State of Seattle Arts (Part II): How do we Build a Culture of Creativity?

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Editors’ Note: This is the second part of a conversation between Post Alley editors Douglas McLennan and David Brewster about where the arts go from here in Seattle. The first part — “Reckoning or Opportunity” — can be found here.


Douglas McLennan

The “state of the arts” is a problematic idea because “the arts” are not easily definable in generalizations. That is – do we mean big institutions like symphony orchestras and ballet companies? Elite professional artists working at the top of their profession? Community potters and quilt makers or TikTok influencers or graphic designers, writers or community clubs? Then there are the sub-categories of big, medium and small institutions and various categories of commercial and non-profit, paid and free, and collaborative and generative art as well as part-time, amateur and professional, not to mention the creative expression of social media that essentially defines everyone as an artist. Where are the lines, and do they matter?

We could go through each of the categories and assess their health. For example, if we’re looking at personal digital expression, one might argue that “the arts” have never been more creative. If we look at professional artists, it’s a murkier picture, but many more artists are making a living with their creativity and connecting themselves with audiences than have ever done so, and the level of work high. If we look at traditional arts institutions it’s even more difficult to gauge. Those that continue to operate as if it’s 1965 are having a tough time. Those that are embracing a more open, transparent, networked approach are doing better. But it’s mixed.

The point is — the digital revolution changed the ways we connect, collaborate, create, and share and this necessarily changes the culture of how we create and find audiences. That in turn changes the expectations of audiences, and old models of institutional top-down culture start to seem archaic. Everyone at every level of the eco-system is figuring out how to adapt. And it’s not simply “figure it out” and it’s solved. We live in an environment of constant change and evolution.

I’m not sure it’s about “right-sizing” arts institutions to make them more viable. I think right-sizing is a consequence rather than a driver of the quality of ideas and the ability to make convincing arguments for them. How did the Brooklyn Academy of Music become New York’s hottest cultural space in the 1990s or Joe Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park the summer phenomenon it became in a city chock-a-block full of the best and biggest cultural institutions in the world? Leadership and compelling ideas.

Why is LA’s The Industry an opera phenomenon that sells out instantly everything it does? Leadership and ideas that speak to our culture now. The LA Philharmonic has become the most artistically vital orchestra in the country through compelling artists, programs and a reinvention that puts it at the heart of Southern California culture. While Seattle’s struggles with supporting an arts culture certainly are about the tangibles of housing and funding and access to resources be sure, it’s also about the need to make the case for compelling creativity and why.

Which is not to say that Seattle arts organizations aren’t creative or they don’t perform at a high level. It’s difficult to imagine organizations such as Seattle Theatre Group without the inventive leadership of Josh Labelle, who essentially invented a new model for presenting in the city. I could list numerous arts organizations and many artists who are as good as they get. But at the moment the culture to support them in the city just isn’t there. And I don’t just mean funding but the sense that the arts are an essential part of what this city is.

I’m quite intrigued by what A Contemporary Theatre just did with the mass resignation of its board and its claim that it will reinvent with new leadership and governing structure. I wonder – is that just hype or is it a sincere attempt to reimagine a model for the theatre? I also wonder, David, as someone who has followed civic leadership in this region for decades if you see parallels to the issues the arts are struggling with in the larger culture of Seattle?

David Brewster

Doug, you ask about the meaning of the ACT mass resignation of its board  and what that might mean for civic culture in Seattle. It’s a big gamble with the theater’s audience and donors. It’s also a signal that ACT is using this pivotal time in the arts to invent a new model and reach out to new audiences. It might work, but such a loud distress signal is hard to overcome.

What seems to have driven the dramatic action at ACT is frustration with a split board and strong doses of antiracism medicine at other theaters. Traditional arts organizations such as ACT, which have long cultivated a middle-class white, educated audience, can easily come to think that it’s time for clean-house changes, particularly targeting the wealthy board. I worry that such a sharp disruption will scare off the usual patrons faster than the new ones come aboard, and that the new audiences will not be generous donors, at least at first. It may be — ACT is being very mysterious about this — that there are generous and transformative donors in the wings or ready to join the new board. 

ACT’s bold gambit points to another problem in Seattle’s arts scene: the longevity of many arts leaders. People who come to mind are Gerard Schwarz at the Symphony, Matt Krashan at Meany Center for the Arts, Speight Jenkins (and major donor John Nesholm) at the Opera, Susan Trapnell at ACT, and Peter Donnelly the “arts czar” at Arts Fund. Seattle’s arts boards often get very attached socially to their artistic directors and put off making overdue changes that can split the board and the donors. 

Similarly, the basic model of Seattle arts — largely conventional fare, small endowments, postponed infrastructure, year-end scrambles to balance the budget, over-reliance on angels and surefire money makers such as The Nutcracker — is running on overtime. A more vigorous arts journalism might have alerted civic leaders to these risky patterns. At any rate, now we must pay the piper. I see more wholesale changes (including mergers and scale-backs) in the future, such as ACT just put on its stage. Driving these radical changes will be the art staffs, the artists, and the young audiences of Seattle’s new economy. The big questions: Will live audiences return to theaters when they can view shows remotely and avoid an off-putting downtown? Where is the venture philanthropy to power and sustain these changes?

Doug

This is such a big, complicated and messy topic that not only are there are no obvious answers, perhaps it’s not even really obvious what the core problems are. I’m also convinced that these problems are systemic rather than merely specific to fundraising, real estate or ticket-selling and boards. And the “risk capital” – both financial and creative – it will take to change things is not to me obviously available.

To illustrate, perhaps a parallel: The climate emergency is without doubt the most important issue facing us right now. It would appear we already have the technical means to at least mitigate it, and every day new technologies get us closer. So why does it feel like our attempts to address the problem still feel so precarious?

Because it’s really a cultural problem, not an engineering one. We have to modify the fundamental structures of the modern world we built to change expectations and behavior. For some reason, warning that disaster is imminent isn’t a convincing enough argument to change behavior. Renewables have to be cheaper (and better) than carbon fuel. Electric vehicles have to be better (and more fun) than gas guzzlers or no one will buy them. It’s not that individual behavior is meaningless, but it doesn’t matter until value systems realign to address the solutions at scale and the social ecology re-forms to support it.

If that sounds like central planning, it’s not. Had we pursued a central planning approach to climate change, we would fail. Instead, it’s taking what we understand about markets and politics and social systems and making behavioral change through those values, not by ignoring or trying to deny them. Messy but ultimately more compelling and powerful.

To apply this thinking to the arts: Central planning won’t create an arts culture. Those who champion the arts often argue that “the arts are good,” “the arts make us better,” and “the arts build communities and teach values” when trying to make the case for public support. All true, and these arguments speak persuasively to those who are already supporters of the arts. But they aren’t convincing to those who have their own lists of what makes the world (and their own communities) better. Worse, such arguments sound self-serving to those not already bitten by the arts bug. And “the arts” as a broad category is too diverse (in activity) and squishy (in ability to measure and assess impact) to be causally persuasive to those whose interests lie elsewhere.

So what is the case? Arguably, our culture of leadership is in disrepair. Our ability to recognize and celebrate excellence is in doubt. Our effectiveness at building consensus is broken. Our ability to celebrate dissent and debate (one of our greatest strengths) is damaged. How do you fix it? Not by throwing money at the problems (see: homeless initiatives). Just as climate change is a cultural issue, so is it for building cities that work. Creativity is not confined to the arts, but as creative expression they have a role to play in building community cultures that work to support civic leadership. Again, not through central planning, but by understanding and celebrating values.

Yikes—I realize this all sounds airy and theoretical. But I actually have suggestions for how this works. And some examples – like Detroit, which was down-and-out and crumbling, but which has used culture as a way to reassert its mojo and get back its swagger. But I’ll save it for the next post.

David

Doug, you make the point that the culture of our region must change for a new arts paradigm and renaissance to emerge. I agree, and I also think that is already happening, though far from automatic and maybe too late in the game. Thanks to tech, gaming, design, and startups, Seattle and its techburbs are now a very creative place, though no longer an artistic powerhouse. And so, given time, all this creative energy will shape and seed a new arts landscape. But only (and here’s my worry about civic leadership) if we nudge these changes along wisely and sustainably and broadly.

One example of change which I stumbled on in the office down the hall — all the artists who are imagining and illustrating video games. Many of these graphic artists have a big following, particularly among teenagers. The idea of one creative shop was to open an art gallery where these highly trained visual and video artists would display their “serious” art for purchase by parents of these teenagers. Note that this is an art scenario that is much more about producing art than passive consuming. Like video games, it is imaginative, fantastic, interactive, and young. And it springs from the arts ecology of an art-encouraging region, as I proposed in our first installment of this colloquy.

The current accelerator of artistic change is the DEI hand grenade (diversity, equity, inclusion). DEI, which is sweeping through the arts, media, and academe, may be both an accelerant and a too-narrow lens for the breadth of artistic energy. That said, DEI is breaking up the old gang that used to run Seattle arts, as can be seen by the dramatic and sudden turnover in arts leadership. Managing this leadership transition will be the key to a revival of Seattle’s art energies. I think there are five key initiatives for moving Seattle from its middle-class arts boom to something richer, more varied, more disruptive, and more unpredictable. My five initiatives:

1. Pay attention to the mid-sized organizations, who lack funding and facilities. These groups are small enough to be agile and big enough to pay for the talent and staff. 

2. Regional infill. The region has badly served the suburbs, and Seattle arts groups need to create venues for transplanting the arts to where the audiences are and the rents are reasonable. That the Eastside lacks a serious performing arts facility reflects the Seattle-first nature or our arts organizations, a serious lag.

3. Venture capital. I suggest that some of the big tech firms and local billionaires create a joint fund that focuses on new arts and new audiences, donating money for planning and for subsidizing the critical runway years for such groups. Think generative, not generic. (The Allen Foundation once had this idea, but it has drifted away from arts funding.)

4. Go ahead with the long-mooted Inspire Washington plans for a county-wide tax for supporting the arts. This idea, borrowed from a generous Denver funding scheme, has been mired down in debates about geography, big groups versus small, Seattle versus suburbs. Go ahead and put the ballot measure before the voters. Pass of fail, the effort will draw many arts organizations backers and customers into a big crusade. If passed the measure would pump about $60 million a year into local arts groups, renewable by vote in 10 years. 

5. Seed critical journalism for the arts, meaning tough reviews and serious reporting of closely guarded institutions. Ever since the 1962 World’s Fair, our discourse has been mostly self-congratulatory, but the whole point of the arts is to stimulate deep debate about issues and performances. As one artistic director once shouted, “Where’s the Discourse??”

Doug

David – Hard to disagree with any of these, though a couple of cautions:

Regional Infill: Agreed the suburbs need more facilities but I worry that a strategy of facilities-first might suck up energy and resources and repeat past mistakes. Facilities need to be art-driven to succeed (see Experience Music Project, Bellevue Arts Museum as cautionary tales)

The county-wide arts tax is tempting, but the way it was pitched the first time it went to voters — essentially a county-wide busing program to bring kids to arts — was badly conceived and indifferently executed. To pass, it needs to inspire voters with some big, unique and tangible ideas. It’s not unreasonable for voters to want to see what they’re getting for their money. From the outside, the last proposal looked cynical and self-serving.  

Since you made an excellent list, here’s mine. Since yours was elegantly practical and specific, mine is more… aspirational, I guess:

  1. A Culture of Debate: Recently I’ve been listening to sports radio (KIRO) and reading Mariner blogs (Lookout Landing). I used to be a casual fan, but over the years drifted away and was looking for ways to get back in. I’m impressed by the ways KIRO and LL debate sports, try out wacky theories, and cultivate ideas around the teams they cover. Listening/reading not only helps teach you how to watch, it also makes you care about players, teams and the culture of the game. We need a version of this for the arts: smart observation, contentious opinions, lively debate, and lots of inside knowledge. Too often arts “coverage” is merely boosterist evangelical proselytizing, which is not only boring but ineffective at drawing people in. How fascinating would it be if KING-FM, KNKX or KUOW set aside a daily hour to debate creativity in the city across all fields. Or the all-but-moribund KCTS doing a weekly arts debate show? KIRO endlessly plays games and hypotheticals and challenges to make it fun and entertaining. Give listeners reasons to care about what’s going on.
  2. Inspiration: We need some big civic celebrations of creativity – events that give the city opportunity to gather and gawk. The old ones – Seafair, Bumbershoot, the World’s Fair – were popular for a reason in their day. They brought the city together to celebrate through events which could only happen here. At a time when we increasingly live in front of our screens in our own bubbles, and are disconnected from our physical surroundings and neighbors, it’s more important than ever to have opportunities to interact in public with one another. We are hungry for inspiration. We are hungry for things that move us. And we need some big common civic markers we can all get behind so we can remember how to do that.
  3. Healthier Arts Organizations: We absolutely need healthy large and medium arts organizations. I’m impressed with ACT’s bold attempt to imagine a better structure for itself. I’ve come to believe that the traditional non-profit arts structure – essentially unchanged since the 1960s—needs reinvention. Not only is it inefficient as a model for doing business, it has also created back-of-house institutional structures that are often at odds with artistic needs and excellence. Collaborative, porous, networked cultures (which are now the norms in other creative businesses) are fundamentally at odds with today’s traditional non-profit arts model. It would be great to see Seattle arts organizations – who surely understand the flaws in the current model – take the lead on creating new models that were more equitable and creative.
  4. Reconsider our Building Resources: Reform relationships between Seattle’s arts organizations and their buildings. Should artists be in the business of managing real estate? There are advantages to controlling your own space to be sure. But there are many downsides, and many of our arts buildings are underused – like the ACT building or the former Intiman Playhouse. Seattle Theatre Group’s model of the Paramount, the Moore, and the Neptune is one intriguing model. But surely there are other creative ways to manage our arts spaces and add to them if they weren’t proprietarily locked up by single-user companies which aren’t artistically vibrant. I’d also build on the City’s initiative led by Matt Richter to find potential real estate and make it arts-usable (particularly an opportunity now that there are so many vacant spaces after the pandemic). And I’d invest in people like the ever-inventive Greg Lundgren who through a series of projects has tried to nudge our creative conversation into broader directions.
  5. A Venture Capital Fund: We need a cross-pollinating Creative Venture Capital Fund (CVC) with enough donor clout to seed disruptive creativity across Seattle and beyond. Our primary industries – Boeing, Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks, bio-tech, global health, etc – are all built on creativity and crucially dependent on creative workers. The CVC Fund would identify and invest in creative ideas and projects with civic impact. It would operate like a venture capital fund with identified goals and civic returns. Maybe structure it like the phenomenally successful UnitedStatesArtists program where board members are also funders who participate in directing where investments are made, and where the fund is replenished yearly. Why would Microsoft et al participate? Think of the fund as a big civic skunkworks, a place to test ideas in the real world, free of the need to be connected to product.
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5 COMMENTS

  1. Both of you sound like the typical established business owner that is trying to recreate what worked , rather than the new entrepreneur trying a new concept. Our city has changed ; we are no longer respective of business or financial accomplishment. We have become the sanctuary for do-gooders trying to solve social ills.We have changed the meaning of “Civic Pride” to being focused on social reengineering rather than rebuilding the financial core that got us to being the city we were.
    Change is good after a period of adjustment – Art will recreate itself in a form consistent with the generation in majority.

  2. The lure of a bricks and mortar home is powerful for performing arts organizations–they drag around a bone-deep need for space–for rehearsals, for sets, props and costumes, for sound and light gear, and for back office. As a result, as you say Doug, a lot of resources ( single-org buildings and the capital tied up in them) are badly underutilized. Shared venues might work–witness Town Hall or Century Link Field–but the shared resource would have to take into account the stuff problem–the need for lots of square feet to put lots of stuff that is rarely used but too valuable to throw away.

  3. Seattle’s go-for-broke arts mentality produced several too-large facilities. On my list would be Intiman, ACT, The Children’s Theatre, and possibly Benaroya Hall (bucking the national trend of building smaller auditoriums). Another punishing result is multiple facilities (expensive to staff) such as SAM’s three facilities. On my list of just-right projects: Town Hall, 12th Ave. Arts, National Nordic Museum, ArtsWest.

  4. If ACT chooses to follow the new Long Wharf Theatre (New Haven, CT) model, it (and every other organization that owns one) should find a way to divest itself from its buildings ASAP. Even the “just-right” projects you mentioned have wreaked havoc on the institutions producing within those walls. Side note: when I was the ED of ArtsWest, we had 15 floods in the basement in my first 6 months. When your job becomes all about using the wet-dry vac in the elevator shaft and not about advancing art as a cause (and today, advancing art as a means to a greater good, such as social justice, social services, and other real charitable activities), the game is lost.

    • One of the culprits in overbuilding for the arts are the campaign consultants who say to struggling organizations that the path forward is a capital campaign coupled with an endowment push. The endowment part usually falls way short, as people want to give just to the capital project. The result is much higher expenses, tiny endowments, and much bigger staffs (particularly the development staff bulked up for the campaign). The University of Washington is now pretty much committed to endless “capital campaigns,” in part to keep all that high-salaried staff busy.

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