Seattle Arts: Reckoning or Opportunity? (Part I)

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Image by billy cedeno from Pixabay

Editor’s Note: Seattle’s arts groups are at a pivot point. They have survived the pandemic losses of audience and funding, but that may just have papered over the structural problems. In this two-part series, two Post Alley writers — David Brewster and Douglas McLennan debate causes and possible fixes.

David Brewster

I’m very worried about the state of Seattle arts. True, they are currently floating from shipwreck thanks to two lifeboats — federal pandemic funding and the boost in digital audiences forced by the pandemic closures. Those are short-term fixes, not sustained help. The reckoning is coming.

After the 1962 World’s Fair, Seattle boosters built up an expensive infrastructure of major arts institutions. Most Seattle-size cities ration the arts to one or two major institutions, usually an art museum and a symphony (Boston and Cleveland come to mind), and these major majors achieve real distinction. At one time Seattle’s five majors (Symphony, Opera, SAM, PNB, the Rep) each had budgets close to $20 million, which is a lot for a smallish city to sustain. One of the Big Five, the Seattle Repertory Theatre, has dropped back to the $11 million level in 2021; Seattle Opera shows $11 million in expenses in 2020. 

The pandemic, coming after the 2008 Great Recession, was a body-blow to these organizations, as it was to smaller arts groups. The payroll protection program of the federal government got them through, as did layoffs, emergency appeals, and reduced expenses. Many of these arts groups were able to salt away federal money and save-the-company donations to build up a cushion for this year and next. The key questions now becomes: will audiences return, will quality (and patronage) decline, and will remote audiences be as loyal and generous with donations?

Compounding the problem is the shriveling of donations to Seattle arts. Government funding has always been among the lowest in the nation, particularly at the state and city levels. Also, government funding has dramatically shifted away from traditional arts to attracting more diverse groups and audiences, which will be hard to hold. Corporations like Boeing, Safeco, and Burlington Northern have moved out of town, scaled back support for the arts, and shifted priorities to social-justice issues. Foundations have also shifted away from the arts. What really sustained Seattle arts was the generosity of individual donors, and they are not being replaced by the tech wealth.  (The Gates Foundation and Amazon have very slight interest in local arts.)

Survival in recent years has been accomplished with mirrors and up-against-the-wall fundraising. That means that critical investments in maintaining buildings, building endowments, and developing new programs and audiences have been postponed. (One good example is the failure for 20 years to build a performance hall in Bellevue.) Now the bill is coming due on repair-deferred places such as the former Intiman Theater and ACT. 

So now what? Welcome to an era of hard choices. A Darwinian pruning of the feeble. An urgent effort to find generous new funding, such as low-interest bonds. Consolidation and mergers (such as ACT and Children’s Theater). The rise of the suburbs, in part due to the problems with Seattle’s downtown. Lastly and most desirably — bold artistic innovation that brings more bang for the bucks and appeals to new, younger, non-traditional audiences.

Douglas McLennan

David – You have been a stalwart supporter of the arts over the decades, the rare publisher/editor who understands what a thriving culture means to the life of a city. But I’d dispute one of your central notions here about why cities have and don’t have the culture they’ve got. It isn’t about “rationing” art forms or institutions or facilities as you suggest other cities do. For example, Cleveland improbably has one of the world’s great orchestras because of the community leaders who had a vision and figured out how to create it. They built a culture of excellence that infected the larger community who came to understand what having a great orchestra means to them and why it was worth supporting.

To a lesser extent perhaps, the Cleveland Museum did the same, creating one of the country’s great encyclopedic museums. This culture remains, even as Cleveland lost its industrial base and half its population over the past half-century. But it wasn’t a kind of central planning – “we’re going to focus on being excellent in two art forms rather than five” – kind of thing. The resources and accomplishment went where the energy was, and even when Cleveland was no longer a wealthy industrial powerhouse, that culture was so woven into the city that it endures. There have been numerous attempts at dance companies and theatre companies there, but for all sorts of reasons, they never gained traction. Interestingly, the Cleveland Clinic, currently the gold standard for delivering medical care nationally, was built on that same ethos, a desire to be really excellent, much in the spirit of how the orchestra was built.

Seattle has the arts institutions it has because of the energy of founders who saw opportunity and sought to capitalize on it. Most of them were “characters” of one sort or another – Richard Fuller started the Seattle Art Museum by hanging reproductions on the walls. Glynn Ross was a showman who willed Seattle Opera into existence by offering something so audacious (an annual productions of the Ring cycle) that no other opera company in America was then pulling off. Pacific Northwest Ballet was the hard and sustained partnership of Kent Stowell and Francia Russell who saw opportunity to extend Balanchine’s legacy. And so on with theatre and with the Seattle Symphony (one of the oldest orchestras in America, by the way).

As for what a rich city like Seattle can afford, you make the point that $20 million-budgets for the largest arts organizations is a stretch. Sure. And the Cleveland Orchestra pre-pandemic spent almost $50 million per year in a declining and impoverished city with far fewer resources than Seattle has. But consider that out of the City of Seattle’s $7+ billion annual budget, it spends $280 million on parks, almost $100 million on libraries, and $120+ million on early education, all important investments in culture. We are a wealthy community and we clearly have money for priorities. That the city spends $20 million on culture through its office of arts and cultural affairs (less than a third of one percent of the city budget) says something about priorities.

I’m not arguing that taxpayers should cover the costs of our arts organizations (which could likely be done for less than $100 million per year, and we could talk about why that might be a bad idea). But looking past the essentials — when you think about what makes great cities, it isn’t just roads and bridges and buildings, it’s about building culture – sports and community centers and music clubs and restaurants and civic associations and festivals and parks and libraries and schools. And yes, the arts. How do you invest in building a city’s culture and why? Some argue that governments have no business funding culture and should focus on the essentials like roads and infrastructure. But there is certainly a case to be made that building strong communities and cultures leads to healthier, happier and more engaged citizens, which in turn make the basics easier to accomplish, which cultivates the leadership any successful city needs to thrive.

You’re right—there’s cause for concern for the survival of artists and the arts in the pandemic era. Though for the most part cultural institutions have come out of the end of lockdowns with stable (or even improved) balance sheets, the most perilous times are still ahead as emergency assistance goes away and in-person audiences are diminished. Worst hit, though, weren’t the institutions, but the artists and creative folk who lost work, many of whom won’t return to the arts. A report out this month details the carnage in Seattle’s arts community and suggests that a third of the arts work force may get out of the arts altogether. Add up the cost of living and work space in Seattle and the diminishment of opportunities, and Seattle’s arts environment continues its downward drift. Seattle’s arts community never really recovered from the 2008/09 financial meltdown and recession; the COVID lockdown was really more of an aftershock.

The arts exist in a complex ecosystem of opportunities and incentives. We need artists, yes, but also space for them to work and develop, a creative community to interact with, audiences who are curious and ambitious, and yes, funding and facilities. Which follows which is a complicated and fascinating puzzle. Seattle is and has been a magnet for creative people. But in recent years, that creative talent has flowed into the thriving tech industry. Tech has become the culture of this region, the standard of excellence that represents us on the world stage, and that’s where the energy (and money) has flowed.

I wonder, especially given all the creativity here, have our artists or arts institutions made as compelling a claim on our hearts as the scientists curing cancer at Fred Hutch or the coders reinventing the world?

David

I would suggest, as an organizing theme for the next act in Seattle’s arts drama, that we focus less on institutions and more on creating an “arts ecology.” One aspect of this is to make Seattle a magnet for artists to live and work and stay. The key problem is that real estate prices have surpassed artists’ ability to afford to rent or buy a small home. Sometimes a fading district can suddenly be affordable, as happened with London’s Bloomsbury. So I would start by positioning rehearsal and performance and teaching facilities in places like Lake City, Bitter Lake, and Hillman.

We could also build subsidized, affordable, arts-rich “dormitories” and boarding houses that require a body of arts work for admission. A further initiative would be to create more jobs for artists, such as teaching in schools, adult classes, and a central registry for private teachers.  Another initiative would be subsidized incubation of new arts groups to replace the fading ones and tap the entrepreneurship and non-mainstream cultures of many artists — a kind of venture capital fund for arts startups. 

More mid-sized places such as Town Hall provide low-cost rents and support services (rehearsals, marketing, ticketing) that can reduce overhead. Seattle has traditionally been a “bar-bell” city in the arts, emphasizing the majors at the top and the volunteer-rich minors at the other end of the scale. The mid-sized venues and organizations are essential steps on the path to Carnegie Hall, but several of them (Nordstrom Hall and Meany Center for the Arts) are too crowded and expensive. So, invest in the affordable middle zone and, by that step, help expand the access and affordability for audiences and arts groups. Earlier on Post Alley, I explored other responses (including mergers) to respond to our reduced support for the arts. 

Doug, I like your metaphor of brush fires and energy nodes on the periphery — the fringe, not the elite big shows. You and I have advocated a Festival of Creativity — arts, tech, science, video games — to set the pace and dramatize this new agenda. We had that spirit in the 1970s and 1980s, when Seattle was famously affordable and arts schools pumped new graduates into Seattle’s arts groups. It happened rather spontaneously back then, and touched off our earlier arts boom. This time it would take a paradigm shift and generous support programs aimed at startups, mid-sized facilities, and housing and venues for all kinds of artists. A new organization, replacing the faded Allied Arts, should take up the advocacy for making Seattle into a creative fermentation zone.

Doug

David: These are all great ideas, and a number of cities have taken this approach. A dozen years ago ten of the largest national arts funders banded together to create ArtPlace America, a ten-year project to invest $150 million in injecting arts in communities. There were many great projects (four of them in Seattle), and they showed over and over how art can help build communities. But I’m not sure that they sparked any lasting improvement in civic creative infrastructure.

So let me ask an impertinent question – suppose we create new rehearsal spaces, subsidized housing for artists, and cheaper rents in our facilities as you suggest. Suppose we fill up these spaces with artists and they get to work. How do we build a culture that powers it all? One of the problems with a “facilities first” strategy is that while it enables creating lots of stuff, it doesn’t mean it’s any good or that anyone wants to see it. And it doesn’t necessarily foster a culture of excellence and creativity.

That spirit of old Seattle that you remember fondly that created Metro, Forward Seattle, the World’s Fair, etc, was the product of leadership, of people with compelling ideas who could inspire those around them to contribute resources and talent to make them happen. They weren’t exactly obvious ideas, but someone (and groups of someones) willed them into existence. There’s plenty of talent here, and an abundance of resources. What seem to be in short supply are compelling ideas and leadership.

In the ’80s and ’90s the arts were ascendant here, and Seattle was well regarded nationally as an up and coming arts town. The theatre scene was thriving with several significant theatres and dozens of fringe companies all over Capitol Hill. Seattle Opera and PNB were nationally prominent, there was a lively literary scene, Seattle Grunge branded the city as a place for music, and the art galleries created a fermentation. Then poof, much of it melted away. Why?

Certainly for all the reasons you mention above. It is prohibitively expensive to live and work here. But I also think there might be a larger trend at play here. You can see the history of the internet over the past 20 years as a full-out attack on institutions of all kinds – indeed the very notion of institutions. There was a time that working through institutions was the most-efficient way of accomplishing big things. Institutions were needed to aggregate resources and talent at any scale above the individual collective.

But as anyone who has ever worked in an institution knows, institutions are plodding and slow-moving and often frustrating — inherently inefficient. The internet enabled creative people to increasingly bypass the traditional institutions and collaborate on the fly – not just in networks, but then networks of networks. And to get credit and creative satisfaction. Institutions have increasingly seen their inherent advantages – including bestowing legitimacy and prestige – melt away, and with it, not only their ability to compete but to be artistically compelling (both for artists and audiences).

Internet culture prizes paradigm-busting ideas over the sustainability of institutions. Institutions – particularly those that have been around a long time – often seem to be more about the survival of the institution (and the staff) than having the brilliant new idea. They’re not transparent, and they guard their proprietary wares in an era that has proved open-source, transparent collaborations are more powerful and dynamic.

The most interesting arts institutions I’ve encountered lately are those that have rethought their structures, and are becoming hybrids, making themselves more porous and transparent and widening their partnerships, associations and networks. They work to empower artists rather than use them for institutional gain.

Seattle’s arts boom of the ’80s and ’90s was institutions-focused and facilities-driven. It was an era in which the quality and notice of our institutions had become compelling enough that the community bought on (in a big way) to build a new Seattle Art Museum, a new concert hall, a new (redone) opera house, new studios for PNB, new theatres for the Rep, ACT, and On the Boards and a refurbished Town Hall.

As a youngish city, Seattle didn’t have the facilities to house first-rate arts until then, and we finally got them, based on excitement generated by projects such as Seattle Opera’s Ring, PNB’s stellar national reputation, the Goodwill Games Arts Festival and Performa, and the number of theatre productions that could hang with anything done regionally elsewhere in the country. In return for these new buildings, the promise was astounding, compelling work that would spark the imagination.

Didn’t happen. The move to Benaroya Hall led to a decade of institutional malaise for the Seattle Symphony before it got new leadership and became artistically viable. And pretty much all of the artistic leaders of the other institutions who had made such a great case for investing in the arts, left or retired. The institutions – for many reasons – failed to deliver on the big bet we made on imagination.

When the Mariners or Seahawks stumble into a succession of mediocre seasons, what’s the first thing that usually happens? A change of leadership at the top. I’d argue this is every bit as important for the arts. I’d argue that our arts organizations aren’t structured in ways to support great leadership and there needs to be wholesale reform in the ways these institutions are run. Their creative success is hobbled by increasingly obsolete organizational structures.

Yes, it does come down to what comes first – resources or leadership. And yes, I think your idea of focusing on the middle class and small arts and training is important. But imagination has to drive it. Leadership needs to inspire it. For now, at least, the explosive creativity pouring out of our tech and bio-medical industries is so much more inspiring and successful that it’s not surprising that’s where the energy (and money) is.

I hate to end our Part I on such a down note, but I think it’s important to call out the issues. I think this is perhaps the most interesting and exciting moment for the arts as I’ve seen in my lifetime. COVID lockdowns have sparked a big reset, and I see all sorts of questioning of status quos and examples of needed rethinking and reinvention. Many things are possible now that might not have been just three years ago. Going back to business as usual isn’t an option.

More in Part II

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9 COMMENTS

  1. Before we can re-inspire the city’s art movement, we must regain “City Pride”.
    When you drive in from any angle you are met with filth , graffiti (the new art ;( ) , potholes, tents, and a sense of gloom. FIX THIS ….There is no room for the endeavors you are hoping for until we make the downtown alive again.

    • Start from scratch maybe mix venues – remember ‘ART’ is generational specific.
      What you are requesting targets an older generation and won’t inspire others, unless programs for the young to experience are provided.

  2. I’d be interested in a conversation about what art is and who artists are. It seems to me there are plenty of examples of creativity and expression in Seattle, but that we, perhaps, talk of artists only as those who work full-time on their. The question of earnings is also interesting. Is it a living wage for someone who works full-time on his or her art, or is it incremental pay for an “artwork” that attracts a consumer base? Or? And, what do our answers to those questions tell us about what we want, need, or expect from art and artists? I think we have assumptions worth scrutiny.

    I know of four artists on my block in West Seattle. All of them have fulltime jobs, in local government (the writer), in public schools (the encaustics creator), at Amazon and Google (the creative landscapers (yard art?)). They all add vibrancy to the neighborhood. Do they not count as artists because art isn’t the main source of their incomes? Because their art isn’t performance art? I also know dozens of musicians who have “straight” jobs and who moonlight all over the region in house-concerts and at community dances and events. Do they count as artists?

    Again, what are our assumptions about art and artists? How would broadening our view inform our discussion about what philanthropy or government could or should do in this space?

  3. Starting with the title of this piece, I believe it is a reckoning AND an opportunity. The current system of broadsiding large organizations (SSO, ACT, SRT, 5th Ave, PNB, SCT, etc.) cannot sustain a region’s arts scene in this pre-post-pandemic time. Nor can live-streaming because, if I’m not mistaken, we used to call that “television.”

    Instead, there is a huge advantage to artist housing – look at Lancaster, CA for a great example – as a way of keeping artists in the area. Then, we have to have leaders who focus entirely on surgical impact to make the communities a better place to live, not simply by presenting art, which is not a charitable act. Fame is a Siren of sorts, and those drawn in by it suffer (ACT, for example, which is at least attempting to change its spots with a new board).

    Lots of smaller organizations with laser focus impact (setting boundaries about what they do not do, for example) is a much better arts environment than a few large, “venerable” organizations hoovering all the resources, especially with “emergency” campaigns.

    I’d rather see impact than survival. Survival is not a strategy; often it is an albatross to the other arts organizations, don’t you think?

    • Alan – couldn’t agree more. Though I do think it’s important to have large arts institutions producing work at very high levels. At their best they can create their own planetary gravity that ripples through their community and fosters smaller arts endeavors. The LA Phil is a good example of this with its YOLA program and community initiatives. But their artistic programming is so fresh and compelling they become aspirational (in a good way). Alas, many large institutions lumber on, not driven by excellence, but by the need to survive. And we don’t call them out nearly often enough.

  4. “The most interesting arts institutions I’ve encountered lately are those that have rethought their structures, and are becoming hybrids, making themselves more porous and transparent and widening their partnerships, associations and networks.” Could you give a couple of examples?

    • Sure: (and sorry to take so long in responding). I spent some time this summer listening to AMOC, the music performance collective that has organized itself to re-engineer the creation of new work, involving performers early in the process. They all live together in a compound in Vermont, and the musicians are fantastic — all stars in their own right. Since they each curate and direct projects, there tends to be a raw artistic edge of commitment. https://runningamoc.org/

      I also mentioned The Industry, the small opera company in LA led by Yuval Sharon that creates work in the city that is deeply about the city. But it isn’t just the performances – each new work is a process that takes a couple of years to develop and build constituencies for it. As a result, by the time the piece launches, it sells out almost instantly.

  5. “As a youngish city, Seattle didn’t have the facilities to house first-rate arts until then, and we finally got them, … In return for these new buildings, the promise was astounding, compelling work that would spark the imagination.”

    Having watched a number of organizations deal with real estate challenges, I often wince when groups talk about that kind of capital campaign. The skills that you need on your board and in your administration to go through that process are not necessarily the kind of skills you need to facilitate art making. I’m glad for the groups who have been able to finesse that transition, but I don’t expect that comes naturally.

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