Some of you aren’t crazy about lists for perfectly understandable reasons: Lists can be arbitrary; they can oversimplify. But they also have their uses.
In her 2013 essay, “The Listicle as Literary Form,” linguist Arika Okrent compared listicles to limericks and haiku: tiny, predictable packets of words that people simply enjoy. “Lists may not lead us to deeper understanding of the world,” Okrent wrote, “but they give us the reassuring sense that understanding is at least possible.”
So, in that spirit, here are a few memorable things that happened in the Seattle arts and culture world in the past decade.
1. Seattle Art Fair: A cultural initiative by the late Paul Allen, Seattle Art Fair debuted in Aug. 2015 and did its job as catalyst — the fair brought international, jet-set galleries and buyers to town, but also inspired/provoked the satellite fair, Out of Sight. The local-centric Out of Sight was both a serious retort to the mainstream fair (the art was great) and a carnival of cheekiness (it had BMX stunt bikers). Both gave the Seattle scene a new sense of ballast, a new center of gravity.
Out of Sight’s last show was in 2017, but (unlike some mayfly Allen projects) Seattle Art Fair has stuck. Next year’s event is scheduled for July 23-26, 2020.
2. The “Mikado” affair: In 2014, the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society staged “The Mikado” with actors in yellowface — white people playing Japanese characters — and were stunned by the blowback. The Japanese American Citizens League showed up to protest, columns were written and the story went national, kindling a much-needed bonfire of conversation about race and representation. Those conversations had been simmering quietly for years, and in discrete corners, but “The Mikado” opened a vent, allowing pent-up energy into the mainstream. Suddenly, questions of power in the arts — who gets heard, who gets the limelight and, more importantly, who gets to act as gatekeepers — seemed to be on everybody’s lips.
3. Heightened focus on diversity: In hindsight, the “Mikado” affair looks like a local current joining forces with larger jet streams (Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement, others) collectively blowing traditionally white-led arts organizations toward actively thinking about diversity (or at least trying to): not just who gets represented on the stage and on the walls but, more critically, who gets hired to curate, to cast, to act as gatekeepers. A few examples: Northwest Film Forum now has an executive director, artistic director and board president who are women of color. Seattle Art Museum’s big Edward Curtis exhibit devoted significant square footage to contemporary Native artists Tracy Rector, Marianne Nicholson and Will Wilson. New hires for artistic leadership around town (with the exception of Thomas Dausgaard at Seattle Symphony) tended to be women. And what is the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society doing this winter? “Cabaret,” starring Black actor Tanesha Ross (who has a Broadway credit) as Sally Bowles. Is the legacy of white-male institutional domination “fixed”? Don’t be ridiculous. But it can no longer be ignored.
4. Turnover at the top: Before 2009-2010, directors at Seattle arts organizations typically held onto their jobs for a decade or more. But in the past 10 years, those posts have seemed more like revolving doors. Observe:
Seattle Art Museum: Mimi Gates (1994-2009), Derrick Cartwright (2009-2011), Kimerly Rorschach (2012-2019), Amada Cruz (2019-now). Intiman Theatre: Bart Sher (2000-2010), Kate Whoriskey (2010-2011), Andrew Russell (2012-2017), Jen Zeyl (2017-now). Seattle Symphony: Gerard Schwarz (1985-2011), Ludovic Morlot (2011-2019), Thomas Dausgaard (2019-now). Seattle Opera: Speight Jenkins (1983-2014), Aidan Lang (2014-2019), Christina Scheppelmann (2019-now). Seattle Children’s Theatre: Linda Hartzell (1984-2015), Courtney Sale (2016-2020).
More notable are the houses without turnover: Taproot Theatre (Scott Nolte, 1976-now); Book-It Repertory Theatre (Myra Platt and Jane Jones, 1990-2020, with Gus Menary named as their successor); and Strawberry Theatre Workshop (Greg Carter, 2003-now).
Why the shift? One theory: For many years, Seattle was in a phase of building art palaces and art organizations. Once they were up, the top jobs became less about a large, cross-organizational Seattle betterment project and more closely resembled your typical, private-sector steppingstone gigs.
5. Always be closing: As local playwright and novelist Paul Mullin wrote in 2010: “Theater takes place.” At the time, he probably didn’t realize the next decade would see a spike in rents and cost of living, triggering a bloodbath of places (housing, venues) where Seattle art is gestated and born.
A tiny sampling from a long file of tombstones: the 619 Western Building, a 30 year-old artist colony with around 100 tenants (2011); indie-inclined movie theaters (Harvard Exit, 2015; Seven Gables and Guild 45th, 2017); some of the more thrilling art galleries/spaces (Lawrimore Project, 2012; Suyama Space, 2016; Mariane Ibrahim, 2019); the Little Theater on 19th, home to performance-art concern Room 608, then Northwest Film Forum, then Washington Ensemble Theatre (2014); Tula’s Restaurant and Jazz Club (2019); DIY and punk venues like Healthy Times Fun Club (2011) and Cairo (2016); the “old” Comet Tavern, which was an electrifying, scruffy live-music venue until it was bought and spiffed up as just another “Cap Hill” bar (2013); and so on.
6. 12th Avenue Arts!: In the good-news column, Capitol Hill Housing opened the new, two-theater venue in 2014, capped with 88 affordable-housing apartments. 12th Avenue Arts became a home to Strawberry Theatre Workshop, Washington Ensemble Theatre and New Century Theatre Company (which called it quits in 2017), and hosted hundreds of other performers. Black Box Operations, which manages the two theaters, recently reported that in the past five years, 12th Avenue Arts has seen 132 productions with 50 weeks of performance each year. That is impressive.
7. Building stimulus: Seattle Asian Art Museum closed for renovation in 2017, and is scheduled to reopen in 2020. The Burke Museum moved a few hundred feet into its new “museum inside-out” designed by Olson Kundig (2019). The Nordic Museum moved from a decommissioned schoolhouse to a Mithun-designed monolith in Ballard (2018). The new Sea Mar Museum of Chicano/a/Latino/a Culture (2019) transformed a former Burien casino into a repository of recent history, and Wa Na Wari (2019) created a home for Black art in a Central District house-turned-gallery.
8. Arts coverage erosion: Local publications continued to contract and arts writing took deep hits. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer was a harbinger, going online-only in 2009. Weekly papers The Stranger and Seattle Weekly thinned out until The Stranger became an every-other-week paper in 2017 and Seattle Weekly went online-only in Feb. 2019. City Arts magazine collapsed in 2018.
The Seattle Times held on, but has refocused its reduced staff on arts feature stories, rather than arts criticism.
A small but important thumb on the other side of the scales: The founding of The Seattle Globalist (2012) and The South Seattle Emerald (2014), both of which include arts and culture coverage (though as of the end of this year, the future of The Seattle Globalist is uncertain). And other outlets, including Crosscut, KUOW and Seattle Channel, continued to provide arts coverage.
9. Funding drought: In the summer of 2014, one year before Seattle Art Fair, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation pulled back arts funding in Washington (as well as in Oregon, Montana and other states). They weren’t alone. Over the past couple of decades, arts administrators say, corporate and foundation philanthropy has been ebbing from arts and flowing toward other missions, including education and public health. But the Allen Family Foundation’s 2014 pivot was a recent, and significant, blow.
10. Fond farewells: It wouldn’t be possible to mention all the great local artists and advocates who’ve passed on since 2010, including those killed in the 2012 Café Racer shooting, so let’s take a moment to pause in memoriam for them all — whether you knew the departed as friends or admired them from afar.