Seattle Arts are Struggling: Time for Some Fixes


Nonprofit arts institutions in Seattle and many other cities are in big financial trouble. Here’s a good summary of the factors for theater companies from Michael Paulson of the New York Times: “Costs are up, the government assistance that kept many theaters afloat at the height of the pandemic has mostly been spent, and audiences are smaller than they were before the pandemic, a byproduct of shifting lifestyles (less commuting, more streaming), some concern about the downtown neighborhoods in which many large nonprofit theaters are situated (worries about public safety), and broken habits (many former patrons, particularly older people, have not returned).”

To which maladies, also outlined on Post Alley recently by Kurt Beattie, I would add: shifting priorities for corporate and foundation donors; less interest in the arts by the tech wealth; declining reviews in daily newspapers; much higher costs (driven by staff inequities) to produce shows; competition from traveling musicals with broader appeal and marketing clout; and competition from suburban venues (cheaper and easier to get to).

I expect Seattle arts groups will try to weather these downturns, mostly by scaling back the run of productions (as ACT has done), the number of yearly productions (Seattle Opera), by rationing the risky/preachy shows that traditional audiences resist, and by cutting administrative overhead. Others will wait for the government bailout that normally comes in a highly visible emergency.

Andy Horvitz, writing about the long-standing trends driving down theater attendance, cautions about the risks in just waiting out these trends, since they are endemic and have bedeviled the arts well before the pandemic:

“It’s easy to blame the pandemic but these downward trends are long-standing, decades in the making really, and speak to a larger, mostly unexamined question of relevance, meaning and impact. The performing arts generally, and theater specifically — despite gobs of foundation money injected into the system to support ‘innovation,’ ‘engagement,’ and ‘digital transformation’ — remains woefully out of touch. It is not serving its legacy audiences and it is not attracting new audiences in any meaningful way.”

Here, then, are some more fundamental fixes to consider, drawn from conversations with arts leaders, from standard business practices, and from other cities. 

First, a big caveat: I doubt there is settled leadership to guide such disruptive changes, at least yet. Consider all the vacancies in key leadership jobs: ACT (seeking a new managing director), the Rep (which has just selected its new artistic director, Dámaso Rodriguez from LA and Portland stages), the Symphony (still missing a music director), the Opera (whose general director Christina Scheppelmann is moving to a prestigious Brussels job), 5th Avenue Theatre (which just announced a new managing director, Katie Maltais from a similar job in Houston), and most jarringly the sudden resignation of Amada Cruz of the  Seattle Art Museum.

Merge or Purge. Ever since the World’s Fair of 1962, Seattle has witnessed an ambitious birth rate for arts groups (and relatively little death rate). So now might be a good time to consider cost-efficient mergers. Some examples: Seattle Symphony and Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestras; Seattle Repertory Theatre and Children’s Theatre; ACT and 5th Avenue Theatre; the two dueling efforts to create performance venues in Bellevue, the 2,000-seat PACE and the 1,000-seat EastHUB; the Opera and the Ballet. 

To create incentives to merge (which will be strongly resisted by boards and artistic staff), it might require ArtsFund or a revived PONCHO to create a fund to underwrite such smart mergers for several years. A really big fix would be to combine major musical operations (Ballet, Opera, Symphony) with an “intendant” in charge as in some German cities, where the government funding is way more generous than in America.

Arts Bonds. Another ploy from the private sector is to borrow the money and fund growth in a way that the loan can be repaid. Possibly a consortium of lenders (private folks and banks) could make available loans that would be interest-only for the first years. To get such loans, arts groups would be forced to produce plans for financial sustainability, which relatively few arts organizations now have.

A Hollywood Bowl. Outdoor, large-audience venues help support some symphonies (Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago), and Seattle has the mild, sunny summers to support a local Bowl. (Ah, but where?)

Developer Synergy. As is being tried in Bellevue, work deals with real estate developers to build raw performance space into new commercial buildings (in exchange for greater heights), with the nonprofit group raising funds to finish the facility and run the operations. SAM tried this arrangement with Washington Mutual, and the scheme ran into problems when the bank failed. It may be a way to interest arts-averse companies such as Amazon and Microsoft by solving their needs for more offices and more amenities for employees. Such an approach also fits with a strategy to save downtown by making it more desirable for residents and visitors.

Saved by the Suburbs. Seattle, like many other cities, has built its arts facilities as a way to “save” downtown. But now, many cities such as Los Angeles are realizing that congestion, costs, and public safety are combining to create rival performance venues in such places as Orange County, Pasadena, Northridge, and San Diego. Might this be a formula for Seattle, which already has performance venues in Edmonds, Auburn, Mount Vernon, Kirkland, Issaquah, Langley, and Bremerton. There are risks, such as losing audiences and donors, but also gains in growing audiences and more run-out work for artists.

Capital Campaigns. The secondary benefits of these brick-and-mortar campaigns are: building a crack fundraising team, enhancing endowments, and appealing to donors who like tangible results. However, most of the capital campaigns are done for local arts, the surplus funding for endowments is elusive, and fundraising consultants soak up a lot of the money.

Think Small. Ever since the 1962 World’s Fair, Seattle has pursued major-league arts, and perhaps over-generated the number of its performance groups and erected optimistically-sized venues. By contrast, Portland has built a formula for the arts that is more intimate, lower-overhead, more experimental, more resilient, and with affordable tickets. Seattle is now heading that way, so why not make a virtue of this necessity?

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. Thanks for this David. In my (church) world I thought it was generally a good idea to want people to come out feeling better than when they went in, which if often the opposite of what people experience. Applied to Seattle theater — we were season ticket holders to Intiman for some years. While we enjoyed some productions, it often felt as if we were taking our medicine with regard to this social issue or that. You didn’t come out lighter on your feet. This spring we were in New York and took in two Broadway shows, one of which “Kimberly Akimbo,” had a pretty dark premise, but still left you celebrating life. I wonder if Seattle theater is often so committed to “consciousness raising” that people don’t often actually enjoy the experience. I also noted that while Intiman audiences were generally older and white, the Broadway audiences were way younger and way more diverse. Maybe unfair to compare the two, but such thoughts did cross my mind.

  2. The “darkness” and tendentious of much Seattle theater today is itself a symptom of the decline of formerly dominant institutions. As audiences declined, formerly mid- cult managements were raked over by younger, more tendentious artists, aiming at a more tendentious—and much narrower-demographic, one suspicious of the very idea of theater as “mere entertainment.” The names “Seattle Rep” and “Intiman” remain; the original artistic visions matching the names evaporated a generation ago.

  3. David, do you have a ballpark idea of how much money Seattle’s major arts institutions, taken together, would need annually to fulfill their missions as upper-tier regional leaders in their domains? What would decent annual budgets for the art museum, symphony, opera, ballet, rep, intiman, ACT, Henry/Meany etc add up to? Knowing that might be a starting point for any effort at a systemic fix.

    • Tom: Your good question begs a question: how many front-rank arts organizations do we want to support? If we were like other cities (Boston, Cleveland) we would generously fund two top organizations (usually symphony and art museum) at about the $40 million annual level. Seattle has over-reached by trying to have five majors (adding opera, ballet, and Rep), each aspiring to about a $20 million annual budget. That adds up to about $100 million annually for the top five, and I would add about $50 million to the rest. As I suggest, I would also propose that some groups merge or drink a bowl of hemlock or shrink back considerably (as the Rep and ACT have done). The tough money to raise if for general operations, as opposed to capital campaigns and audience-outreach initiatives.

      The other weakness in our arts organization is reserve funds or endowments, and these two have been difficult to fund. The exception is the Art Museum, which realizes about $10 million annually from its $200 million endowment.

      The over-reach I mention was caused by Seattle’s usual over-swinging and “major-league-itis,” as well as the funding of fulltime seasons by the Ford Foundation (later cut way back). How to diet from this unsustainable formula is very difficult to do, absent real leadership or a generous foundation that steps on some air hoses.

  4. I think the problems in Seattle arts organization cannot be lumped together and require different solutions to turn things around. The decline of ACT is due to the decline in safety in downtown Seattle at its location (for example, the company no longer recommends parking at the Convention Center parking lot, so that customers need to walk through scary streets to reach the theatre) and its recent overly narrow focus on DEI oriented political theater. Seattle Rep does not have the same safety issue, but its program priorities have also reduced its audience.

    The Seattle Symphony is having financial problems due to decision by its former Danish conductor to breach his contract and abandon his job during Covid. I suspect traveling to the US while our country was reeling from Covid while Trump was President and Seattle downtown was suffering was a factor in his decision. But the Board’s failure to choose a leader more quickly (a decision could have been made by now, before the start of the 2023-24 season, even if the conductor would start later) is hard to understand. And the Board’s failure to share its timeline for choosing a conductor leaves the Symphony leaderless for two seasons does not constitute good public relations. Finally, the crime wave near Benaroya Hall is also very noticeable and probably affects ticket sales.

    I accept the Seattle Opera’s director’s publicly stated reason for leaving: she got an offer from a bigger, more famous opera company in Europe. In other words she got poached! She is leaving when her contract expires, so her departure is not a shock, given the competing offer she received from a company with a far greater budget, that probably paid her more than she would have received here if her contract was renewed.

    I love the arts and have attended and been a subscriber to all of these institutions. However, I do not think more public money would solve their problems, at least not at the levels that Seattle and King County could afford now. Getting more money from the state seems unlikely. And the strings that would be attached to any money coming from Seattle government would probably be considerable. Unless their are real changes in the City Council membership following the November elections, I wouldn’t trust its members to do what is best for arts institutions and their audiences.


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