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Maine artists lose $1 million public art contract

Wade Kavanaugh rests his hands on the armature of a public art project that was canceled, while a test project hangs in the background of his studio at The Gem in Bethel on Saturday. Kavanaugh and his art partner, Stephen Nguyen, recently lost a $1 million contract for a public art project in Seattle because of the coronavirus pandemic. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The pandemic has cost two Maine artists a $1 million public art project.

Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen signed a contract a year ago to create large-scale public art as part of a convention center expansion in Seattle, but their part of the project was dropped, in part, because the pandemic skewered revenue projections associated with the convention center, forcing its developers to scale back. A consultant working on the project said the rising costs and complexity of what Kavanaugh and Nguyen proposed also contributed to the cancellation.

Kavanaugh, who lives in Bethel, blames pandemic politics. "I don't want to make it political, but I don't understand how it can be read as anything other than political," he said. "We were all told we were going to be OK, and we operated under the idea the pandemic would be under control by late fall 2020. That didn't happen."

Nguyen, of Portland, said fear was to blame, at least partially. "We really tried to convince a couple of the committees otherwise, but it wasn't open for discussion. There was a lot of fear, and some of that was founded on the fear of the unknown. No one knows what's going to happen," he said. "There is no way to fight back against that."

The two contracted to create site-specific art for the Washington State Convention Center, under expansion in downtown Seattle. They proposed a sprawling piece, made from wood, that would have been suspended from a ceiling high up in the convention center and visible to people from below, both inside and outside the glass-shell building. It was to be 119 feet long and 25 feet across, and reflect the dramatic power of the Northwest landscape. Their idea was inspired by their successful installation of a wave-like piece made from slats of wood that they created for the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland in 2019.

Stephen Nguyen poses for a portrait in front of the door to his basement home studio in Portland on Saturday. Nguyen and fellow Maine artist Wade Kavanaugh recently lost a $1 million public art contract in Seattle because of the coronavirus pandemic. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

They learned their project had been cut late this summer, but refrained from talking about it in hopes the decision might be reversed.

"Emotionally, it was a big hit. I'm really sad," Nguyen said. "We sort of built our identity and the future of the next couple of years on the this project."

Cath Brunner, a public art consultant working as a liaison between the artists and the committee in charge of the project, said other art projects were put on hold because of uncertainties about costs and revenue, including one other large-scale installation. Kavanaugh and Nguyen were among 18 artists contracted to make art for the convention center. She also said she hopes to find a place for the piece that Kavanaugh and Nguyen envisioned in the future, though it won't be part of the convention center.

"This was an extremely difficult decision for the board representatives to make," she wrote in an email. "Wade and Stephen are exceptional artists and the loss of their artwork is a loss for the project as a whole and for the city. For my own consulting work, I hope to work with them again on a large-scale project in our region. It's the kind of rigorous, ambitious and resonant work we need in shared, public spaces."

The cancellation is tied to the pandemic because of uncertainty over future revenues, as well as the impact of the coronavirus on the timing of the project, Brunner said. The budget for the entire project was $1.8 billion, funded by bonds that would have been paid for by taxes on tourism and travel. The pandemic has skewered those projections and killed all revenue that was supposed to come in this year to the current convention center, which stopped operating in March when the coronavirus hit. With no revenue coming in and no clear picture about when large meetings and gatherings will be permitted, the financial outlook is bleak, she said.

Rendering of the planned Washington State Convention Center addition in Seattle. The space in red is where Maine artists Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen Nguyen planned to install their design, but their piece of the project has been canceled. Image courtesy of LMN Architects

The project as a whole faces a $300 million deficit, and project leaders have asked for stimulus money to cover that. Those circumstances affected the board's perception of risk and priorities, Brunner said, and the piece by the Maine artists was acutely impacted because of the architectural complexities of suspending it from a ceiling. Typically, integrated artworks are started during the design phase, not during construction, she said. Because their piece involved inserting the art into a project already being built, alterations to the building had to be negotiated with the general contractor as change orders.

The artists' budget included about $800,000 for the design and creation of the artwork and $200,000 for change orders necessary to accommodate it. "The prices for those changes are high," Brunner wrote. "There are reasons for that, and COVID certainly affects that pricing and scheduling. Wade and Stephen's art impacted several major building systems including structural steel, sprinklers and fire safety, and electrical. Those changes turned out to be very expensive."

Kavanaugh got the first hint the project might be in trouble in May, when they asked for more time to present details of their final plan because their Seattle-based engineer was behind schedule as a result of the pandemic. They hoped to present their final plan in the summer, but were never given the chance. "Our project was the easiest one to trim and was technically very complicated," Kavanaugh said. "The board just felt we couldn't deliver the project on budget. All costs associated with our project were spiraling out of control."

Artists Wade Kavanaugh and Steven Nguyen planned a sprawling piece, made from wood, that would have been suspended from a ceiling high up in the convention center and visible to people below, both inside and outside the glass-shell building. It was to be 119 feet long and 25 feet across. Rendering courtesy Wade Kavanaugh

The Maine artists have been paid about $90,000 for their work, and Kavanaugh said they may be paid additional money for design work they have completed. The good news, he said, is that they had not incurred the kinds of expenses that would have left them in debt. "Steve and I have been keeping track of our time, but we have not been paying ourselves yet. We paid our engineer, the lighting consultant and we paid for the raw materials for our tests. But we still have money in the bank. We didn't quit our jobs or sign a lease for a studio, and we have not yet spent more than we made. That's a relief. So many times we were about to take the plunge into a larger investment into the piece, and we didn't."

But they put off other projects, including participating in a biennial in South Korea, because of the promise of creating a career-defining piece in Seattle. The biggest loss may be psychological.

"I am not over the loss of this piece yet," Kavanaugh said. "I am still trying to get at how to make it happen in some way, shape or form."

Nguyen agreed. "It would have been one of a kind, and I am very confident we would have pulled it off and it would have been excellent," he said. "We didn't lose ownership of the artwork. We still own the entire idea, so we we still want to see if we can make this somehow, whether in part or complete. To build it complete, it takes a special space, but maybe we can find some opportunity or other ways to fund it by doing a part of it to prove it out. Maybe that will give us the documentation and proof-of-concept to approach other organizations."

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