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Wrap it Up! City Program Bringing Art to Utility Boxes

February 19, 2021 - by Brooke Wilson

Wrap it Up! City Program Bringing Art to Utility Boxes

Even as typical exhibition venues for local artists have dried up since the pandemic struck, creative outlets can still be found just around the corner, hidden in plain sight.

Arts Program staff with the City of Bellevue have been mulling over an idea to spruce up average city sidewalks and strengthen a sense of place through the imaginative lenses of local artisans and creatives. Utility Box Wraps, a recent project in collaboration with the Urban Boulevards program, provides opportunities for artists to express themselves on a highly public platform: dressing up industrial utility boxes around the Eastside.

“It furthers our efforts to introduce character, beauty and interest into the public realm,” Manette Stamm, City of Bellevue Arts Program Assistant, said.

Within its broader objective, the initiative aims to stimulate use of street corridors not only as infrastructure for transportation, but as a vibrant, communal space with visual appeal and moxie.

“Especially now, everyone could use a little cheerful spot of brightness to spruce up their commute,” Manette said.

Several phases from initiation to completion have already been mapped out for different Bellevue neighborhoods and are expected to launch in stages over the next several years, thanks to secured funding to extend the program into the foreseeable future.

Currently, the focus lies on wrapping boxes in BelRed, the first arts district in the Bellevue area and a future junction for three Sound Transit light rail stations. This evolving neighborhood is a key connector to Downtown Bellevue.

What distinguishes the project and its purpose as especially unique, Manette explained, are the broadly accessible criteria to participate. Any artist registered on the Eastside Artist Roster, whether emerging or established, who works or resides in East King County (Bellevue, Bothell, Duvall, Issaquah, Kirkland, Mercer Island, Newcastle, North Bend, Redmond, Renton, Sammamish, Snoqualmie and Woodinville) qualifies to apply. Appointed artists will receive a stipend ranging from $750 to $4,000 to create the sanctioned artwork.

“You don’t need to have a technical background in public art or a high-profile career,” Manette said. “If the concept can be translated to any two-dimensional vinyl canvas, we’ll consider the submission.”

Applications will be evaluated on artistic merit and compelling themes relevant to the location selected for installation. Panelists and the Arts Commission review all the application materials, select the finalists and share recommendations for final approval.

Applicable themes could be drawn from the BelRed neighborhood’s background, connected to the historic population of Japanese agricultural workers and land use as a prominent farming region.

According to Manette, the initial concept has been under construction since 2016, with different iterations and creative visions cycling through over time. Although now, as resources and priorities have shifted in light of our current cultural climate, city organizers finally have the capacity and collective interest to signal a greenlight forward.

Its activation, is perfectly aligned with social distancing measures and other constraints incited by the pandemic. Unlike the popular multidisciplinary arts fair Bellwether, which had to postpone its annual fall festivities in 2020 due to COVID-19 mandates, the utility box project can be set in motion remotely. Even as artists are largely affected by government restrictions, Manette noted that “none of the applicants even have to leave home to be actively involved in the process. We’re not asking anyone to risk their health or safety.”

Next season, Bellwether will continue to build a name for itself as a community-driven festival, rather than a chartered city production. Its mission has always been to meaningfully engage visitors and residents in the distinctive arts scene Bellevue offers, championing new, innovative mediums with an emphasis ontechnology.

Since the announcement dropped a month ago, Manette has received widely positive reactions from the public as anticipation continues to mount. Other neighborhoods are currently being vetted and slotted into the calendar, and the next district on deck will likely be the Downtown core.

“Targeting Downtown next has its benefits, in terms of its expanded opportunities to keep the artwork around longer,” Manette explained.

Since the typical lifespan for these vinyl wraps spans up to 10 years, Manette and her team have to plan strategically and coordinate installation efforts for newly implemented boxes.

“When we select a box, we want it to stick around for a while.”

Eligible candidates have until March 3 to enroll. Selected contributors will be allotted the month of April to design, craft and finalize digital blueprints licensed to city planners to meet a rough deadline at the start of summer to begin installations - sunshine permitting. Consider that an invitation, Heart of Bellevue artists!

This blog is part of the Heart of Bellevue: our campaign to showcase local businesses while connecting you with stories of activity, creativity and recovery. Find out about our campaign and explore more of what’s happening around Downtown.