An open letter to the City of Bellingham Park and Recreation Advisory Board
History of the Big Rock Park Sculpture Garden
and some recommendations for improvement.
By George F. Drake, Ph.D.
19 April 2011
Big Rock Garden Park began as a nursery called Big Rock Garden Nursery that opened 30 years ago, on 11 April, 1981. The nursery was built by Mary Ann and George Drake and their son David to create an employment opportunity for brain damaged, developmentally disabled and mentally ill young persons. The Drakes decided to specialize in plants for the Asian garden and started collecting and propagating plants in the large solar greenhouse George built on the southern edge of the property.
Over time they had for sale more than 100 varieties of Japanese maples, over 200 varieties of azaleas and more than 600 varieties of Rhododendrons. Many of these plants they planted in the wooded environment to show prospective customers what the mature plants would look like.
In that setting George Drake decided to create a separate business called Gardens of Art – A Gallery of Fine Art for the Garden. Given the lovely setting he shortly had more than 100 artists from many parts of the US and other countries showing art for the garden. Soon the guide books for the Pacific Northwest included Big Rock Garden as a point of interest. That and national advertising by George in art and sculpture magazines brought visitors and customers from many parts of the US and even from other countries.
When the City of Bellingham purchased the property and created Big Rock Garden Park George promoted the idea of creating in the park a city sculpture garden. First he took the idea to the City Arts Commission in April of 1998 where the idea was discussed by the Commission.
CREATING A CITY SCULPTURE GARDEN
A Proposal submitted to the Bellingham Arts Commission
by George F. Drake = April 9,1998
I would like to propose that the Bellingham Arts Commission take on the responsibility of developing a sculpture garden at Big Rock Garden Park with the following parameters:
1. Install over 100 garden-scale sculptures in the park in the next ten years, representative of northwest and national artists and in diverse media.
2. Each work of art would be landscaped appropriately to show how art could be incorporated in the home garden. Our premise is that there is a large market for garden art and we would be helping local artists if we were to show how their work could be presented in the private garden.
3. A sub-set of the sculptures would be honoring civic achievements and community awards. This is the “Civic Sculpture Garden” project, which would not be in conflict with the broader concept.
4. The garden could be the site of an annual sculpture exhibit of work
by northwest artists. By showing the work of local artists and – indicating how potential buyers can contact the artist we would be helping the artist access this largely untapped market while at the same time providing a beautiful garden/park for the citizens of Bellingham.
5. Musical performances, poetry readings and theatrical presentations can be planned in the park. While no amplified sound is permitted in the park, a flute, harp or string instrument can be heard from one end of the garden to the other. The impact of a solo flute heard while one is enjoying the beauty of the garden and viewing the sculptures is indeed inspiring.
6. The concept would include art in the garden (sculpture, music, and theater) and the garden as art. It would be the integration of the arts in a lovely and very unique setting. Nothing like this exists in all of North America!
Big Rock Garden Park is a city park located at 2900 Sylvan St. atop Alabama Hill in the Silver Beach Neighborhood. It contains 2.6 acres of land and is fully enclosed with a solid cedar board fence. It is already protected by an extensive security system. Before the city purchased the land the property was used by Big Rock Garden Nursery and by Gardens of Art, a gallery of fine art for the home garden.
At the time the land was in private hands over 100 artists were showing sculpture in the gardens. Pieces with a value of twenty dollars to over $50,000 were being shown with a total value of over two million dollars of art in the inventory. Nationally known artists were willing to place their work in the garden gallery because the garden was a beautiful place to show sculpture. “Gardens of Art” was unique. One art collector from Connecticut. a world traveler, commented “This is truly world class”. Bill Epp, noted Canadian sculptor, commented that he was delighted to show his work in the “Gardens of Art” gallery as he knew of no other such garden gallery in North America.
The “Gardens of Art” sculpture gallery was a tourist draw. It brought tour buses and garden groups from distant cities. Even tour groups of garden enthusiasts from Massachusetts and Connecticut included “Gardens of Art” on their tour of the Pacific Northwest. Hotel and bed-and-breakfast hosts in the city and county would direct their guests to Big Rock Garden to see the art. International advertising brought visitors from many other nations who included the garden in their planned visits to Seattle or Vancouver, BC, Canada. It was noted in most of the tourist guidebooks for the Pacific Northwest. A number of TV shows were filmed there which were later shown on regional and national TV.
I suggest that the Bellingham Arts Commission form a standing “Sculpture Garden Committee” to be responsible for the development of this concept. The sculpture garden committee should have on it only two or three members of the Arts Commission and perhaps five citizen members representing artists, galleries, landscape architects, garden designers. City Park Dept. representative, etc. I am willing to volunteer for service on such a committee. Unlike the Arts Commission these committee members need not be resident citizens of Bellingham but could include any one from the region with a commitment to see the project succeed and who has time and talent to offer the committee. The committee would bring to the Arts Commission its long range and annual work plans for approval.
A sculpture garden such as is envisioned here is possible at Big Rock Garden Park. It would be unique in the entire U.S. and Canada. It would put Bellingham on the “arts map” of the nation. It would be a joy to the community and serve as a site for weddings, memorial services and community functions. It would help northwest artists show and sell their work.
The Commission declined taking responsibility for operating a program in a city park and suggested that Drake work with the City Park Department.
Drake then went to Byron Elmendorf, Director of the City Department of Parks and Recreation where the idea was favorably received. Drake was charged by Elmendorf to create a committee and plan for an organizational meeting which was held on 27 October of 1998. The following is extracted from the Big Rock Garden Sculpture Committee Handbook.
1. A ‘Meeting Announcement’ for the Gardens of Art Committee (Sub-Committee of the City of Bellingham Park Advisory Board) for its ‘organizational meeting’ to be held on 27 October, 1998 noted that the first item on the agenda was the ‘Role and responsibility of the committee. (Byron Elmendorf, Director of City of Bellingham Park and Recreation Department.) The second item on the agenda was the establishment of long and short term goals for the committee.
2. Attending that meeting on 27 October 1998 were Byron Elmendorf, Director, Bellingham City Park Department, George F. Drake, Chairman of the committee, George Knowles representing the Bellingham Arts Commission, Kay Moquin, Bellingham Arts Commission member and member of the BRG Committee, Michael Jacobson sculptor representing the Northwest Stone Sculptors Society, Anne Bauer, President of the Sculpture Society of British Columbia, Canada and BRG Committee member, Georg Schmerholz, sculptor from Vancouver, BC, Canada. Several other members who had agreed to serve on the original committee were absent.
3. At that meeting the following goals were approved by the committee:
a. Develop at Big Rock Garden Park in Bellingham, Washington a permanent sculpture collection representative of northwest, national and international sculpture appropriate for placement in the home garden.
b. Promote public awareness of garden sculpture by northwest artists with an annual juried exhibit of sculpture in the park.
c. Create at Big Rock Garden Park a “Civic Sculpture Garden” with sculptures honoring citizens and organizations of the region who have rendered exemplary service to the community.
d. Promote the Big Rock Garden Sculpture collection and annual sculpture exhibit as a tourist draw for Bellingam by having a unique destination for those who appreciate fine art, gardening and sculpture.
4. At the meeting Byron Elmendorf pointed out that the BRG Sculpture Committee is appointed by the City of Bellingham Park and Recreation Advisory Board and is responsible to it. A discussion ensued as to whether the persons named as liaison with the Arts Commission and Park Advisory Board were members of this committee or merely observers. The consensus was that these persons would be active members of the committee.
a. Elmendorf also pointed out that the Park Advisory Board had already approved the use of Big Rock Garden Park as a setting for a city sculpture garden as well as using it for a Civic Sculpture Garden.
b. It was decided that the first exhibit would be held in Big Rock Garden Park in 1999 and would open on Mothers’ Day.
c. All members of the committee in attendance were given a blue 3-ring binder with background information on the status of the sculpture garden as of this writing. The Chairman of the committee will continually provide the membership with material for the binder to keep them up-to-date on all matters relating to the development of the goals of the organization.
And so began the activities of the Big Rock Garden Sculpture Committee. Drake resigned from the committee at the end of three years of service. Over the past ten years George and Mary Ann Drake have donated 15 of the sculptures in the park and have significantly shared in the purchase of 11 others. In the last ten years the Drakes have donated over $100,000 for the development of Big Rock Garden Park.
Subsequently somewhere along the line the Big Rock Garden Sculpture Committee changed into the Big Rock Garden Committee and no longer sought to achieve the goals adopted when it was founded. Currently (April 2011) there is no professional sculptor on the committee nor any representation of the British Columbia Sculpture Society or the Stone Sculptor Society of Mount Vernon. I have no idea of when that change occurred and whether it was approved by the Park and Recreation Advisory Board.
Three times in recent years I have approached the Big Rock Garden Committee with proposals for international and cross-cultural projects. In every case the committee would vote on the project without my presence. With two of the three proposals I was not even notified that the item was on the committee agenda much less invited to speak to the issue. I was merely informed that the committee turned down the proposed project.
Recently, being fed up with the manner in which the Big Rock Garden Committee was making its decisions, I filed a complaint with the Washington State Attorney General’s Office against the BRG Committee for holding closed meet ings, discussing and voting on issues on their agenda without allowing visitors to sit in on the discussion and the vote. The word got down to the City of Bellingham Park and Recreation Department that such behavior was illegal and was to stop. Meanwhile, the Chair of the BRG Committee (Nadine Kaaland) was outraged at my refusal to leave the room after my presentation so the committee could vote in private. I stayed put and demanded my right under the Open Public Meeting Law of the State of Washington to be present as my proposal was discussed and voted upon.
The BRG Committee has been grossly insensitive to the development of the Korean War Children’s Memorial at Big Rock Garden Park. Even though the original concept was approved by the original Big Rock Garden Sculpture Committee, the Park Advisory Board and the Arts Commission the Big Rock Garden Committee, after Drake left it, engaged in a constant battle against the project.
They turned down the request for a bronze plaque on the structure explaining its meaning saying such a plaque constituted visual clutter. Drake approached Mayor Mark Asmundson with information that the Florida State Korean War Veterans Memorial committee had written to him requesting permission to place that exact wording on their state memorial. Asmundson therewith overturned the recommendation of the BRG Committee and asked Paul Leuthold, Director of the City Park and Recreation Department, to inform the BRG Committee that the plaque as proposed by Drake was to be put on the structure.
The BRG Committee then objected to the language Drake proposed for the plaque, questioning its validity and requested a statement from a nationally recognized historian that the wording was not a gross exaggeration. Paul Leuthold asked the Bellingham City Reference Librarian to do some research on the topic and was informed by the librarian that his research indicated that Dr. Drake was the national expert on that topic. Drake contacted Mr. Bill Asbury of Olympia, Washington and asked for a statement on the validity of the wording on the proposed plaque. Mr. Asbury is the retired Managing Editor of the Seattle, P.I. newspaper and had served as a reporter in Korea during the Korean War during which time he had visited over 100 Korean War orphanages. His letter to Mayor Asmundson essentially stated that Drakes figures were, if anything, conservative. Paul Leuthold directed Park Department staff to install the plaque as Drake had designed it. It took Drake two years of battling the Big Rock Garden Committee to get that plaque on the memorial structure.
One year Drake posted a small 5” x 8” notice on one of the pillars of the Korean War Children’s Memorial on Mothers’ Day announcing that on Memorial Day, four weeks later, there would be a ceremony celebrating the completion of the structure (for the construction of which the Drakes donated over $50,000). Drake had contracted and was personally paying for a well known Korean traditional dance group to perform at that event. He wanted visitors to BRG Park on that Mothers’ Day to be alerted to the event. That notice was ripped down by Rae Edwards, Park Dept. Staff with a sharp comment that advertising for future events in the park by outside organizations was not permitted. Meanwhile, posted on the Gazebo behind the information desk of the BRG Committee at the entrance to the park, was a poster announcing the Welding Rodeo at the Bellingham Technical School. Ms. Edwards seemingly was unaware that the Korean War Children’s Memorial Project was an official project of the City of Bellingham Park and Recreation Department and even if it were not it should have had as much status as the Welding Rodeo.
On another Mothers’ Day Drake sought to place professionally designed and printed flyers describing the Korean War Children’s Memorial on a plinth in the park where the committee program for the day’s activities had been placed. When those ran out Drake placed the Korean War Children’s Memorial pamphlet there. BRG Committee members quickly removed them and placed them with the material at the information table behind the Greenways Committee information and other pamphlets of NGOs with off-site projects. In BRG Committee eyes the Korean War Children’s Memorial had absolutely no standing as a BRG Park project.
Drake was denied the right to offer for sale in the park on Mothers’ Day his booklet “GIs and the Kids – A Love Story” which gave meaning to the Korean War Children’s Memorial Pavilion. He was told by Jenni Cottrell, BRG Committee member, that selling the booklet would interfere with the sale of bird houses that the BRG Committee was selling on that same day to raise money for committee activities.
The Korean War Children’s Memorial was dedicated in Big Rock Garden Park in 2003 on the 50th anniversary of the armistice that ended hostilities in the Korean War. I was a soldier serving in Korea on that day and remembered it well. Last year, in 2010, the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War, the Korean counterpart of the Korean War Children’s Memorial in Bellingham was dedicated in South Korea at the Imjingak Peace Park at the DMZ, within sight of North Korea. Drake donated the sculpture Las Palomas, by Sebastian, to serve as the Korean memorial. The project had the support of the Office of the President of Korea. In attendance at the unveiling of the sculpture were the Governor of Gyeonggi Province (12 million population), the Korean Minister of Defense and the Korean Minister of Patriots and Veterans Affairs as well as several Ambassadors and over 300 Korean War Veterans. The dedication ceremony received immense coverage in the Korean media. (But not even a mention of it appeared in the Bellingham Herald even though they were given all the information.)
Last year four Korean TV stations sent film crews to Bellingham to film the story of the Bellingham Korean War Children’s Memorial project. The story of the Bellingham project, with views of the Korean War Children’s Memorial Pavilion in Big Rock Garden Park, was shown on ten TV stations in the US and Korea. Drake received letters of commendation from the President of Korea and the Korean Ambassador to the US. He received a medal from the Korean Minister of Patriots and Veterans Affairs, was made Honorary Citizen in the Metropolitan City of Gwangju, Korea and presented a special plaque of appreciation from the Mayor of Cheongju, Bellingham’s Sister City in Korea.
The U.S. Department of Defense “Pentagon Channel” (TV) had a 15 minute story on the Korean War Children’s Memorial project in Bellingham. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs televised a formal interview with Drake on the Korean War Children’s Memorial project in Bellingham that was sent to all US military bases world-wide for broadcast on the local US Armed Forces TV channels.
Drake was invited by the Voice of America to speak to North Korea on the VOA broadcasts to that communist nation. He was asked to explain the Korean War Children’s Memorial in Bellingham and its meaning. The Korean people recognized and appreciated that the Korean War Children’s Memorial in Bellingham honored our servicemen and women for their humanitarian aid to the children of Korea. They also recognized that it was a call for PEACE on the Korean peninsula.
Yet in Bellingham Drake had to fight the Big Rock Garden Committee and the Park Department staff assigned to BRG Park in order to complete the project and inform the park visitors about the meaning of the memorial.
One member of the Big Rock Garden Committee personally advised Drake not to bother coming to any meeting of the committee with a proposal as anything he proposed would be turned down.
I can cite many other instances whereby Park Department Staff or the BRG Committee engaged in behavior that, in my estimation, was inimical to the achievement of the original goals of the organization.
When did the BRG Committee change its goals and objectives? Were these clearly spelled out and approved by the Park and Recreation Advisory Board? When did the BRG Sculpture committee change its name? Was this approved by the Park and Recreation Advisory Board?
An organization can be evaluated not only by what it does but by what it does not do. The BRG Committee, by its actions and non-actions in recent years has lost to the community donations of sculpture valued upwards of half a million dollars. They try to sell bird houses to raise money for their projects and ignore and, even worse, insult persons who have donated thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars to the park. They are totally unaware of the international resources available to help make the Big Rock Garden Sculpture collection and annual exhibits a major international tourist destination.
The BRG Committee is totally insensitive to the opportunity for BRG to become part of a network of sculpture gardens located in many nations making it truly a destination for cultural tourists, unique on the West Coast of the United States. The weltenschaung or ‘world view’ of the committee is extremely provincial. They are oblivious of the fact that Big Rock Garden Park has the potential of becoming one of the top sculpture gardens in the world. If they are aware of it then they don’t have a clue of how to achieve that status.
The committee laments that they have no money for program development and purchase of sculpture. It was pointed out to them that it doesn’t take special intelligence to spend money, anyone can spend money. They were told that what they had to do was develop a vision and go out to the community to sell that vision. Perhaps they could (Lord forbid) even donate to such a fund themselves. Such a vision seems to be lacking.
Each year the BRG Committee has a special lunch for the sculptors showing work in the current sculpture exhibit to which they invite special guests. They have never thought to invite persons who have donated money or sculptures to the park and thank them for their contributions. Even worse, the committee has removed many signs placed on donated works indicating “in memory of xxx” or “honoring xxx”. Thereby persons who have donated thousands upon thousands of dollars for the improvement of the sculpture collection in the park are insulted while the committee tries to sell bird houses and plants to raise money for park projects.
In summary I maintain that Big Rock Garden Park is an incredible community treasure that is currently being grossly misused and underused by the BRG Committee. It has become a plaything of a small oligarchic elite that have been on the committee way too long. In my estimation what is needed is a totally new committee, reconstituted, once again, as a Big Rock Garden Sculpture Committee and given the charge to develop an internationally prominent sculpture collection and annual sculpture exhibits. Members should be recruited widely and selected for their skills in working with artists and art organizations in other nations. (FYI = I have worked with artists and art organizations in over 20 different nations and have served in the Cultural Affairs Office of the United States Information Agency in South America.)
The new committee needs to have a global perspective and the ability to envision the place of Big Rock Garden Park in a network of similar sculpture gardens around the world.
Accordingly I request that the City of Bellingham Park and Recreation Advisory Board call a widely advertised public meeting to discuss the role of Big Rock Garden Park and its sculpture collection. A new vision needs to be articulated (one is suggested above) with extensive community input and new goals and objectives developed. Those goals and objectives would constitute the marching orders for a new committee to be recruited widely and named by the Park and Recreation Advisory Board.
George F. Drake