Seattle Arts for the Plague Years: A Dozen Ideas

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Image by Olya Adamovich from Pixabay

By a rough tally, the 300 or so Seattle-area arts organizations are now losing about $30 million per month in revenue, thanks to the COVID Crunch.  The money raised so far for relief (ArtsFund, 4Culture, Artist Trust, City of Seattle, Seattle Foundation) is about $6 million, not counting federal relief funds. Here’s a good accounting by Crosscut’s new arts reporter, Margo Vansynghel. 

That’s a big gap, with more months to come and not even counting for reduced audiences whenever full activity can be resumed. Other worrisome factors: few Seattle majors, except the Art Museum, have much of an endowment, and some struggle with debt and “structural deficits” (built-in annual shortfalls). 

In short, a perfect storm for local arts groups. Even before the revenue drought, Seattle arts were already fragile. There is an arts bubble locally. We have too many arts groups and too many major-budget companies competing for tougher-to-get dollars. Meanwhile, governmental funding is among the lowest in the nation (a pittance from the state, little from the city), and the generous donors of the Bagley and Virginia Wright generation have not been replaced by the Amazon generation. Corporate and foundation support has a new mission: social justice and outreach. 

Leaders of these endangered arts groups and their boards are busy mulling possibilities. Here are some of the leading ideas I’ve heard or borrowed from other regions, as well as the debate about them. They are not arranged in any order of preference. Do send your comments and critiques. 

Spread Out. To grow audiences and to reach the under-served, think statewide and tour to smaller cities. The Oregon Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, and Colorado Symphony all attest to this broader base by their names. Other cities and campuses have halls and theaters and ready audiences. This might also be a good way to tap state funding. Another virgin territory is the Eastside, which now has jobs, schools, diversity, parks – everything a city needs but culture. Downside: touring and runouts take a lot of planning and staff; do not get a lot of regular customers and donors; and face artistic tradeoffs by performing in lesser venues. This kind of “regionalization” has rarely worked and in some cases works against the organization. It seldom generates new funds from outlying areas and it generates significant new expense in marketing, travel, and staff. A cautionary example is the Baltimore Symphony, which has two homes, one in Baltimore and the other in the DC suburbs. It’s killing them.

Image by mcfisher from Pixabay

Rightsize. For a few years at least, we could emulate arts organizations in smaller cities, such as Portland. It’s an off-Broadway strategy as opposed to Seattle’s Broadway asprirations. Reduce budgets, take more chances, favor younger artists, use some smaller and non-traditional venues. Seattle Opera, for instance (and not to advocate this), could use only projections for scenery, stop doing original productions, employ the Auburn Symphony or Ballet orchestra in the pit. Boards and staff and unions will object, strenuously; audiences will feel shortchanged; the axiom in the nonprofits is that if you are not growing you’re dying. Seattle Opera is already projection-heavy, and recent years of cost-cutting have not solved its financial problems. Meanwhile, Portland’s arts organizations are all struggling and chronically underfunded. Lower quality often gives funders less reason to fund.

Focus the Social Justice Mandates. Funders and governmental agencies now direct money to diversity, outreach, education, and equity initiatives. This can distort arts groups, disturbs some individual donors, and changes priorities too often. So pick just one goal and concentrate funding there for five years for greater impact. This would be a very difficult effort, since many funders (governmental, foundations, and corporate) wish to change the priorities of the entire field of the arts, attacking their historic eliteness and exclusivity. The driver for the funders isn’t financial efficiency; it’s social and political and widespread. Most arts groups have bought into this shift and are busy competing for such funding.

Merge Strategically. Funders like this idea, hoping for efficiencies and year-round use of facilities. But it rarely happens (Early Music Seattle and Seattle Baroque Orchestra combo is one example), and the imagined efficiencies are elusive. If one of the marriage partners is a financial albatross, don’t go there. It would need a serious fund to support the mergers, say for five years. And it should probably solve a big problem, not small-scale, such as merging Ballet and Opera. Here too, there are many examples of how this does not work, such as the Kennedy Center organizations and the Utah Symphony/Opera. It takes focus from the artistic integrity of an organization and can put the “partners” in unhealthy competition for resources with one another.

Simplify Funding. Arts groups have to build large staffs to negotiate all the hurdles for programmatic funding, and often get small grants spread over various programs and too little for overhead. In Denver, the main arts funding is predictable for 10 years and is based simply on attendance and budget size. Government funders like the county and city keep inventing programs that political leaders favor. King County’s 4Culture staff is now 31, soaking up funding, spreading grants thinly, and confusing applicants. Denver may not be the right model, since after decades of this kind of funding few front-rank arts organizations or artists or projects have come out of Denver. Indeed, this kind of guaranteed funding can make large organizations artistically complacent.

Image by Fairin from Pixabay

An Arts Venture Fund. This would reflect the current business climate in Seattle and echo the Social Venture Fund that tech entrepreneurs Paul Brainerd and Scott Oki launched. It would put money into artistic risks, whether by startups or mature companies. Like a venture fund, the recipients would also benefit from free executive advice. It shifts funding from sustaining large organizations to creativity and disruption, and might draw more tech workers into the artistic magnetic field.

Better ownership of buildings. Owing to restrictions on public funding of arts (it has to buy services, not just support arts), many of our cultural buildings are complicated weaves of ownership and obligations. When arts groups own buildings outright (such as Town Hall Seattle), they can use the real estate as collateral for loans, increase rental and parking income, and control their destinies. Downside: an expensive building to maintain; rentals mean staff costs and conflicting uses. One solution is to have an investment group that buys the building and then rents it to the arts group at modest rates while the renter raises the money to buy out the investment group. On the other hand, owning and running buildings is rarely an arts organization’s core competency. Strapped organizations often put off routine maintenance and upgrades. Third-party ownership leads to competition for dates and resources, as when the Seattle Center-owned Opera House tried to accommodate symphony, opera, and ballet uses. An example of where this idea is working is St Paul’s Ordway Center’s new hall.

Embrace arts education. Schools, particularly in poor districts, cannot offer arts education, and arts groups do these programs often grudgingly. My wife, Joyce, remembers her high school years outside New York with careful instruction about a symphony or an opera, followed by a magical bus trip to Manhattan and the real thing. Many artists teach, and can use the extra income (particularly in high-cost Seattle), so have them coach, rehearse, and give private lessons to unprivileged populations. School money might be available for some funding. 

Restructure labor agreements. Arts groups never say this out loud, and arts reporters rarely venture onto this minefield, but many organizations are saddled with very high, very inflexible labor costs. Maybe one way to tread into this forbidden territory is to offer board positions and more say in the management in exchange for concessions on staffing levels, overtime pay, and so forth. Politicians will scream, strikes will ensue, and organizations will go under. Again, there is the objection of core competency, since boards and arts organizations lack the skills, experience, or comprehensive understanding of both the field or the organization to do this, so years of civil war could ensue. Offering a management role to unions adds more cooks to a crowded kitchen.

Go digital. Clearly, this is necessary for now to keep artists working and to keep audiences loyal. An encouraging example is NASH (Northwest Artists Streaming Hub), set up by artists desperate to keep performing.Streaming clearly helps with outreach to underserved audiences. Downsides: competing on the Internet with some of the big national companies is tough; there are few (and meager) ways to monetize this service; unions are resistant; and virtual arts might induce more people to enjoy the offerings at home, rather than live. Interesting to see if Amazon or Microsoft might want to make Seattle a pilot city for this technology, though local efforts to woo the local tech community for pilot projects have not met success. Generally speaking, digital programs are an expense, not a money-maker. They do help connect with audiences and research suggests that they do not cannibalize live attendance.

Poke ArtsFund. This organization, a kind of United Way for the Arts, once helped orchestrate the corporate donors, audiences, and arts groups of the region. But when Peter Donnelly, a master Irish pol, retired from leading ArtsFund, it has stagnated. It’s time to set much higher goals and insist on a dynamic leader, or else. The All-In-Seattle campaign, a viral effort among friends to raise $27 million in pledges in a few days for social services, might be a good example of the kind of urgent, informal effort that could work for new funding for the arts, especially if there are more efficient ways to fund them and start new programs like the Venture Fund. That said, the scale of need is vastly greater than what might be the result of reforming ArtsFund. The funding solution has to be on a structural order of magnitude greater. Focusing on existing funding sources could be a distraction and a way of opening too many unwinnable battlefronts.

More Town Halls. Town Hall Seattle, a beloved, affordable venue for arts and lectures, is one of the few new arts organizations that Seattle has birthed in the past 20 years. Its hallmarks: serving many renters, flexibility, coherent artistic direction, deep community roots. Maybe this is what should happen with the former Intiman Playhouse, now controlled by Cornish College for the Arts; and for the long-struggling effort to raise money for PACE (Performing Arts Center Eastside), which needs a new mission and maybe a new, smaller location.   

3 COMMENTS

  1. I like the idea of extending the Town Hall model to smaller venues like the Cornish Playhouse. Since it’s designed as a performance space, it will still work beautifully for that use but it would be ideal for lectures as well.

  2. An important topic with thought provoking ideas. Thanks!
    SAL, Seattle Arts and Lectures, is another home birthed organization whose growth and development offer lessons. Their website offers a brief history worth reading and that I abstract for ease and perspective:
    – 1987, Seattle Arts & Lectures is founded and grows to 29,000+ SAL attendees in 2017/18
    – 1994, SAL brings the nationally-recognized Writers in the Schools to Seattle
    – 2000, The Poetry Series debuts
    – 2014, Hinge presents new books by and for the next generation at accessible ticket prices.
    – 2015, Women You Need to Know (WYNK) showcases thought-provoking women.
    – 2015, Summer Book Bingo with a Seattle Public Libry, presents a free summer reading
    program for adults.
    – 2017, Kids Book Bingo, SAL launches alone
    – 2017, Writers in the Schools program matches accomplished creative writers with local
    K-12 public schools and hospitals for year-long writing residencies.
    – 2017, WITS Writer-in-Residence or Spotlight Author Visit touches over 7,100 students
    – 2018, The Journalism Series begins in partnership with Seattle’s Timothy Egan and Sam Verhovek

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