Mayor Bruce Harrell, elected in the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, inherited obstacles unknown to his predecessors, many of them pertaining to Seattle’s arts and culture sector.

Harrell’s administration is charged not only with helping the arts community regain its footing after pandemic closures but also addressing ongoing issues of how artists and arts organizations can thrive in an increasingly expensive city, all while appointing permanent city leadership in the arts.

There is currently an interim director and an interim deputy director in Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture, which promotes the value of arts and culture, manages programs ensuring public access to art and provides grants. And the Seattle Arts Commission, made up of 16 citizen volunteers that support the Office of Arts & Culture, has four vacancies, as well as new co-chairs after the previous co-chairs simultaneously resigned in September.

Seattle Times arts recovery coverage

Seattle’s thriving and vital arts-and-culture community has been rocked by the coronavirus pandemic and the only thing certain about the future is change. The Seattle Times takes an in-depth look at the sector’s recovery in 2022 with support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. We will explore how both individuals and institutions are doing in the wake of the pandemic; track where relief money is going; and look at promising solutions to challenges facing our arts community. We invite you to join the conversation. Send your stories, comments, tips and suggestions to artsrecovery@seattletimes.com.

More

The pandemic has made funding unstable for the Office of Arts & Culture, too. Seattle has a 5% tax on event admissions charges, 100% of which is used to help fund the office’s grant programs, facilities, cultural space program and arts education work. After the pandemic halted events, the office, which previously based its annual budget on the revenue from two years prior, moved to a new funding structure. The 2021 Adopted Budget included legislation that set the Arts and Culture Fund’s operating reserve — a fund set aside to provide a cushion against unexpected losses or expenses — at 20% of its operating budget, greatly reducing the budgets cuts needed.

Harrell said his priorities thus far in his term have been addressing issues of homelessness and public safety downtown, so he has not put forth any plans for the arts sector or the Office of Arts & Culture. He said he is confident in the ability of Alley-Barnes and does not want to rush in filling the director position.

Advertising

We spoke with Harrell regarding his commitment to Seattle’s arts and culture and how he plans to support the sector’s recovery. Then, we asked three local arts leaders what their sector’s biggest current challenges are and how Seattle’s new leader can help them move forward. Here’s what they had to say.

The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell

On his commitment to the arts:

Being a local kid in Seattle, and … having patronized a lot of the city facilities as a kid, when I became a council member, I think I was like the chief cheerleader and investor into cultural facilities — I always tried to be at least — recognizing the incredible asset that they are. … On the council, whenever we would deliberate on our budget, I would try to invest in these different departments. More than art for art’s sake, more for arts for the betterment of our communities’ sake. 

The role of arts coming out of a COVID pandemic is incredibly increased. How we communicate and learn to laugh again and embrace one another and build this industry up, together, is going to be critical toward my success as a mayor. … I think as we look at the industry, where we have people that have been socially isolated, we have an opportunity to bring all people together once again. That’s what my commitment to the arts recovery efforts are going to be about.

On his plans for the Office of Arts & Culture:

I haven’t made any new decisions regarding the arts and culture department, changing the independent nature of it. … But I do think it’s a stand-alone department because of its unique, sort of core competency. … I don’t want to go on record as saying that the organization is stagnant. They’ve done the best they could under the circumstances of COVID. … But there’s a huge budget gap that exists, irrespective of the art and culture department. … But I will tell you that where I come out on my budget proposal will be strong in supporting the arts.

The existing [interim director in the Office of Arts & Culture], Royal Alley-Barnes, is doing an outstanding job right now, so I haven’t had an evaluative process, per se, in making decisions. … The issues of homelessness and housing and public safety are requiring an inordinate amount of time. And I don’t want to rush through some of these really important decisions. 

On how the state of downtown Seattle affects the arts:

People demand to feel safe when they go to a show or a museum, and their demands are reasonable. And when I look at activating spaces downtown, I have to make sure they are visibly and aesthetically pleasing, they’re safe, clean. 

Advertising

On his plan to help the arts find success after pandemic closures:

My One Seattle concept is we have to realize that that is what made Seattle very special to begin with, our artistic vibe. So we have to recognize that and not take it for granted. We just can’t think because masks come off and we turn lights on in a place that was shut down for two years that the magic happens. We have to be very intentional about this. And the other piece is, we have a next generation of people coming here, coming off the bench, so to speak, ready to display their talent. … So I think those are the areas: making sure that people feel safe, they realize that what we’re coming out of is unprecedented and if we’re going to create the Seattle at least I envision, we have to be extremely intentional about it.

Tim Lennon, executive director of LANGSTON

LANGSTON is the nonprofit organization behind Seattle’s historic Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center and centers Black art, artists and audiences.

On the biggest threats to Seattle’s arts sector:

I think that there are a lot of threats that are not unique to our sector, certainly — the increasing unaffordability of the city, both for our cultural workers to be able to afford housing, as well as our cultural institutions with commercial real estate. … There was quite a bit — in 2020 and 2021 — of local, state and federal, particularly federal, investment in recovery. And as that funding, both pandemic relief and pandemic recovery funding, dries up, there are still quite a few of our businesses, quite a few of our cultural workers, who have a lot of bills that are going to come due. And I think that our inability to predict with any kind of accuracy how and whether and to what extent we’ve been able to reopen, over these last six months especially, is really going to impact our long-term viability. But most critically, it’s going to put us in a really risky position as relief and recovery funding goes away and audiences haven’t quite come back to the numbers that we need them to. There’s gonna be a big deficit there.

On the mayor’s role in helping combat these threats:

It’s really important to stress that the arts, culture, music, nightlife ecosystem is a major economic driver of the region. And critically, especially as the mayor has been tackling issues of reopening downtown and public safety and getting folks comfortable engaging in our community civic life, arts could be a major factor in revitalizing downtown. … What I would love to see the city do, and specifically the mayor, is articulate a clear vision for how the Office of Economic Development and the Office of Arts & Culture will be leveraged to advance current top priorities of the mayor’s office as articulated, specifically because we are such huge economic drivers, but also because we bring people together, and I know the mayor’s a really big proponent of that. And I think that he’s leaving a lot of opportunities on the table by not engaging directly with the arts/culture/music/nightlife ecosystem, specifically at this time. … Here’s an opportunity to do a major reset, particularly through the lens of bringing us back together and bringing Seattle back to its glory days.

On the role of the Office of Arts & Culture in helping the sector find success:

Advertising

Standing up for our sector within city government is really critical. Ensuring that the constituency that the Office of Arts & Culture serves can be better connected to city departments, to city initiatives is huge. Expanding opportunity for emerging artists and emerging arts organizations is really huge. … It comes back to the city’s vision for how it wants to leverage the amazing resources that we have as a city in our cultural sector. And having the Office of Arts & Culture really explicitly stating its goals and vision, in alignment with that of a city in general, the mayor’s office in particular, and partnering with us to figure out how we’re going to do that. … It’s also really important that … the Office of Arts & Culture not look to save a buck, not look to decrease its spending. Obviously, there’s a huge hit to the admissions tax with the closures of the last two years. But with every dollar that they do bring in, getting that back out the door into the community, as quickly and efficiently as possible, is really critical right now.

Rose Cano, co-founder and artistic director emerita of eSe Teatro

eSe Teatro is a Seattle-based theater company focused on promoting Latinx artists and stories.

On the biggest threats to Seattle’s arts sector:

Where are the rehearsal spaces? That’s always a big issue, rehearsal spaces that are affordable. Everyone has been short staffed, people have left and moved on to other things. … And then any COVID costs. If we have to continue to do weekly testing, what’s the mechanism for that, who pays for that? I’m thinking of the mental health aspects. These two years, you couldn’t plan your season or your next project or you had to postpone it several times. That kind of undermines your sense of moving forward. So now, I feel like everybody’s exploding into opening. … I think it makes for kind of a strained return to figure out how you know how comfortable you are with rehearsing scenes in close proximity with other actors.

On the mayor’s role in helping combat these threats:

I’m thinking a holistic approach. … The mayor could work on these issues of homelessness and violence through the arts. The arts are a really powerful vehicle to create these community discussions, so you could be doing these things at the same time. So going into different organizations with artists, paying artists to go into organizations, through a performance, being able to be the catalyst for dialogue. … That’s the whole thing about Pioneer Square, the beautification of Pioneer Square and engaging the neighbors as being the ambassadors.

I had this idea … that the city paid the venue, just like Section Eight, and then the artists that rent the venue pay a tiny amount — a dollar, a few bucks — by the hour for the special ‘Section Art’ venues. So the venue gets their money because they also need to survive, but the artists can have the rehearsal space at almost no cost, as opposed to having to write endless grants — there’s no time. … Your art product goes down because you don’t have enough time to rehearse, or even brainspace. You spend hours trying to search for $4,000. The city is great with the amount of grants that they have, and they’ve helped me with proposals, but I still think that in terms of these venues, if that’s one less thing to apply for, that’d be great.

On the role of the Office of Arts & Culture in helping the sector find success:

Sponsored

As many low-barrier programs [as possible], especially to emerging artists. … Low-barrier, small grants that can get your foot in the door. … It seems like the big theaters every year will get these big grants, these big endowments. It’s kind of expected; you have to support your ballet, you have to support your opera, you have to support your big theaters. And they have all these employees to be able to write these grants. So, how are we going to help all these smaller theaters that don’t have these employees to take the time to write these grants? Is there any way that we can make that an easier process?

Manny Cawaling, executive director of Inspire Washington

Inspire Washington is a statewide cultural advocacy organization that works to increase public access to science, heritage and arts programming.

On the biggest threats to Seattle’s arts sector:

There’s fear and there’s uncertainty, and there’s worry, and all of that is baked in after two years of vigilance. … There is the shrinking of federal funds, which has been a lifeline. There is an uncertain community that’s unsure about returning, so they’re not going to meet their projections, their audiences are not at the same level they were before. They lost a lot of their workforce when they had no choice but to let them go, so they’re having to rehire. … We have lost people who’ve moved to other industries. … And I think there’s also just a weariness. … The constant pivoting, the constant reframing, the planning and the canceling and the planning and the canceling — I think that really weighs on them. 

One of the other obstacles — it’s a little less tangible, but it’s a real thing — is the culture of how people even look at cultural programs. That vigilance and isolation [during the pandemic], it’s like it’s baked into us now. And we have to overcome that, we have to break out of that mindset and go, ‘No, I want to be connected to people, I want to know the people in my community, I want to get out of my bubble.’ And that’s hard.

On the mayor’s role in helping combat these threats:

The state has a lot of revenue, but they didn’t win a lottery, they didn’t find money. They have this revenue because the state tax collection is doing well, which means that there are a lot of businesses, despite the pandemic, that are just raking in money. But who is that? Because it is not your local performing arts center or your local visual arts school or your local after-school theater program for your kid. The recovery is uneven. So what can our leaders do, to guide us as a community, to ensure that the community recovers? … I think it’s going to become very clear that it’s the cultural sector that really adds measurable, specific quality of life to communities, to families, to individuals, that we’re the ones that need help and also, we’re critical to the healing of our communities. We are what gets people out of their homes and off their phones, even before the pandemic, connecting with one another. We produce, and it generates a tremendous amount of economy. … So tying all these things together, then, who stands up for us? Who also sees the opportunity for all of our communities to benefit from cultural programming, and when are they going to champion for us to really recover the way that we need to recover?

On the role of the Office of Arts & Culture in helping the sector find success:

Advertising

The Office of Arts & Culture is multifaceted. … They have really evolved all of their funding practices to really meet the communities where they are, to be more inclusive and to be more accessible. And then they have community leaders who are part of the work and making decisions and being those ambassadors. So I think that that’s really important. And yes, there was some friction around the appointment of an interim director without a process, but … it’s testimony to how important [the community sees] the role the Office of Arts & Culture played in the recovery and how they see them as the champion. If they don’t see an elected official kind of being their hero, they always felt at least comfortable that the office would be their hero. … So I think the administration just really has to rely on the office as being their partner.

This story has been updated to clarify that the Office of Arts and Culture did not use federal funding to fund the office during the pandemic. Rather, the office’s funding structure was changed to protect from shortfalls.

_____

This coverage is partially underwritten by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all its coverage.