Photo source: Bellingham Herald
Blogging on current events, as with other forms of opinion journalism, can be a tricky business.
If you write about an event still in progress, you don’t know how things will transpire, and so, at a minimum, the chances of having to eat crow are steep, or worse, if you are particularly emotional about something, you run the risk of embarrassing alarmism.
At the same time, if you wait until after a given story plays out before jumping in with your commentary, you might find that there really isn’t anything worth saying by then, like jumping into a swimming pool that’s been drained for the winter.
In the case of the brief drama that recently played out concerning plans by The Woods Coffee to construct what the Bellingham Herald called a downtown art landmark in front of their new location in the Flatiron Building at the corner of Holly and Bay streets, I certainly had very strong feelings when I saw the photo I’ve included here, was tempted to post something right away, but I’m glad that I held off commenting until now.
The new Woods Coffee location is in a part of downtown that has been designated by the city as the Arts District Gateway, the center of a broader arts district that encompasses — all within comfortable walking distance: Mount Baker Theatre, Pickford Film Center, Allied Arts, iDiOM Theater, UpFront Theatre, Wild Buffalo House of Music, Whatcom Museum, Blue Horse Gallery, and a host of other smaller galleries and music venues to whom I apologize for not being able to name off the top of my head.
To christen said Gateway, the city solicited submissions of design concepts from artists for a large outdoor art installation, and the commission was eventually awarded to Seattle artist T. Ellen Sollod for her 22′-high piece titled Sentinel and Archimedean Seats.
Sometime later, across the street, a local donut shop, Rocket Donuts, installed their nearly-as-tall 1950s sci-fi movie rocket, bringing the total of large phallic symbols in the Gateway to two.
Back to the Present
Enter The Woods Coffee and their owner, Wes Herman. A very well-intentioned Wes solicited design ideas for what he felt would be his own contribution to the Arts District Gateway, an outdoor sculpture of a cup of coffee, with actual steam coming out of it. Wes even offered a $1,000 gift certificate to his own establishment as an award for the winning submission.
Via The Bellingham Herald:
“I’m really looking for something that is better and bigger than the ideas I have,” Herman said. “We want something that embraces this art district. We want the community to take ownership of it by coming up with a design.”
Great idea, huh? Very humble admission that he needs ideas better than his own. Recognition of Bellingham’s substantial pool of artistic talent. A desire for a kind of grassroots, community-born process.
How could it fail?
Well, Herman received over 70 submissions, and he and 12 employees juried the entries themselves, finally deciding on the design you see in the photo above. And then, thinking they’d chosen a really cool design, thinking it was equally cool that the designer is a student at our own Western Washington University, Wes announced the winner to the world…
- the Herald ran the story with the photo on February 25th
- within three days over 600 people “Liked” a Facebook Page created in response to the design, titled: “HELL NO!” to The Woods Coffee Advertisement Sculpture
- on March 2nd, the Herald ran a story announcing that The Woods Coffee has decided not to follow through with a sculpture project at this time
And while it’s hard not to feel a little bad for Wes Herman, given that he really did have good intentions and a desire for community involvement in the decision-making process (remember, his employees are actual community members), it’s difficult to understand how he could have not predicted the reactions, particularly from those opposed to the use of a disposable cup in the design, and those who feel that the Woods name and logo turn a well-meaning sculpture into a glorified billboard. For all all his acknowledgment that Bellingham’s arts community is central to the city’s core character, which it most certainly is, that he didn’t think to pass over the disposable cup given that Bellingham has garnered national attention for being the gold standard of sustainability really sabotaged his own vision.
So, you see, if I had blogged about my strong repulsion to the design when I first saw it, given that the problem went away just several days later, I would have been guilty of knee-jerk alarmism, something I try hard to avoid, although I admit that I’m not always successful.
I think that the saddest footnote to the whole story is thinking about how incredibly easy it would have been to avoid the public backlash and for Wes to have been able to make his contribution to the arts district.
The Woods Coffee Facebook Page has 5,840 people following it and judging by the coverage of the design contest they received from the Herald, they very much had the attention of the only local daily paper as well. They could have narrowed down the submissions to maybe three finalists, posted the final designs to their Facebook Page asking for feedback, and the Herald would have likely run an article about the finalists, including photos.
Between comments on Facebook and the Herald‘s website, they would have known in a day that there were problems with the disposable cup and the advertisement. And then, if they still liked the student’s design the best, they could have asked him to make revisions to his computer rendering, not hard to do, and finally they could have gone public with their award and the release of a revised design, perhaps with a reusable ceramic cup sans company branding.
This all reminds me of something I wrote about in January, when Western Washington University unveiled their new logo to the public.
As mentioned, the student reaction to the new logo was overwhelmingly, vehemently in many cases, negative. And, besides the fact that they didn’t like the design of the logo, a subjective issue to be sure and the focus of the entry I posted, the other predominant complaint made, arguably a very reasonable one, is that, while students were involved in the design process, the design should have been unveiled first as a draft along with a period of gathering public feedback on the design, followed by an attempt to make refinements based on that feedback.
Yes, a process like that takes more time. But, the public likes to at least be asked for their opinion before final decisions are made that impact them. They might not always get their way, but not getting your way stings a lot less if you have had a chance to be heard.