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Renaissance doesn’t begin to describe Seattle’s arts opportunities

Here is a curious–yet somehow typical–story of Seattle’s civic spirit.

Seven years ago, the area’s volunteer and professional arts enthusiasts staged a global, attention-grabbing cultural festival alongside the Goodwill Games of 1990. For several months before, during and after the athletic events, a series of highest quality arts performances and museum shows from many nations dazzled and enchanted audiences. If people hereabouts didn’t feel they were at the center of the world, they certainly felt they were on top of it.

When the festival was over the team that had put it together was emotionally exhilarated, but physically exhausted. People talked of the need to institutionalize the talent and experience gained that year by creating an annual Seattle Arts Festival of comparable scope. But, a year later, a follow-up study by the Collins Group for the managers of the Goodwill gala, One Reel, concluded that the community of artists and funders alike were still too worn out and worried about the future to take on such a challenge.

The negative indicators were all around: “Seattle’s new concert hall and Bellevue’s Performing Arts Center are both in limbo,” the study reported. “Efforts by the Pacific Science Center to launch a major capital campaign have stalled….ACT Theater has found itself unable to build a new theater…For the first time, Seattle’s arts community appears to be retreating, uncertain of itself.”

Only six years ago we seemed to be going into a slump. And yet today this column does not contain enough space even to list all the new cultural attractions that have been added in the meantime, are under construction or are about to break ground. Let us just mention the Benaroya Symphony Hall under construction downtown, ACT’s spectacular theaters at Kreilsheimer Place (the formerly abandoned Eagles Auditorium), the expanded Pacific Science Center, Seattle Art Museum’s new home and the restored Volunteer Park Asian Art Museum, the Children’s Theater at Seattle Center and the expanded Children’s Museum, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Phelps Center, Taproot Theater’s new residence in the Greenwood neighborhood, the expansions of Empty Space Theater and Intiman Theater and Group Theater, the virtually new Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington and the triumphant transformation of the Frye Art Museum on First Hill. Private galleries abound.

Coming soon is a medium-sized concert hall on Seattle’s First Hill (David Brewster’s dream), a major expansion of the Wing Luke Museum in the International District, a similar enlargement of United Indians’ Day Break Star Center at Discovery Park in Magnolia, and a dance and drama theater called “On the Boards” in ACT’s old Queen Anne Hill space. Then, of course, there is Paul Allen’s exotic rock’n roll of ages museum, the $64 million Experience Music Project

More conventional, perhaps, is the planned new building for the Bellevue Art Museum. Bellevue also has a new theater center (Meydenbauer Bay), as do Kirkland, Issaquah, Everett. Tacoma has completed two theater renovations and is home to the new State Historical Museum. It is planning an International Museum of Glass.

Some slump!

You cannot even call this a mere “renaissance,” because that implies a revival of something lost; Seattle never had anything like this before.

The first question before the house, then, is how to build on this golden moment. Like it or not, and whether or not the National Endowment for the Arts survives, direct federal support of the arts is dwindling. If a future political consensus on culture is to be formed here or anywhere, it probably will have to be around the ideal of indirect assistance through tax relief of organizations and individual artists (the great hole in the present system), plus the occasional big commission or educational project. There will have to be more private leadership.

Happily, private fortunes around Seattle are rocketing out of cyberspace into financial outer space — “going where no man has gone before.” Some of our present and future benefactors are known, some are just now becoming…well…rich.

That then raises a follow-up question: How do the arts find a policy star to guide them? Under what possibility can a longer term strategy for the arts, besides mere bigness, be organized?

One possibility I would like to raise is a return to the festival idea. Seattle clarifies its vision when it focuses on some huge event. The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909 left us the University of Washington campus and many fine parks and boulevards. Roughly 50 years later, The Century 21 World’s Fair gave us Seattle Center as its legacy. It also marked the beginning of the arts boom we enjoy today.

Fifty years after the World Fair of 1962 will be 2012, the year Seattle conceivably could host the Olympic Games. Host cities are required to hold a “Cultural Olympiad” in conjunction with the games. Could Seattle not expand, refine and re-define this idea? If so, the prospect would give us far more than a great 17 day Olympics celebration, or even a summer of inspiration and fun. It could unite the full community in a decade of cultural planning and development, causing us along the way to think more deeply about what the arts should mean. It could bequeath to this generation’s posterity an historic legacy of fine arts, ethnic and historical cultural programs, crafts–and perhaps an advanced technology educational system to embrace them.

Seattle, throughout its history, has always surprised itself by discovering what it can achieve.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.