Go East: The Future of Regional Arts


A possible next phase for Seattle-area arts will be a suburbanization of the arts, tapping into where money and educated affluent audiences are. Already there are performance centers in Bothell, Edmonds, Vashon, Bainbridge, Issaquah, Sammamish, Kirkland, Everett, Renton, and the Bel-Red Road arts district in Bellevue. The new source of arts funding called Doors Open, designed to promote access to the arts, is likely to spread millions of annual dollars all across King County, with an emphasis on ethnic arts, participatory arts, and educational outreach.

Looking at the Eastside, I see embryonic evidence that this is already happening. But any survey must start with the glasses-half-empty and losing water before turning to the many glasses-half-full, some in response to the half-empty tumblers. 

The biggest half-empties are in Bellevue, the Eastside’s largest (153,000) and most heterogeneous city (47.2% white). The population of the combined Eastside (just counting King County) is 636,000, almost matching the Seattle population of 750,000. Regardless, there have been many setbacks for the pacesetting arts organizations on the Eastside, as follows:

Bellevue Arts Museum. Only a successful emergency fundraising effort staved off dire consequences, exceeding in a few weeks the emergency need of $300,000, but possibly tapping donors out. The museum has never really found its mission. It started off as a kunsthalle in the Bellevue Square Mall, inventive in its programming but lacking a collection. The handsome BAM building, opened in 2001 and designed by the internationally famous hometown native Steven Holl, has awkward gallery spaces, with too little of it for hanging art, and needs repairs (HVAC, elevator, first floor spaces). Typically, these suburban museums have distinctive collection philosophies and are often located (as in Houston, Indianapolis and St. Louis) in landscaped gardens, not as here right across from Bellevue Square. One thought: Bellevue Botanical Garden. 

In a sense, BAM counters Seattle’s dominance in the arts, with the no-collection model of BAM, the family orientation of Issaquah’s Village Theatre, and the jump-space model of Kirkland’s modest performing arts center.  Originally, BAM touted its flexibility by having no permanent collection, and its crafts orientation from the annual Bellevue Arts and Crafts Fair. It recently lost after one year an effective director, Michael Whittington, now replaced by Kate Casprowiak Scher, who is refreshingly open to new directions for BAM, including a permanent collection and more traveling exhibitions. The long string of directors and changes in direction are another indication of the ongoing identity crisis of BAM. 

PACE for Performing Arts Center Eastside.  This is a big gulp: a 2,000-seat hall, located in space donated by the Kemper Freeman Family in 1989 inside Freemans’ Hyatt Hotel in downtown Bellevue. There is a dauntingly big fundraising goal of $400 million. PACE hopes to mount Broadway shows, yet the best of these touring musicals are locked up by Seattle’s Paramount Theatre and the 5th Avenue Theatre. Fundraising for PACE extends back to 2002 and has been hampered by a succession of out-of-town executive directors. The new CEO, Lora Unger, recently arrived from Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium in an LA suburb. 

Among the PACE problems: an acoustical system of enhanced electronics that will discourage live classical performance; no resident companies or real commitments by Seattle majors; the expense of inserting a large concert hall in an existing building; the need to build underground parking; Microsoft and the Tateuchi family expressing strong interest which waned. Instead of setting a pace, PACE hovers like a gray rain cloud over the Eastside. A previous consultant urged them to scale back, to no avail.

EastHUB. This is a more modest idea, piggybacking with major developers to create shared co-developed space right by a Sound Transit station.  The plan was to be part of the Cloudvue three-skyscraper project, which has apparently been stalled by the developer and the sale of the ambitious project to a new developer, Plus Capital. Efforts to reach EastHub staffers and board members drew no replies. 

The plan is for a 1,000-seat multi-use space in downtown Bellevue with the commercial developer donating available space and infrastructure, and costing EastHUB a modest $60 million to fit it out for many uses. EastHUB better meets the market for Eastside performances, and the group (strongly supported by Microsoft) hoped to build other facilities in Sammamish and Spring Hill District. Again: radio silence on these more appropriately sized projects, and the instigator of this idea, national consultant Ray Collum, originally hired to run PACE, returned to Connecticut as the idea stalled.

An example of this kind of thinking is the Gage Academy of Art moving from Capitol Hill to a new space made available at deep discount by Amazon on Westlake Avenue in the heart of Amazonia. Amazon’s generosity aligned with its desire to give its employees a good nearby space to take art lessons.

So much for the half-empty glasses, all examples of Eastside arts advocates getting too far over their skis, or tying these projects too closely to developers’ whims. The Seattle top-down model of building places for major arts institutions (opera, ballet, symphony, theatre, museum) may be a poor paradigm for an emerging city.

Instead, the Eastside model is letting a thousand small arts flowers bloom, many of which are aimed at educating children and encouraging amateur arts groups. You can see this confetti-like approach in this map of the Bel-Red Arts District, which lists 60-plus arts resources in the district, soon to be anchored by a new Sound Transit station. One example is Emerald Ballet Theatre, which combines performances, master classes, and children’s classes with roots in Russian traditions. Emerald Ballet seems just the right kind of organization (outreach, education, modest overhead) for the new gusher of King County’s “Doors Open” funding.

In this way, Bellevue and the booming Eastside (good schools, good jobs, single-family homes, modern infrastructure) may finally add significant cultural venues to its menu. That will happen not by building major venues to draw a regional audience, as Seattle has done, but by a flourishing of mid-sized, family-friendly, education-rich, community-oriented, modest-budget projects. In other cities, large suburbs have built large performance halls. Examples are the Los Angeles’s suburbs of Orange County and Pasadena; New York’s outer cities like Brooklyn and Newark, St Paul, Minnesota, and suburban D.C. 

By contrast, Seattle has long aspired to create almost-major-league cultural attractions, which now may be endangered by the pandemic economics and downtown problems. The big city has thereby stinted mid-sized arts groups like the defunct Northwest Chamber Orchestra, the Group Theatre, Empty Space, Bathhouse Theatre, Book-it Theatre, and more. 

By default, Bellevue may have happened on a new paradigm for these think-smaller times.

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 Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.


  1. The Bellevue Art Museum currently is displaying an exhibit of Japanese paper art that is stunning. I happened upon it almost accidentally. It will be there until Friday, April 26. Museum hours are Wednesday – Sunday 11 am – 5 pm. There is underground parking at the Museum, which, as David wrote, is across from Bel Square.

  2. Our family went to INdia last year, when and where I hoped to hear classical Indian music and see contemporary dance. We were traveling over the holidays and so fast that we had little time for either. Hungering for that “difference” of travel and different cultures, I recently searched out performances here in Puget Sound and found that there is an entire school of “ragas”, with performances. For a fix of culture, don’t have to go half way around the globe, just to to the Eastside.


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