We Are What We Make
A lot of talented people happen to call Seattle home. They do so because they like clean air and trees. Maybe they’re from here or maybe they moved here for the music scene and never left. So when someone creates something interesting here, it’s mostly happenstance.
Yes, there is a good deal of philanthropy here. Yes, there are a bunch of great arts organizations, savvy arts leaders and partnerships among different groups. There’s a general consensus that the arts are a good thing. But there’s not much of a shared vision for how our city could capitalize on its assets and become a champion for new voices and fresh ideas.
For all of our resources and talent, we’re underperforming. There’s not enough education for future artists. The trickle of arts coverage in the press is not nearly enough to sustain a city of our size. Institutions are programming less and are sticking to safe, proven formulas because they fear that audiences are shrinking. Empty Space, ConWorks, CHAC and Lawrimore Project closed without comparable venues rising to take their place. Such a climate doesn’t encourage artists to do what they’re meant to do: make bold new work that bucks trends, tests norms and fulfills whatever production values the artists desire, not just what they can afford.
A culture of artistic experimentation and production is part of what gives a city its soul. From Ancient Greece to Renaissance Europe to New York City in the ’70s and ’80s, great places and eras are defined by what is made there and then. This is because new things inspire people. They help us think differently and distract us from our daily lives. It’s research that sometimes leads to innovation. It’s how we evolve.
Art isn’t a rarified pursuit that only speaks to a few; its concerns are universal and resonate with the overwhelming majority of Seattleites, many of whom self-identified as artists in a 2003 survey. So let’s create a platform based on artistic innovation and creative industry and apply it broadly—to culinary arts, booze-making, architecture, design and video games along with visual art, theater, dance, music, literature and film. Let’s become a city that cultivates bold artistic production and champions creative industry.
Officially. For real. Let’s make a plan.
Start with politics. Supportive policies for the music, film and nightlife industries—and even food carts—indicate that we’re interested in new models for building revenue and serving the public. We should lobby politicians and city planners to develop a working cultural plan and incentivize creative industries rather than discourage them, as has happened when movies are incentivized to film in Vancouver or nightclubs are raided for bogus reasons. Nothing will change until a strategy is written down and talked about in City Hall. We shouldn’t ignore Olympia, either, since a consistent lobbying presence at the state level encourages legislators to adopt policies that support culture-friendly pursuits.
We can also spur creative development by activating underutilized resources. In the age of reuse, it’s only ethical to fully use the infrastructure that was so feverishly built during the 1962 World’s Fair. Empty storefronts, warehouses, theaters and schools can give space-starved artists opportunities to make and show projects. We have a huge pool of local arts educators, working artists and teachers who are already primed to create a model program that recognizes that every kid learns differently.
Any plan that’s going to work must take care of the talent pool by ensuring that working artists qualify for health care and affordable housing. Just as Seattle Symphony musicians receive subsidized health benefits, we need to make sure creative types working throughout the city do as well. And we can’t limit our support to fair-skinned artists, either. We may be the fifth whitest city in America (according to the 2010 Census), but we don’t have to act like it. Cultural desegregation isn’t about making us feel better; it’s about giving future generations the opportunity to better understand one another and benefit from broader channels for creation and distribution.
Seattle is what it makes. By celebrating the legacy of our city’s iconoclastic entrepreneurs and artists, we can clarify our city’s unique identity. Amsterdam has a style guide that helps the city communicate its identity and core values. Seattle could use one, too. Not for “branding,” but to communicate our intentionality, standards and aspirations.
The shortest, most dynamic way to increase the effects of creativity is by showing that we care. It’s up to us to encourage investment in new projects and ideas and support the people behind them. We will have to embrace the possibility of failure, too, because the more game we are as audiences and consumers, the more our cultural infrastructure will help talented people take risks.
Lane Czaplinski is artistic director of On the Boards.