Community decries city’s unaffordability, lack of interest from newcomers.
A few weeks ago, in a Capitol Hill building that used to be a storefront office, a longtime street artist named Jazz Mom and friends were splattering buckets of paint across the carpet and spray-painting the walls for their ad hoc show “Everything You Love Turns Into a Condo.” (For the purposes of this article, Jazz Mom preferred “they/them” pronouns to stay vague. “I gotta watch my back these days,” they said. “I’m not in trouble, but nobody here wants trouble.”)
Jazz Mom is one of many artists, arts administrators and critics carefully watching the evolution — or, some would say, devolution — of Seattle’s robust visual-art scene in the Age of Amazon. They’re brewing in a stew of ambivalence: gloom, doom and the occasional spark of hope.
Jen Graves, the recently retired 11-year art critic for The Stranger — who was one of the last full-time art critics on the West Coast — described the Seattle art scene as “basically in retraction. There are fewer galleries, fewer spaces for indie art.”
Graves ticked off a list of art spaces that had closed over the past few years: Platform, Lawrimore Project, Francine Seders, Grover/Thurston, Garde Rail (which moved to Austin) and more. The years before the 2008 economic crash, she said, “were the boom years.”
Miami Art Basel — an extension of the big-shot Art Basel fair in Switzerland — was roaring and Seattle dealers like Greg Kucera and Scott Lawrimore were renting booths and shipping art across the country to catch the eyes of international collectors. “Artists and dealers here thought, ‘Let’s be part of the national scene,’ ” she said wistfully. “Those were the days.”
Local artist Ben Beres, who teaches at Cornish College of the Arts, said he sees students finishing their degrees, then moving to Tacoma, Philadelphia, Bremerton, Bozeman, the Southwest or back into their parents’ basements.
“More people leave than stick around because it’s too damned expensive,” he said, holding his head in his hands. “Studio spaces, living spaces, $14 cheeseburgers. It’s stupid.”
Still, everyone mentioned bright spots: Paul Allen helped bankroll this year’s recent third annual Seattle Art Fair; interest keeps growing. (In 2015, 62 galleries showed up. By this year, the number cracked 100.)
Local artist, bar owner and impresario Greg Lundgren has piggybacked on the Art Fair energy each year with his more locally focused satellite fair Out of Sight. (Last year’s Out of Sight featured video work by the renowned Gary Hill as well as BMX stunt-bike riders on a ramp in an alleyway.)
The hours-long lines for Yayoi Kusama’s recent “Infinity Mirrors” at Seattle Art Museum showed that special exhibitions can draw big crowds. SAM reported success with programming for Seattle’s growing, younger population, including consistently sold-out crowds for its Remix series, which fuses art, contemporary dance, booze and DJs into a single event. And its recent, free art/dance collaboration with Pacific Northwest Ballet reportedly brought 4,000 people to the Olympic Sculpture Park.
Other museums, like the Frye Art Museum, report steady attendance (in the Frye’s case, 100,000 visitors annually) despite the city’s population growth.
But Lundgren, a longtime cheerleader for Seattle’s arts-and-culture community, sounded gloomy about the future.
“Seattle has all the ingredients,” he said. “We have the talent, we have the community, we have the international attention, we have the wealth. But I’m not seeing those ingredients mix together in a way to make this place exciting.”
The city’s arts community, he said, has “to seduce people,” not wag its collective finger and tell people that they need to eat their cultural vegetables before they get dessert.
“I want artists and galleries and museums to recognize that we are competing for the bandwidth of our city with a whole bunch of people who have a lot more money than us,” he explained. “We can accept it and say, ‘I’m not going to compromise and let ‘Game of Thrones’ be the thing,’ or say, ‘I’m going to sugar my poison so people will drink it.’ ”
Art dealer Greg Kucera, who’s been selling art in Seattle since the 1980s, has an international presence (he’s hosted shows by Robert Motherwell and Jasper Johns), though he continues to nurture locals (Jeffry Mitchell, Victoria Haven, Roger Shimomura). But he also senses a decline in arts patronage in the new Seattle that is correlated with — if not caused by — the tech boom that Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat recently described as “too much of a good thing.”
“When doctors and attorneys were the moneyed class, they collected art and their firms collected art,” Kucera said. “When biotech seemed to make money, they became clients of ours. But now we’re in the tech-tech world and we’re not seeing that translated … I look at the apartments being built for these young people now — apartments with no kitchens in them. There might be a wall with appliances, but no kitchens.”
That, to him, hints at a generation of people who aren’t interested in the infrastructure of their homes — much less the infrastructure of their city’s culture.
Kucera, along with people in the theater and dance world, worry that the no-kitchen generation are simply well-paid migrant workers who don’t have the time or energy to investigate local politics or culture.
“The coverage of the arts is also a sad decline,” Kucera said. It’s a sentiment echoed across the arts. Choreographers Pat Graney and Donald Byrd, high-ranking employees of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs such as Randy Engstrom and Matthew Richter and many others long for the days when an arts event would open and it would get, as Kucera put it, “at least a mention.”
“We had two daily papers, two weekly papers and arts newsletters,” he said with a sigh. “As papers pull back from arts coverage, we in the gallery business are realizing how beneficial it was to get a preview.”
But Kucera, like Graves and others, feel heartened by the strength and ingenuity of the artists themselves. “They’re not running around and crying,” Graves said. “They know the score, and they do what they can.”
Even the most generous plutocrats, she said, are fickle and unreliable funding sources. Public-art projects, on the other hand, are a great way to keep artists in the city — but, she added, “if you tell people they have to pay five cents for public art, they run out of their houses naked and screaming to shut it down.” (For example, King County’s Proposition 1, also known as “Access for All,” would have raised an estimated $67.2 million for arts and culture education and exposure for the general public, but was defeated.)
But Seattle art, Graves said, hasn’t been starved to death yet: “The artists who are still doing it do it for love — like the critics — because we can’t do anything else.”
“These are my parting words to the art community,” Lundgren said. “Stick around. You might hate our capitalistic situation, you might protest it, but it’s more productive to rig the system we live in than pretend we live in a different system.”
On the other hand, that system is erecting more and more condo-canvases for street artists like Jazz Mom to paint. “I’ve been drawing on everything since I was a tiny baby,” they said in that vacant office on Capitol Hill. “I made scribbles under my grandma’s coffee table.” When Jazz Mom got to Seattle, they asked: “Where do I get to see fine art? Oh, on a dumpster? Tight!”
At that point, Jazz Mom hesitated to have their photo taken, even from behind. “Here,” they said, handing me a bucket of paint. “Throw that on the carpet.” I obeyed. “Now you’re an artist,” they said with a smile. “And I’ll take your photo instead.”
Seattle, Jazz Mom added, is “in such a pivotal time. I want to stay here, root here, maintain the small pockets of culture we have left — but it’s tough. I don’t know what will happen.”
Then Jazz Mom cracked a tallboy of Rainier beer and kept throwing paint around the room.