Decision erases Oak Harbor Arts Commission members
By JUSTIN BURNETT
Whidbey News Times Staff reporter
July 8, 2011 · Updated 2:13 PM
In the wake of the downtown art decision, three members of the Oak Harbor Arts Commission have resigned.
Chairwoman Erica Schumacher, Fern Miller and Sharon Hall have all stepped down since the city council voted in June to fund just two of the five pieces the volunteer advisory group selected for SE Pioneer Way.
Although Miller and Hall could not be reached for comment, Schumacher confirmed her resignation was one of protest. She said she felt the decision and the actions of city staff made it clear that her efforts on the arts commission were in vain.
“They sent us on a wild-goose chase for seven months,” Schumacher said.
In November, the council gave the go-ahead to begin seeking submissions from artists interested in creating public art for SE Pioneer Way. The plan was to spend $80,000 on four art pieces so the one-way road project would qualify for Green Roads, a University of Washington sustainability pilot project.
More than 40 proposals from at least 15 artists responded to the call and the arts commission spent the next seven months sifting through them all to come up with a handful of finalists. After conducting a series of public workshops and meetings, along with conducting a survey, the board eventually settled on five pieces that totaled $125,500.
Their proposal was to spend the $80,000 allotted, which was a line item in the $8.35 million road project, and cover the rest with money from their own coffers. But that plan was upset when city officials announced the planned funding source, the Real Estate Excise Tax, couldn’t legally be spent on art.
Criticism over their selections, along with the proposal being over budget, resulted in the city council selecting only two of the arts commission’s five choices. The council decision also considered a third piece, though it was subject to final approval and available funding.
Schumacher said the arts commission worked to fulfill the city council’s agenda for more than half a year, suffering both public scrutiny and criticism. That they and city staff so easily “disregarded” their efforts was disheartening.
“I just felt like my efforts could be put towards something more positive,” she said.
Mayor Jim Slowik, who has from the start been a big proponent of the art project, complimented Schumacher and the rest of the arts commission for their hard work. However, he said he wasn’t necessarily disappointed with the outcome nor was he willing to fault the council for their decision.
“They run the city, they make the decisions, and they hold the purse strings,” Slowik said.
There were strong concerns about the budget and some difficult decisions had to be made. And there will likely be more tough decisions ahead due to the recent discovery of Native American remains on SE Pioneer Way.
Slowik said the revelation will fundamentally change the way Oak Harbor views its history. There has been some talk that any future art downtown should reflect that newfound heritage, though nothing yet has been proposed.
However, Slowik has appointed amateur historian Peggy Darst Townsdin to one of the newly vacated seats on the arts commission. He said his hope is to “add historical perspective” to the board.
Darst Townsdin said she doesn’t know anything about the controversy that proceeded her, and isn’t concerned with it. However, she said she is eager to begin working on art that might honor and memorialize Oak Harbor’s Native American history.
Contact Whidbey News Times Staff reporter Justin Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-675-6611 ext. 5054.