Elevating public art in Airway Heights

Airway Heights 2015 Festival and Car Show

A giant Radio Flyer™ wagon in a Spokane park. A 540-pound metal Triceratops in Wenatchee. A series of fourteen-foot-tall fish trap sculptures made of bronze and basalt at the Port of Kennewick.

How does public art come to be? Who decides what gets installed or painted? And what happens when there are no guidelines for making these decisions?

The City of Airway Heights in Eastern Washington found itself in this position last year when a local tribe proposed the installation of a sculpture in a roundabout in front of their casino. The roundabout is public property, and the City didn’t have a policy in place for addressing their inquiry. This was the catalyst for their partnership with SCJ’s Planning team to create a Public Art Plan.

Located 20 miles west of Spokane, Airway Heights is a crossroads of culture. It is home to the Spokane and Kalispel Tribes, an Air Force base, an international airport, and a correctional facility. Running through the town is US Highway 2, which spans from Everett, Washington, all the way to Augusta, Maine.

Street view of Airway Heights ©2019 Google

This three-mile stretch of the highway consists of gas stations, an assortment of ethnic and fast food restaurants, and retail and office buildings, much of which is low-rise, strip mall development. Interspersed with the buildings are expansive parking lots, a partially paved frontage road, and open fields. Most of the community’s residents live in the small neighborhoods on either side of the highway, about a block up from the commercial area.

An art installation outside the Kalispel Tribe’s Northern Quest Casino

The population was just 155 when the City incorporated in 1955. With a current population of more than 8,000 and expectations of rapid growth, the community expects more from this part of the corridor. In the public outreach process SCJ’s Planning team coordinated, the most common input was that community members wanted their town to be experienced as “inviting and welcoming,” “a destination,” and known for its “history and culture.”

Working with the City, the SCJ team created a list of guiding principles to be applied to the corridor and the city at large. While acknowledging that each public art site will be unique, the principles convey the overall community vision to display artwork that expresses connectivity, placemaking, identity, collaboration, heritage and culture, and sustainability.

The plan also features a Partnership and Opportunities Map pinpointing several public spaces throughout town that would lend themselves to displaying art. The map identifies potential partners who could help the City get the art up on walls and sidewalks, in parks and roundabouts, and incorporated into the landscape.

The Airway Heights Public Art Plan kickoff meeting

At its September 23 joint meeting with the Planning Commission, the City Council enthusiastically endorsed the final plan and, eager to get underway, directed the SCJ team to begin implementation. To this end, they asked for a resolution to appoint an Arts Commission and an update to the City’s public arts ordinance to reflect the plan’s recommendations.

Public art helps create a sense of place, meaning, and metaphor in the built environment. It enables communities to come together to recognize and celebrate their unique qualities. With their newly created Public Art Plan, Airway Heights is well on its way to elevating public art throughout the community. They are equipped to take public art from concept into reality while building relationships, shared responsibilities, and funding mechanisms that will help public art prosper.

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