Seattle’s Arts Crunch, and Some Suggested Remedies


Seattle arts managers don’t say this out loud, but the ones I talk to in private are very worried that Seattle’s arts surge has hit a wall — several walls – and many are whistling about these graveyards. 

One generous donor put it this way: “Thirty percent of the audiences are not returning to their seats, and remote audiences are transitory and less generous donors. Season-ticket holders are declining, which means increased marketing budgets to sell single tickets. Audiences are wary of being downtown after dark. Donors are tapped out due to emergency drives for the pandemic and the great recession. Federal funds for the arts during the pandemic are ending, and reserve funds are spent. Government funding has swung to the politicized, diversity/equity agenda. Corporations and foundations have shifted from funding the arts to funding social services. Most arts managers spend their time wondering how to make it to the end of the month.”

These arts groups formerly were driven by strong leaders who got their way and raised money to support their agendas. (Many were making their mark and moving on to bigger cities.) Now, many of these leaders are new to town, recruited nationally. Some organizations, such as the Symphony and the Rep, are searching for artistic leaders. Given staff impatience with the impresario style, these new leaders must learn the art of walking on eggshells. Nor is there a broadly respected arts leader of the Peter Donnelly stature. 

There are some lights at the end of these tunnels. One is tourist-based and more commercially appealing arts, as witness the Symphony’s pops programming. One obstacle to drawing more visitors to the arts is the fact that Seattle no longer has a heavily marketed, big-draw event such as the Wagner Ring Cycle, nor indeed much activity in the weather-blessed summer.

Another glimmering light is the statewide funding just enacted by the Legislature, who made passage of taxes for the arts easier at the county level by allowing councils to enact the funding rather than, as before, requiring a vote of the residents. I worry about all the political agendas that these councils will layer on the funds.  

To these, let me suggest two other ways to regain momentum.

Summer festivals. Some years ago, Kurt Beattie, then artistic director at ACT Theatre, suggested a format where each participating organization would produce one show in the summer, as part of its regular season and as part of a widely promoted summer festival. (The idea didn’t get off the runway, despite Beattie’s shopping it around.) Even though Seattle’s summer weather is a national draw, our summer arts programming is thin. ACT itself used to focus on the sunny part of the year, but now is year-round.  Seattle Opera, stuck with a crowded winter schedule in the old Opera House, took advantage of the empty stage in the summer to build a set and have full rehearsal time for a big summer production. The resulting Ring cycle gave Seattle an international reputation for the arts, but now seems beyond the Opera’s financial ability to mount it. Nor has the Symphony chosen to develop an outdoor setting for summer concerts, as Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, and Cleveland have done.

It may also be that with Ashland’s financial woes, Seattle now has an opportunity to start a distinctive arts festival here in the city and in nearby bucolic venues such as Port Townsend. One thinks of possible themes: nature, Asia, folk and popular arts, world culture, the broader “creativity” agenda such as video games and AI. 

Such a festival idea would prompt a lot of foot-dragging due to rivalries, groups in financial crisis, a shortage of hotel rooms in peak season, Seattle’s diminished reputation for artistic excellence, fewer wealthy donors to the arts, and the shortage of a trusted, overall leader. Still, Seattle did this once with the 1962 World’s Fair, which ignited a now-waning arts boom, and the 1990 Goodwill Arts Festival. Lastly, the drive for such a summer festival might have another advantage — building out arts venues in places such as the Eastside.

The Return of PONCHO. The organization, an acronym for Patrons of Northwest Civic, Charitable and Cultural Organizations, raised lots of money for the arts at its annual auction gala from 1963 until its demise in 2008. It may be that there were too many competing auction evenings, as the success of PONCHO spawned and there still is a surfeit. But the case for a non-governmental, broad-based fundraising organization, perhaps focused on the professional arts organizations, just gets stronger as money gets shorter and the political agenda for the arts dominates. 

One can imagine a more contemporary agenda for PONCHO 2.0, such as building in Southeast Seattle a small Seattle Center for rehearsals, classes, and performances; reduced ticket prices; touring coordination among the many small theaters (such as the Edmonds Center for the Arts); replacing arts instruction in the public schools. Best would be the creation of a civic group to push for arts-oriented funding particularly for a limited number of outstanding, pace-setting organizations, for capital projects, to fund neglected repairs, and favoring participatory arts (such as choral groups). Allied Arts, which was started in 1958 to add the arts to the World’s Fair menu, has also faded away and lost its arts focus, and a replacement is very much needed. 

Lastly, it may be that the diversity agenda, now dominant in local arts, has run its course. A recent study in England “found that [diversity programs] tend to be limited in scope and legacy as they are often dependent on finite projects and funds.” It may be that the diversity agenda will be ratcheted up to an anti-racism agenda, or that this push has lost its sway as traditional audiences grow tired of being told that they are the problem (as seems to have happened in Ashland’s Shakespeare Festival), not the asset. A new PONCHO might be the occasion for this kind of enriched and modernized PUNCH, contesting the current agenda and over-broad funding mechanisms. 

David Brewster
David Brewster
David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.


  1. There are many reasons why the PONCHO and Allied Arts model ceased to be effective in Seattle a city that has changed in many ways in the times since their founding. Covid, of course, did not help, and in many ways magnified trends already in place. I liked David’s idea of city, even region-wide summer arts programming. The idea of a festival bringing together many local, national even international artists is appealing as a way to encourage communities to join together at several locations at a time when we are more and more separated from each other.

    It also seems like a good time for an interested party to organize a convocation of stakeholders in the performing arts (artists, presenters, funders, political and community leaders, audience members) to organize a blueprint for the future.

  2. The diversity agenda has crippled artists and art groups in Seattle. I haven’t gone to the Henry in a decade. Most exhibits are “issue centered” and boring. The artists have no sense of visual power unless it’s linked to creating white guilt. And the donors have no visual education because they’ve amassed their wealth in the technology world and are clueless about the humanities.
    The diversity agenda hasn’t only ruined the Henry. I don’t bother to respond to Calls for Artists anymore because artists with a long track record of achievements are disqualified because of race, ethnicity and mostly gender.
    These things come genetically and have no place in evaluating the merits of the artists. Its a Catch 22 that seems to elude the gatekeepers in the arts.

  3. Well, when Seattle Public Schools is cutting programs in music and arts, the “pipeline” of creatives is minimizing. We might start by ensuring kids have exposure to arts by keeping them IN the schools, thereby exposing the next generations to a level of appreciation, as well as developing skills that enable careers in the arts.

  4. I wonder if a new Wagner’s Ring would be very much of a draw. When it first started it was done in both German and English. That ended with a new General Manager. If one looks around the opera world today, there a Ring productions everywhere. When Seattle was doing it, regular productions were pretty much limited to Bayreuth and Seattle. If someone would give Christina Scheppelman six or ten million dollars she’d stage a Ring.

    Much as I enjoy theatre, I am tired of politically correct shows and casting. Tired of hearing the same concert over and over and over again. I bought my first Seattle Symphony season ticket when I was about fifteen years old. I gave up after fifty years, weary of German music over and over.

    I don’t have an answer, at eight-eight years of age, I’ve seen many changes in Seattle Art’s Community. Today, I fear too many so-called leaders have “Master’s Degrees” with lots of theories but little practical experience.

    • Nothing against the current g.m., whom I know nothing about, but I miss Speight Jenkins and his dedicated, long leadership for operas and the arts in Seattle. He made certain the Ring got staged— he made sure the fundraising happened among the opera’s long time supporters. He didn’t wait for money to just rain down on Mercer Street. But @Coe Tug Morgan, at 88, you may not think you have answers, but you are needed. Someone with practical experience and strong opinions is definitely needed, as much if not more than the MFA’s

  5. The Seattle Opera has lost me forever, after they initiated their “no hushing performance” or “relaxed performance” policies.

    A week before your scheduled opera, you get an email that a relaxed, conversational atmosphere will prevail and “no hushing” is allowed.

    Naturally, they don’t want to refund me my ticket price, but they will…..
    talk about politically correct…it’s now concerned incorrect to expect people not to chatter and talk and laugh during an opera.

  6. In addition to ruinously expensive tickets, the Seattle Opera and, to a lesser extent, Act, the Rep, and Pacific NW Ballet, want to create a more relaxed audience ambience….more club-like, which is fine for certain venues. But when I’m attending the opera, I want it to be quiet, without people getting up and out of their seats, talking, chattering ….
    the only behavior prohibited now, is to “hush” others.
    These arts venues are also charging $13 “processing fees” which they don’t explain. And the Opera has balked at refunding my ticket price, six days in advance of the opera. I would be embarrassed to take my opera-loving relative to La Traviata under those circumstances. It doesn’t matter how much you spend on your seat, either…
    I don’t want a nightclub atmosphere while I”m listening to an o

    • Trish Saunders: “Relaxed performance” isn’t the norm at Seattle Opera. It was just one out of nine “La Traviata” performances, an attempt to woo families with children, newcomers, and others intrigued by opera in a casual atmosphere. The company also featured a night aimed at Korean audiences during the Traviata run, a performance with family-friendly prices and even cheap beer during the interval at one show.

      Like opera companies everywhere, Seattle’s is worried about an audience that skews geriatric. It’s trying a variety of musical and marketing ploys to attract both new and younger fans. Some ideas work, some flop. You can’t blame them for trying because hewing to the status quo is a death wish.

      Yes, I’m a long-time subscriber but I’m not totally in the tank. More than a few offerings in the post-Speight Jenkins years have left me grumbling. (Hello “A Thousand Splendid Suns.”) But it was perfectly possible to find a Traviata ticket that wasn’t “ruinously expensive” with an audience that behaved in the traditional opera-going norms, if that was your preference.

      Traviata was terrific, by the way. A textbook example of what inspired directing and first-rate singing can do to bring an old opera chestnut to life. Too bad if you missed it.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Comments Policy

Please be respectful. No personal attacks. Your comment should add something to the topic discussion or it will not be published. All comments are reviewed before being published. Comments are the opinions of their contributors and not those of Post alley or its editors.