“People flock to the places that artists make cool,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine. So what can politicians do to help support the artists?
It was no surprise when President Obama’s Spotify Summer Playlist became, within a day, the most listened-to playlist on the global music-streaming service.
For starters, it was fantastic; a sophisticated mix of soul, blues and hip-hop with unexpected cuts like Courtney Barnett’s “Elevator Operator.”
It also gave us a sense of Obama’s private world. To think that Leon Bridges’ “Smooth Sailin’ ” might be playing while he shaves, or sits in one of his bulletproof limos, is simply a smile.
But the playlist also paired politics and art — something that rarely happens. For while politicians appreciate creativity, they don’t always prioritize arts organizations when making budget decisions.
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So it’s a pleasant surprise that King County Executive Dow Constantine was just honored by the national nonprofit Americans for the Arts for his “steadfast commitment to the arts.”
In 2015, Constantine announced a partnership between King County and 4Culture, the county’s cultural services agency, setting up a $28 million bond funded through future lodging taxes. The money will go to 100 arts and cultural organizations.
The county and 4Culture will also spend $1 million to support arts organizations of, by and for people of color.
One recent morning at Caffe Umbria in Pioneer Square, Constantine, 54, perched himself at a window table, sipped a cold-brew coffee, and mused on how to keep art alive in a county consumed with growth and infrastructure.
“I was raised with art in the house, raised to value art,” Constantine began. “That’s where it came from.”
His father, John, is a visual artist who painted with watercolors and acrylics and taught at North Seattle College. So Constantine grew up in a West Seattle home that smelled of paint and had canvases leaning against the walls. (Constantine now lives across the street from his parents.)
The family attended the opera and the ballet. Constantine remembered climbing on the stone camels in front of the old Seattle Art Museum in Volunteer Park, now the Seattle Asian Art Museum.
At college at the University of Washington, visual art and theater gave way to music. Constantine was a DJ at the campus station KCMU, which in 2001 became KEXP. (Constantine met his wife, Shirley Carlson, at KCMU, where she was the music director. They have a 2-year-old daughter, Sabrina.)
“Art is a way we can communicate differently from the standard language we use,” he said. “It provides a shared experience that we can’t achieve in some other way.
“When we quietly stand together and examine a work on a wall, knowing each of us is taking in something different about it, it makes us more human.”
Perhaps, but sometimes humanity is hard to find in politics.
Constantine knows this well; he was first elected a state representative in 1996 and later served in the state Senate, then the Metropolitan King County Council, before being elected executive in 2009.
“There was always some negativity in some quarters toward arts funding,” he said. “But people coming to this region expect to have a cultural life and discourse here. They don’t want to come into a place that’s a cultural desert.”
Indeed, right across from where we were sitting were the galleries of Occidental Avenue South. Many of the artists who lived in the surrounding lofts, though, have long been priced out.
The same is happening in Georgetown, Constantine said. Artists moved there for its affordability, turned it into a hipster hamlet, and a wave of new people followed.
“It’s the story of Greenwich Village, of Chelsea,” Constantine said, citing landmark New York City neighborhoods. “People flock to the places that artists make cool.”
He’d like to push for more housing and studio spaces for artists here. “You have to make a space for them,” he said. “That would bring us new blood, new ideas.
“It’s something we know we can change and make room for.”
For now he’s making room for this new award, succinctly titled the 2016 Public Leadership in the Arts Award for County Arts Leadership. Constantine was characteristically low-key about the honor: “The work is its own reward,” he said. “But every once in a while, it’s good when someone notices.”
As for his playlist, well, it’s not as eclectic as Obama’s. He’s been listening to “Post Pop Depression,” the recent collaboration between Iggy Pop and Josh Homme’s Queens of the Stone Age.
And there’s “The ABC Song,” a collaboration between India Arie and Elmo of “Sesame Street” fame.
It’s hardly the stuff of a Spotify frenzy, but it’s getting heavy play to and from preschool.