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.