The high cost of living, changing demographics, even traffic are shaping the future of the city’s arts communities.
You’ve heard a hundred variations of this story — and seen it with your own eyes on the streets of Seattle.
Cranes are looming (for the second year in a row, Seattle is the U.S. crane capital). Rents are surging (63 percent higher than in 2010). Bodies are pouring into town (we’re the fastest-growing city in the nation), many of them young tech workers.
In this year’s fall arts report, we explore what these changes mean to several arts communities: local music clubs, theater, classical/opera, dance, visual art and comedy. Each medium has its own strengths and challenges, but certain themes keep emerging.
The good news: Some artists and arts organizations have successfully captured the attention of Seattle’s growing younger population. But others try to keep a brave face while quietly (and, in some cases, not so quietly) wringing their hands.
State of the arts
Across genres, many artists are ringing the same notes: Scary rents. Fears that a growing population of young tech workers has relatively little time for or interest in the city’s arts-and-culture scene. Anemic transit options that can’t keep up with the sheer number of people trying to get from one place to another, making Seattle an increasingly difficult town for artists and potential audience members.
“The ecosystem is out of balance,” said Marya Sea Kaminski, associate artistic director of Seattle Repertory Theatre — and, years ago, co-founder of Washington Ensemble Theatre, when it was just a bunch of scrappy artists with a handful of scripts and a few cases of screws and paint. “The situation is not conducive to pioneering companies.”
Attorney Ben Kerr, who has represented dozens of artists (painters, sculptors, writers, rock bands like Thunderpussy), says Seattle’s arts scene is still vibrant, but hears frustration from clients and friends about how much money sloshes around the city — and how little goes to buy paintings or otherwise participate in the city’s culture.
“If people want to maintain the quality of life and culture in Seattle, they are directly responsible for helping to fund it,” he said. “What’s the adjective most often put in front of the word ‘artist?’ ‘Starving.’ I’m uncomfortable with that being part of the cultural lexicon.”
Which isn’t to argue that there’s a total disconnect between the tech sector and local art-makers. Amazon employees Demi Raven and Janet Galore (he’s a firmware developer, she’s a creative director) recently bought an old Beacon Hill building and turned it into The Grocery Studios, where they host exhibitions, music and events by local artists.
But bright spots like The Grocery Studios seem like the exception, not the rule.
Meanwhile, as economics become a more pressing issue, art-makers are trying to pull interest from Seattle’s nouveau riche. Last year, choreographer Kate Wallich made “Industrial Ballet” — described as “‘Black Swan’ meets Nine Inch Nails” — commissioned by senior data-storage engineer Case van Rij.
Van Rij, a tech-sector worker heavily involved in the arts — a notably public counterexample to the stereotype — moved to Seattle in 1998. Many artists wonder how long it will take for newcomers to meaningfully engage on a similar level, particularly with a transient tech population. (A 2013 Payscale study showed a median employee turnover rate of one year at Amazon.)
Long-tenure tech presences like van Rij and Paul Allen (who, in the past three years, has helped launch Seattle Art Fair and the Upstream Music Festival) are largely considered outlier philanthropists who help out because they’ve spent years digging into Seattle culture.
And, in some cases, big-ticket philanthropic gestures can be as unpredictable as the stock market — Allen’s team also opened Pivot Art + Culture in 2015. The gallery shows were impressive — Willem de Kooning, Alberto Giacometti, Roy Lichtenstein — but, within months, the Seattle art world was whispering that it might close. Pivot shuttered earlier this year.
On the other hand, Seattle’s culture community has long taken pride in its independent streak — writing songs in the basement, throwing pots in the garage, making dance in abandoned warehouses — without having to potentially compromise for money, and some question whether the commission model means selling out.
Wallich takes a pragmatic view: “As an artist, the question is: ‘Is this just the king’s court?’ I think the king’s court is an interesting place to be. The artist who has to paint the portrait of the queen is getting paid to do that. There’s value, practice, creating jobs for people.” And, she points out, those commissioned works can help pay for things like her self-described “super-boring and super-meditative” next piece, “Dream Dances.”
Kerr and others believe that government should be more involved in preserving the arts in an increasingly expensive ecosystem. San Francisco is a cautionary tale. “Wasn’t San Francisco known for certain cultural things a few decades ago?” Kerr asked wryly. “A smart city government can learn from that example. It’s the role of government — subsidized housing, subsidizing work space, providing tax breaks to people involved in the arts. That, to me, is one of the best uses of the community chest.” The city and county do have some booster programs, including individual grants and public-art projects that help artists gain visibility and pay the bills.
But, “the fact that we haven’t invested in transit is the tragedy,” said Matthew Richter, cultural space liaison for Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture. “There’s something that happens in the center, around intersectionality, that drives curiosity and drives change that doesn’t happen when the black neighborhood is two suburbs away from the queer neighborhood and the Vietnamese neighborhood.”
In the meantime, arts-minded people warily watch the boom, and some wonder when the bust will arrive. In August, for example, Moody’s rated Amazon the weakest of the big U.S. players in the retail market, despite the hype. As Seattle Times columnist Jon Talton wrote this summer, Seattle has a long, dramatic history of growth and contraction. More recently, Amazon announced its plan to create a secondary headquarters of 50,000 employees in a city other than Seattle, which has led to questions about how that could affect Amazon’s original home. The changes keep on coming.
Can the city’s arts community survive long enough to endure the wobbles and lurches?
“I hope so,” Kaminski said with a sigh. “But sometimes for artists, disaster breeds opportunity.”