramp up for some big open calls.  The return to 1% doesn’t only help our efforts in acquiring and commissioning great 21st-century art works, we also have a great expansion by going “port wide”. The Maritime opens up some amazing opportunities and helps the port’s art collection expand beyond Sea-Tac international airports property. The waterfront has me particularly excited as I’ve been doing public art in airports for sometime, I have never taken on projects with such a beautiful and serene setting like that of Puget Sound.  Truly exciting times!

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