At a forum hosted by local arts organizations Thursday night, several Seattle mayoral candidates shared how they would serve the local arts community if elected, with a focus on social justice, COVID-19 recovery and quality of life in an increasingly expensive city.
The forum was held in-person at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute — notable in an election season of virtual appearances — and simultaneously streamed via Facebook, where a recorded video of the forum is archived. Longtime arts advocate Vivian Phillips and former KUOW arts and culture reporter Marcie Sillman, who now co-host a podcast dedicated to the arts, shared moderating duties, posing questions to the eight mayoral candidates who participated.
Phillips clarified at the outset that the forum was intended to be “a chance to learn some — not all — of their plans for supporting the arts in our city,” and referred viewers to the results of a full candidate questionnaire on the arts, available at seattlecityoflit.org/artsforum, for more detailed information.
In individual opening statements, many of the candidates led with their own backgrounds in the arts. Former state representative Jessyn Farrell described playing the saxophone in jazz bands, architect Andrew Grant Houston identified himself as a “former choirboy,” and former NBA player James Donaldson said he was part of the arts community “if you consider sports as part of arts and culture.” Only eight of the 15 candidates on the ballot were present at the arts forum. M. Lorena González and Casey Sixkiller were among those absent.
Many of the candidates at the event emphasized both the need to revitalize the city’s arts community, and the role that the arts could play in the community’s economic and psychological recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our arts community has struggled and we need to be … leaning into support” for the arts, said Farrell, as well as “the role arts play in healing from trauma.”
Colleen Echohawk, former executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, said the city had much to heal from between COVID-19 “and before that, four years of Trump,” and she said reviving the arts could play a key role in Seattle’s recovery from COVID-19.
After so much economic erosion and closures brought on by the pandemic, “we need to make sure that our arts and culture stay intact,” said Donaldson.
At times, the moderators had to urge participants to respond thoughtfully, directly and succinctly to questions.
Phillips sought straight answers especially in response to a question referencing San Francisco’s guaranteed monthly income program for artists, which provides $1,000 a month to about 130 artists for six months. Phillips asked the candidates to estimate a meaningful living wage for artists in Seattle, and whether they thought Seattle should adopt a similar program.
After Houston estimated a living wage for artists at about $80,000 a year, most of the other candidates agreed.
Echohawk said San Francisco’s pilot was “a good program and I think it’s something we should absolutely explore in Seattle” because “artists recovering will help our city recover.”
Though Farrell agreed that $80,000 a year “is really a minimum for what it costs to live in this city,” she noted that the San Francisco program was small. “True prosperity comes … when we center regular working people, not when we coddle the wealthy.”
Others had different ideas.
Pastor Don L. Rivers said that a living wage for artists should be $100,000 annually. Art Langlie, an executive and the grandson of a former Seattle mayor and governor, gave a range: $65,000 to $80,000. And business advocate Lance Randall avoided answering, saying only: “I support any type of program that supports artists.”
Sillman asked the candidates to weigh in on Seattle’s admission tax, a charge on ticketing that benefits arts organizations.
“Right now, 100% of the revenue from the Seattle admissions tax is collected and distributed to hundreds of cultural businesses and creatives through the Office of Arts and Culture,” said Sillman. “If elected, do you commit to continue this very significant investment in Seattle’s cultural life? And the second part of that question: Men’s professional sports teams, such as the late, great Sonics, are exempt from this. Should men’s teams be included?”
“Oh, good to start with James on that one,” said Phillips.
The former NBA player responded in the affirmative. “Yes, of course, sports — men’s especially — should be paying into that as well,” he said.
Farrell, Rivers, Langlie, Houston, Echohawk and former longtime City Councilmember Bruce Harrell all agreed. Randall suggested that maybe “the Storm and other female teams” should be made exempt from the tax in a nod to equity.
While Harrell said he supported the tax, he said he’d also like to see the cost of attendance at arts events made “affordable for everyone.”
Echohawk noted that she’d like to see more of the funds from the admissions tax go to smaller organizations led by Black, Indigenous and people of color.
Between candidates’ discussion of homelessness, the Cultural Space Agency — a newly established public development authority that develops real estate for cultural purposes — and the need to support artists, Phillips and Sillman broke up the longer discussion with a lightning round, in which candidates did not speak but responded to yes-or-no questions by raising a paddle indicating their response.
When Phillips asked the candidates if they would “prioritize increasing the arts and culture budget,” all candidates raised the “yes” sides of their paddles.
“I like this … you’re taping this, right?” quipped Sillman. “So we have this on the record.”