Six or eight years ago, a rumor was rustling around the edges of Seattle’s arts scene.

Supposedly, there was a space: a big, gorgeous, raw-brick-and-steel-beam space with large windows, tall ceilings like an industrial cathedral and 17,500 square feet for … whatever. It was on the third floor of King Street Station, which the city had bought from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company back in 2008. But, for unknown reasons, it was empty — and waiting.

Its moment has arrived.

“There’s no road map for this!” Randy Engstrom, director of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture (OAC) said Tuesday, smiling with a glimmer of incredulity in the middle of “yəhaw̓,” the first exhibition in ARTS at King Street Station — which, as far as he or anybody else at the office knows, is the first-ever community arts space of its kind in the country.

Jeffrey Gibson’s art, on view at SAM, knocks down boundaries with gentle taps and potent blows

ARTS is owned and run by the city, free for anyone to visit (if you’ve got an hour to kill waiting for an Amtrak train, you can spend it here), and directed not by one or three or five art-world “experts,” but by a rotating advisory panel of artists and community members, many of them from outside the traditional gallery-and-academy establishment. And it’s a new home for OAC’s offices, with a community “living room” where anybody is free to linger, whether they want to eat lunch, sit around all day using the city’s Wi-Fi, or just duck out of the rain to reorganize their backpack.

Adding to the list of groundbreaking firsts, “yəhaw̓” itself is an unusual — and unusually lively — exhibition, a take-all-comers show open to any indigenous artist living and working in the Pacific Northwest. “Everyone who fit those criteria was invited to be included in the show, and be compensated,” said S Surface, the program lead at King Street Station. “Not a lot of arts spaces operate like that. I thought that was a very powerful curatorial and intellectual statement.”

That idea came from ARTS inaugural curators Tracy Rector (Choctaw/Seminole), Asia Tail (Cherokee Nation) and Satpreet Kahlon (born in India, raised in the Midwest). But in this case, “curate” doesn’t mean the trio chose what work got seen and which didn’t. Instead, Tail explained, they tried to figure out how the 280 submissions by over 200 artists (bead work, photographs, paintings, paddles, installation concepts, woodblock prints, videos, dyed buffalo hide) would all be seen, in conversation with each other.

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Surface talked about one wall by way of example: work by an artist who just had a solo show at the Frye Art Museum next to work by a 7-year-old next to something by an emerging artist fresh out of Cornish next to ancestral-technique weaving by an elder. “The curators have skillfully arrayed the walls in the gallery so there’s no ‘back,'” Surface said. (ARTS has movable walls, designed by Olson Kundig and Schacht Aslani Architects.) “It’s not like there’s a children’s gallery in the hallway and then a grand room where the best-known person gets shown.”

The whole endeavor is a civic exercise in radically decentralizing and democratizing the idea of what an arts space can be.

Artist Adria Bennett’s piece, “All The Beauty of My Mind,” is on display at the inaugural art exhibit at ARTS at King Street Station. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)
Artist Adria Bennett’s piece, “All The Beauty of My Mind,” is on display at the inaugural art exhibit at ARTS at King Street Station. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

“The open call was the heart of the project,” Tail said. She has a fine-art degree from Cooper Union in New York and has worked on curatorial projects with museums and galleries, including Tacoma Art Museum. “But I think for me, as someone who was Western trained, and trained to view my own education a certain way, the ‘oh, you have to have this much work or experience to qualify for this’ and the hierarchies, being put in a position of judgment of others — that didn’t feel right, didn’t sit well … we wanted to give people something for their résumés, an opportunity to participate, to come at all different levels.”

Even so, some artists were shy. “I definitely needed to be pushed,” said young artist Ashley Alvarez (Unangax, Unangan and Aleut), who embroidered a bright image of a bentwood-box hat (traditionally, those hats were adorned to show the hunting prowess of their wearers) adorned with fishing line. “Going to other galleries and seeing what they’re doing, there can be a sense of elitism. But being part of a space like this is really cool.”

“We did a lot of trust-building, meeting people in person, some of whom didn’t even consider themselves artists,” Tail said. “Often it would be the third of fourth time before people would say they wanted to be in the show.”

Artists first got their hooks in the King Street space in 2015, after Paul Allen and Vulcan announced the first Seattle Art Fair, with an emphasis on big-ticket, out-of-town artists and galleries. Seattle artist and impresario Greg Lundgren answered with Out of Sight, a locally focused satellite fair. But it needed a home. Lundgren had heard the rumors about King Street Station, approached the city and struck a deal: Lundgren got a temporary lease for Out of Sight while the Office of Arts and Culture planned to move in.

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After $5.6 million in renovations (mainly to meet energy and life-safety codes) using OAC funds, Engstrom and his team left the Seattle Municipal Tower for King Street Station in December. “Yəhaw̓” inaugurates the community space, running from March 23 to Aug. 3. The King Street project, from rumor to reality, was a team effort between the city and its arts community. “I’ve been using a coral-reef metaphor,” Engstrom said. “We all put this thing here, like a reef. Now we’ll see what will come and go, what will make a home here and how it will change.”

“Yəhaw̓,” Tail explained, is a Lushootseed word pronounced “yee-howt,” but with the “t” stopped, as if you were about to say it but ended when your tongue touched your teeth. It roughly means “do the work” and comes from a story about some far-off past when the Creator brought lots of people together with no common language. At the time, the sky was too low and people kept bumping their heads against it. So they came up with one word they all understood: “yəhaw̓” — “do the work.” The people made poles for themselves. Then, in unison, they said “yəhaw̓!” and lifted the sky.

“There’s no hero in that story, no one single person,” Tail said. “Everybody knew they needed to change the world together, and made something happen.”

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yəhaw̓,” March 23-Aug. 3; gallery hours Tuesdays-Saturdays 10 a.m.-6 p.m., first Thursdays 10 a.m.-6 p.m., March 23 grand opening hours noon-7 p.m.; ARTS at King Street Station, 303 S. Jackson St., Seattle; seattle.gov/arts/programs/arts-at-king-street-station