top of page

How Art Defines Place: A Conversation with Ruri Yampolsky

Seattle's Ruri Yampolsky has spent her career shepherding public art from idea to reality, most of that time working with the City's Office of Arts and Culture.

Now, Yampolsky is leading the public art program for one of Seattle's most ambitious public works projects: the redevelopment of the downtown waterfront. After the double-decker Viaduct highway came down in 2019, plans to reconnect the city with the shoreline really got underway; they include a significant number of major artworks.

"We talk about Seattle Center as being the living room of the city. I like to think of the waterfront as its front porch." -- Ruri Yampolsky

More than a dozen artists have been hard at work on everything from installations that highlight Seattle's relationship to the water that surrounds it, to sculpture that speaks to the centuries-old cultural legacy of the Indigenous people who call the land near the Salish Sea their home.

Yampolsky talked with Vivian and Marcie about both the artworks themselves, but also how she and the artists envision them to be beacons for both locals and tourists, and how public art like this will help define Seattle in the 21st century.

Middle aged woman with brown greying hair, stylish green glasses and a vibrant blue dress poses and smiles in front of foliage
Waterfront Program Arts Manager, Ruri Yampolsky



Ruri Yampolsky is the Waterfront Program Arts Manager for the city of Seattle’s Office of the Waterfront and Civic Projects, working to ensure that arts and culture are fully integrated into one of the largest civic transformations Seattle has undertaken – the rebuilding of its central waterfront. She also manages the waterfront’s cultural interpretive wayfinding program that will share stories and histories of this unique location. She has many years of experience managing Seattle’s public art program and art projects, serving to expand public experience by providing a range of projects in a variety of artistic expressions that shape urban space, engage community, encourage civic dialog, and bring new voices into the field. As a six-year member of the Public Art Network Council for Americans for the Arts, she focused on diversity, equity and inclusion in public art practice, policies, and procedures; she is also a founding member of Public Art Exchange, an informal network of public art administrators and practitioners. Ruri has now spent more years in Seattle than in her hometown of New York, where she practiced architecture after receiving her Master of Architecture from Columbia University earning her BA from Barnard College, majoring in architecture and minoring in Latin.

Learn more about the extensive plans for Waterfront Seattle here




Hey, I'm Vivian Phillips.


And I'm Marcie Sillman. And this is doubleXposure.


DoubleXposure is a podcast where we plumb the deepest depths and the tiniest cracks of our world to understand how culture and creativity shape our lives.


In this episode, new public art on Seattle's downtown Waterfront with Ruri Yampolsky. Vivian, it is lovely to see you.


Thank you so much, Marcie. It's great to be seen <laugh> and it's great to see you as well.


You had a trip in October, you were in Ghana, and I haven't seen you since you got back, although I did see a couple of beautiful social media postings that you made.


Yeah, I had, um, a chance to take a break and spent two weeks in Ghana in Accra, and got re-centered. I mean, it did wonders for the mind and the body.


So, you have been working hard for the last couple of years nonstop, and I don't mean just on this podcast. Yeah. If y'all haven't checked it out, ARTE NOIR, your big endeavor is open at the corner of 23rd and Union, so everybody should go check it out and you could go inside, but you also check out the outside, which is something I love because the building that you're in is covered with amazing murals. I don't have the adjective to talk about how wonderful they are and they are additions to this city of Seattle, which if people stop and think about it, is run and rampant with amazing artworks in public places.


It's true. And you know, one of the pieces that's not a part of the development that I have loved for a while now is a piece of public art that sits right on the corner in front, right in front of ARTE NOIR. And it's a beautiful piece by Martha Jackson Jarvis that was installed as a result of the 1% for Art, which, uh, was allocated when 23rd Avenue was redesigned and redeveloped and upgraded, whatever you wanna call it. So I am very conscious on a, on a daily basis of the ways in which public art really do honor space, place, history, legacy, and all of those things. And I think that's what we're finding at Seattle Waterfront as well.


That's right. We are talking this week to Ruri Yampolsky, who for many years ran the public art program for the city of Seattle's Office of Arts and Culture, I don't know how many, many years, but quite a few. And she moved over to the waterfront. She's in charge of what I think are about a dozen different artworks that are, when all is said and done in 2025ish, are going to be there and visible to us. And some of them are up already. Nori Sato has a work that I think was installed in the month of October. Some of them maybe won't be coming our way for a couple of years, but I've been thinking about that. Uh, we talked to Amada Cruz in our last episode about the Sculpture Park, and we're just gonna have this string of pearls along the waterfront.


That’s true. I really enjoy talking to Ruri. She's so deep into the development of the Waterfront Park and all of the physical art that's going in there. And the way that she talks about it is enlightening. I mean, she uses some words that I, I had to go look up like <laugh>. She said tidalology, I think, was one of the ways in which she described, I think it was Shaun Peterson's work, if I'm not mistaken. But what she really does bring out for us is how deeply waterfront public art is being rooted in place and really acknowledging that the waterfront, while it is a port for cruise ships today, it was also the home of an incredible Indigenous community. And how we get an opportunity to revisit that and to honor that in the ways that the public art is being positioned there.


And I should say, there are a lot of artists, there are non-Indigenous artists and we don't talk about them even though Ruri talked about them in the original interview because there's too much to talk about. So we really focused in this interview on the four Indigenous groups because they're not just individual artists who are gonna be represented on the waterfront. So it's exciting and, and Ruri’s passion and her deep knowledge is really infectious.


Yeah, I think the thing that most stands out for me here as everyone listens is the answer to the question, what role public art plays in our civic life? And reasons our city is created and elevated as a livable and humane place.

I know that you've worked in public art for a very long time, but the reimagining of Seattle's downtown Waterfront is a pretty massive project, one of the biggest urban redesigns in city history. Tell us, how does public art fit into that redevelopment?


What is really great about this project and many projects that we do here in Seattle is that art has been a part of this project from the outset. It was expected that they would include an artist in the design team. Now that has shifted a little bit as the project developed and yet that was a key part. The waterfront was going to be a place, certainly it will be transformed into a beautiful park, a promenade park, a boulevard, park boulevard and art and culture was going to be a key part of this reimagined waterfront. It was always there from the outset.


I was trying to think back to the origins of the project, which were a while ago now, and I'm wondering first of all, how and when the artists were selected and what kinds of parameters they were given in terms of what they could create and what you actually wanted to see.


What was great is, so we received funding, the percent for art for both the waterfront work as well as the sea wall work, which actually happened first. And both of those projects had guiding art plans that identified the kinds of artworks that would be appropriate for the waterfront, the kinds of projects that would really amplify the place. Those art plans created an outline for the kinds of projects that we would go out for commissions for. And most of the projects were selected through an open call. We started actually probably at about 2012 selecting artists. And the last set of artists were selected during basically just around lockdown <laugh> or during the pandemic. There are a number of projects and as the program developed, we would issue calls for individual calls for artists. And the art plans really what they outlined were projects again that were, uh, rooting the artworks in this particular place, the waterfront. There are a number of projects that are about the phenomenological aspects of being on the waterfront, uh, artwork that uses the tidal energy of the water for a sound artwork and artwork that talks about the environment and what could happen to the environment of being on a shoreline.


There are projects then that are also about the idea of community. And in those projects, we really sought out to find Indigenous artists because this was Indigenous land, it is Indigenous land. And so we wanted projects that really spoke to the community that was here before settlement happened. There were people who lived here who used the resources. And so we have projects by a number of Indigenous artists along the waterfront. We actually decided to do a process that wasn't sort of based so much in that sort of traditional, almost western way of competitive selecting. It was competitive. But we used a roster that was created actually by Asia Tale, who herself is, she's a curator and artist and urban native. She's Cherokee and used a roster that she created when she was managing the artwork selection for the Seattle Aquarium. For that project, we had an all Indigenous panel, we used a roster. So we didn't have to have, we didn't ask the artists to have to submit their materials again, you know, staff do not make the selections. These are done by panelists, individual panelists who have expertise in the art world. We always include artists on the panels as well. And so it is to some extent an open process.


Ruri, speaking about the indigeneity of the art and the artist's selection process, can you talk a little bit about what you are seeing that's rising up as what the representation is? Is it contemporary Indigenous art or is it based in history, that sort of thing? What's, what's emerging?


That's a, a great question. And what is emerging is a range and we are working with a range of artists and they themselves are on that border of what is traditional and they themselves as, as contemporary artists, what is the way that they want to express themselves. The first artist that we selected for what we call the tribal commission was Shaun Peterson, who is Puyallup from the Puyallup tribe. And he is creating welcome figures and that is a traditional form coast Salish art to have welcome figures. However, he has chosen to make his artworks not simply wood carvings. He is going to have three figures representing a family, mother, father, child. And these welcome figures are both bronze and wood. They will have bronze cast bronze heads, which isn't typical for a carving. And Shaun has chosen to use a simplified, what he says, as sort of more an older style of carving.


So it may not look like your traditional Coast Salish house post, your welcome figure, but it is clearly Indigenous. And these figures will be placed in front of what will be Pier 58, which is going to be starting construction very soon. It was where Waterfront Park was at one point. And these figures are going to look out towards the water out towards the peninsula where Chief Sealth is buried and they will be welcoming people onto the waterfront, to Seattle. So that is an artwork that is sort of straddling contemporary and traditional practices. Then we have three women who are creating an artwork at the Salish Steps and they identify themselves as the Empty Cape Matriarchs. And that is Malynn Foster, Tamela Laclair and Kimberly Deriana. Malynn is Squaxin Island Tribe and Skokomish, Tamla is Skokomish. And Kimberly is an urban native. She is Mandan and Hidatsa.


And they're working together to create this very large basket, a Salish basket that will be on the Salish Steps. It will be monumental and it will be made in such a way that it will not be a literal basket. I mean it is will have a basket form, but it will be made of contemporary materials and it will allow you to enter it. And it will be a place of cultural learning where the artists hope to have some objects that people can learn about Coast Salish culture. A lot of these artworks are really teaching people about this place, but not in a didactic way. It is in a way that people can learn about it through their own experiencing of the artwork. And clearly we will have some interpretive material and we will have ways to link to websites and such that will, you know, explain the artwork further.


But all of these artworks are sort of rooted in place. There is another artwork that will also include the work of Indigenous artists and that is the work of Oscar Tuazon. And he is creating a series of frames of sort of post and beam structures along the waterfront that will spread three blocks. And he is collaborating with Indigenous carvers, Randi Purser from the Suquamish Tribe and from the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, Keith Stevenson, and Tyson Simmons. And they will be creating carvings on the front of these structures. And we're hoping that eventually because there are 26 of these, that we may be able to reach out further to additional tribes. And so this will be sort of a living, growing artwork that in the future if we can find the funding that we will be able to add artworks from other artists, other from other tribes.


You've kind of gotten at this a little bit, the notion that we're talking about more than aesthetics when we talk about public art. But I was wondering in your mind, what role public artworks play both on the waterfront and the city at large beyond looking good?


One of the key things, you know, we are a city and we want to make the city a livable and humane place. And so I think by including art we do that. But the other thing that art can do is, you know, we talk about site specific art, site integrated art, that the art really is about the place. Now sometimes we will just create an ob, you know, there will be an object. But a lot of public artists, when they start to envision their artwork, when they start to think about their design and they're ideating, they will be really doing research into the place. And what does this place mean or what are the features of this place that maybe the art can enhance? Again, we mentioned, I mentioned the sound artwork, which is already in place by Steven Vitello, who is an artist out of Richmond, Virginia.


He has created an artwork on the floating dock at Pier 62. And it has a mechanism in it that captures the tidal energy of the water and it captures that energy, stores it and then releases it. And you will hear the sound of bells so you can hear the water. Now it isn't necessarily about the movement of the water, but it's about the tide. And it is sort of random, but it, it sort of, again, you understand that this is, the water is activating this artwork and it is about this place we are on the water. I think that is something that public art can really sort of elucidate something about the site.


You know, this season we are exploring, you know, all the different ways in which arts and culture have helped to create and sustain community in the four different neighborhoods that we're focusing on. And beyond the experiential nature of the art that you've been talking about, we're curious, uh, what you think about how public artwork along the waterfront will also help to create and sustain community over a long period of time.


A lot of these artworks are integrated into the place and I think it's important that this is a place that has been made specifically to invite community. We want everyone to be able to come down to the waterfront, to use the waterfront. We have created spaces. Yes, there are artworks there and a lot of the artworks are very much integrated into the place. It is the places that we've created that are for flexible programming that allow different activities to occur. If we talk about, you know, artworks specifically creating community, there will be a recognition, particularly with the Indigenous artworks, that this is a place that was a community. And people will understand that and recognize that in addition to transforming the, the waterfront and creating this park, we are making sure that people can get to the waterfront. So there's accessibility, we are improving connections and Pioneer Square and all along the waterfront. Now that the viaduct has come down, you know, we are reconnecting the waterfront back to the city.


We'll continue our conversation with Ruri Yampolsky in a minute.


Our music is courtesy of Big World Breaks, many thanks.


And this year we welcome our sponsor LANGSTON, Cultivating Black Brilliance from their home at Seattle's Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in the historic Central District.

Thinking about talking to you got me thinking about Seattle's long history with public art programs. I mean we were one of the pioneers in the country and so just looking back, I'm wondering from your vantage point, cuz you've been involved so long, how the, not just how the art shapes how we think about a place, but how all that art actually shaped the city and the city's development and what impact you think it might have on the waterfront itself.


That is interesting. You know, one of the things that I always say, because you know that there are always out there, people who feel that maybe the funds the percent for art fund, people will question why do we do this? And you know, I always say that if one night aliens came and took all the public art in them <laugh> up to their spaceship and took it all away, we would notice. You know, the artwork here is really part of the fabric of this city. Sound Transit, 4culture also have public art programs that put art throughout the city. Private developers do it as well. There is no private requirement for private developers to include art, and yet they do. And sometimes the, you know, they will receive some benefit for doing so. But I think that there is an understanding that again, that there is this degree of humanity or humaneness that including the thinking of artists puts into all of our spaces.


There may be things that you don't necessarily notice and, and in a way that's okay that it is a part of that you expect that there will be public art and you know, you may not notice it every day, but again, if it were gone, you would notice that it was gone. I think that that is, it really does shape our spaces if, you know, the art brings people down to the waterfront and certainly the programming will bring people down to the waterfront. People are there anyway, you know, we're under construction and the, you know, the tourists are there, people are there, people who live in the city are running along the waterfront. And now that it is going to be planted, there will be plantings, there will be a bike lane. This will become a way, a way that again, people can move through the city along the waterfront. Certainly, they did with the Viaduct, but in this way you're actually on the ground by the water. The beach will allow people to touch the water. It's reconnecting. I know that in your conversations with Seattle Center, you talk about Seattle Center being the living room for the city. I like to think of the waterfront as the front porch.


Just listening to you talk about all of the exciting artwork that's going to be a part of this whole redevelopment, it makes me first and foremost very glad that we had a chance to chat about the waterfront. And secondarily, I'm really hopeful that people see the waterfront as more than a tourist attraction. That the heart, the soul, the thought that's gone into reconnecting the waterfront to the rest of the city is appreciated by our citizenry. So I'm really delighted to have an opportunity to promote that and I hope that's what happens.


You know, what I've experienced by going to some of the performances at Pier 62, which Friends of Waterfront is now programming, is that there's a huge diversity of people who are there and it's really heartening to see that. We see all ages, we see, you know, people coming from different communities there and the activities, certainly there are a lot that are based in arts and culture in different festivals, different performances. We just had Salmon Homecoming where, um, the Indigenous people of the area came to welcome back the salmon back to this area, but there were also recreational activities as well. There is a soccer pitch for young people there. So, the different, the range of human activities that can happen, you know, both cultural as well as recreational can happen on this waterfront.


We have been waiting for this for quite some time at this point as longtime residents of the city, but I don't think that I'll really be able to grasp the transformation until we're actually there. And it's, you know, right now we have little bits and pieces of it, but we don't have that sense because so much construction is still underway that this is our space and it's part of our city, if that makes sense.


Yeah, I I drove along the waterfront yesterday and I was like, Wait a minute, where am I? <laugh>, you know, I was like, Oh, okay, wait, where's Ivar’s? You know what I mean? It's like that's that one, you know, point where I can identify. Everything has changed so much. The traffic patterns have changed with all of the construction of the, the stairway and the reconnection to Union and all of that. It's really intriguing though. It's very intriguing.


I'm so excited and I really appreciate the time that you've taken. I think when people are listening to this episode, they'll catch some of that excitement that I feel and that, you know, now I'm thinking like we can start in Pioneer Square, go all the way up to the waterfront, go through the Sculpture Park, go up to the Seattle Center, you know, it's like this massive cultural corridor.


That's right. And that will be so exciting. And I think part of the work of the waterfront is to make that ability to go that whole distance easier. And as you're doing that you will encounter these amazing artworks that we hope, you know, will become iconic.


Thank you so much for your time.


Thank you. It was wonderful to talk about this amazing project.


Thank you for stewarding it in that way. I'm, I'm really appreciative.


It is something that is for the residents and the visitors to Seattle. It's for everyone.


Vivian, as we were talking with Ruri in this interview, I was thinking again about the fact that Seattle really has been a national pioneer when it comes Seattle and King County to implementing public spending for artworks for really integrating art into all these public works projects. Because at its heart the waterfront redevelopment is about bashing down a big highway and putting a tunnel underneath and a park on top. It's not about art necessarily. And yet in Seattle, any project like this, as you said before, the interview is about bringing some art to the place that that is being redeveloped.


Yeah, it's true. And I also think that a lot of recent, I think art, public art installation and new development has looked toward Chicago, you know, the Navy Pier and Grant Park and the Pritzker Stages and all of that as well as the Highline in New York. And while I've had the opportunity to experience both of those, and I think you have too, I do think that Seattle has really elevated itself to the top of the heap because we are making a major investment that is a required investment for public works, but also a private investment that's completely altruistic in its nature.


It is altruistic. I can think back to some of the early pieces in the city, one of which is on the Seattle waterfront at Myrtle Edwards Park, which is north of the Sculpture Park, Virginia Wright, the late all-around arts patron. She really was involved in everything brought to us this mammoth sculpture adjacent against a pond really early on in our city and put it out there. And I think it shocked people. But now you can roller blade by or walk by and you really are coming from some of the amazing installations at the sculpture park up to Myrtle Edwards, where you can go south in a few years and see, I think work that is gonna be equally emblematic, literally emblematic of our city. I'm so looking forward to Shaun Peterson's welcome her, his totem, uh, that is going to be up there.


And the basket. I am, I mean when we were at the waterfront, we got a chance to look at and see just from where we were, the foundation that was laid for the installation of that big piece, which I'm excited about because I love the description, a basket of cultural learning. I mean that's warm and wonderful all in its itself, but I also think that it pointed out that we refer to Seattle Center as Seattle's living room, that the Seattle waterfront is essentially the front porch. And while we have to wait until 2025, it's something to look forward to when, when everything is done and completed.


Until that time, I would urge people, the city of Seattle actually has a walking tour of public art. There's a, a tour that's available through Museum of History and Industry of the late Georges Tsutakawa fountains and sculptures that are all around the city. So there's a lot of really amazing art. Even my favorite, the incidental utility hole covers, were not, they're not manhole covers anymore, but if you go to downtown Seattle and walk the streets and you're walking over where all the utility stuff is hidden, a lot of those are beautiful bronze sculptures. They're really, I mean that's something special about the city of Seattle.


And for people like us who really, really do <laugh> enjoy public, private, any form of art, it really is something that makes the city more livable for both of us. I'm sure you know, you can come out of that horrible traffic, uh, <laugh> growl and uh, enjoy some public art. And I also just wanna note that one of the things about the Seattle waterfront from the early inception of how this art would play and they wanted to make sure that the waterfront was a waterfront for all, Ruri reminds me and reminds us that it truly is for everyone.


Well, there's something else that's for everyone. This is a regular episode of doubleXposure, but tomorrow we are going to be bringing you a very special episode. If the waterfront is for all, Dance Theatre of Harlem has spent its career ensuring that dance is for everyone. And we're gonna get to talk to its Artistic Director and former Prima Ballerina, Virginia Johnson. And I'm really excited about that conversation.


I am as well. And you know, Virginia has been the artistic director since I believe 2011, 2012, some, somewhere around in there. And this is actually her last year as the AD at, uh, Dance Theatre of Harlem. And we'll be welcoming in Robert Garland in the future, which is pretty exciting as well. But it's really overall exciting to see the legacy of Arthur Mitchell and Carol Shook continue in such a brilliant, brilliant way. So, yay.


That's, I guess we call it a doubleXposure extra?


All right. Extra extra <laugh>.


Listen all about it. It's coming your way tomorrow. Vivian, thanks so much. And listeners, thanks so much for being with us.


Thank you.


DoubleXposure Executive Producers are me, Marcie Sillman.


And me, Vivian Phillips. We get production support from Hilary Northcraft, Randy Engstrom, Calandra Childers.


Support for doubleXposure comes from Pyramid Communications.


And we're especially proud to support Crosscut Media's Black Arts Legacies Project, highlighting the role of Black artists and arts organizations throughout our cultural landscape.


If you like what you're hearing on this episode of doubleXposure, be sure to follow us on your favorite podcast app and check out our website,

Ruri Yampolsky Transcript
Download PDF • 95KB


DoubleXposure Podcast owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of doubleXposure podcasts, with all rights reserved, including right of publicity.

What You Can Share:

You are welcome to share an excerpt from the episode transcript (up to 500 words but not more) in media articles, in a non-commercial article or blog post, and/or on a personal social media account for non-commercial purposes, provided that you include proper attribution and link back to the podcast URL. For the sake of clarity, media outlets with advertising models are permitted to use excerpts from the transcript per the above.

What You Cannot:

No one is authorized to copy any portion of the podcast content, images or likeness for any commercial purpose or use, including without limitation inclusion in any books, e-books, book summaries or synopses, or on a commercial website or social media site (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) that offers or promotes your or another’s products or services. If you would like permission to use our logo or an image of the hosts, please contact us.


bottom of page