Seattle artists resist call to display work in new youth jail

A rendering of King County's proposed Children and Family Justice Center. (Courtesy of King County)

Staff at 4Culture and some local artists are feeling deeply conflicted about the organization's obligation to obtain public art for the Children and Family Justice Center being built in Seattle’s Central District. The $200 million new youth jail is set to open in September.  

As part of a 1973 King County ordinance, 1% of certain capital projects must go toward funding public art to enhance county facilities. That means 1% of the funds allocated to the construction of the new jail is under 4Culture’s control. The 1% amounts to nearly $2 million, with $1 million of that set aside for public art projects to be sited at the jail.

Last week, 4Culture sent emails to at least 100 artists asking for art it could purchase. The callout was for portable art that would be displayed in the publicly accessible areas around the facility, according to 4Culture. The county plans to spend $410,000 on art.

When photographer Rafael Soldi was contacted by 4Culture to submit art for the courtrooms at the new jail complex, he decided not to contribute.

“I just think about the kind of impact half a million dollars can do towards helping youth not end up in jail,” he said by phone.

Soldi has received support from 4Culture in the past. His most recent work, “Imagined Futures,” displayed at Oxbow in Georgetown in January, was partly funded by 4Culture. He said he’s conflicted about the most recent call to artists because he’s received support from the organization and can see it’s in a tough spot.

 “I know they have their hands tied,” he said. “I would love to see that money funneled toward artists by maybe hiring teaching artists that work with the children and … have it be more beneficial to the youth beyond just art for the walls going on lobbies and conference rooms and not where the youth are being held.”

Kate Sweeney is another local artist who has decided not to participate.

“My objections do not lie with [4Culture] but rather with the judicial system that persists in punishing children who have been traumatized already,” she said by email. “In good conscience, I cannot seek to profit from a project that further harms kids.”

4Culture points out that some money from the capital-project 1% fund did go toward Creative Justice, an art-based program designed as an alternative to youth incarceration, but funds for that were capped at $250,000.

4Culture previously made callouts for a $300,000 mural project at the new jail and $300,000 for art aimed at a facade on Alder Street.

4Culture reached out to an estimated 200 to 250 artists nationally for the three projects combined.

Christina DePaolo, a spokesperson for 4Culture, said this latest call was the one that elicited critical online responses. Some of those responses echo Soldi’s comments, while some artists have accepted the callout.

Artists have already been chosen for the facade and mural projects, but they have yet to be notified, DePaolo said.

In a statement released Thursday morning, 4Culture Executive Director Brian J. Carter said his own convictions and 4Culture’s own “organizational values put us firmly in opposition to the current system of youth incarceration, especially the overrepresentation of children of color within this system.”

The statement said rejecting the funds and objecting to working on the Children and Family Justice Center project would have “far-reaching consequences” and “legal ramifications.”

DePaolo could not provide answers to what legal ramifications 4Culture could face, but did say that if no artists responded to the callout for the youth jail that the agency would renegotiate with county partners on how those monies would need to be used and come up with a plan.

“The caveat is that artists are applying, and we will know what things will look like once the deadline passes,” DePaolo said.

The callout deadline is April 29.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Agueda Pacheco Flores

Agueda Pacheco Flores

Agueda Pacheco Flores is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where she focused on arts and culture.