It's no surprise that affordable housing for artists is disappearing across the US as most cities continue to experience rapid development.
In Seattle there are three main causes for the displacement of working families, the middle class and the poor:
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1) Seattle is the fastest developing city in the nation.
2) Real estate prices and rents are skyrocketing overnight.
3) Seattle has no rent control.
A petition campaign has been launched which calls upon Mayor Ed Murray, the Seattle City Council and the Washington State legislature to bring back rent control. Currently Washington State law prohibits this public policy.
One result of this untenable situation is that many local independent music venues, galleries and artist co-ops have closed their doors. In a city that has been hyped in the national media as an innovative creative, free spirited place to live, the state of the arts is deteriorating. Although the large funders are still bankrolling the Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera, Intiman Theater, etc., smaller independent arts organizations sponsored by volunteers are quickly disappearing. During monthly artwalks in the Pioneer Square and Capitol Hill communities, folks are finding fewer of these kinds of creative venues to visit.
In 2011 artists at the 619 Western building in Pioneer Square discontinued hosting artwalk events after several decades of sharing their creative work. This artist studio/gallery space was closed due to structural issues discovered during efforts to redevelop the Alaskan Way Viaduct on Seattle's waterfront. The Washington State Department of Transportation "evacuated" the tenants in order to stabilize the building and make it structurally sound during the city's own version of the Boston "Big Dig" tunnel project. I am referring here to Seattle's ill fated and much delayed $3 billion SR 99 tunnel, better known as "Big Bertha".
This not a new cultural phenomenon. On May 1, 2000, after serving for two historic decades as a major artwalk venue in Pioneer Square, 80 artists were evicted from the Washington Shoe Building/Jem Studios (a former shoe factory). Despite organized protests and rallies, the artists were forced to leave their galleries and studios by the building's owners - the Samis Foundation. A major exodus took place with many artists moving to the more affordable and industrial Georgetown district of Seattle, but some of those artists simply left the city altogether, moving to New York City, San Fransisco, Portland, or smaller rural communities in Washington State. Ironically, the Washington Shoe Building was not fully occupied for many years following this mass eviction of artists.
Two recent examples of this creative dislocation are the independent music/art venue The Josephine in the Ballard neighborhood, and the Summit Inn - an artist co-op on Summit street in the Capitol Hill community. The Josephine has stopped sponsoring music and art events due to complaints form the city and from the building's owner.
The Summit Inn was famous for hosting an annual block party featuring local artists and bands. Unfortunately, the apartment building has now been sold and the new owner has raised rents beyond the ability of the residents to pay.
For the last six years a huge house/co-op building on Capitol Hill has sponsored all types of art - music, theater, comedy, performance art, gallery shows, film screenings, etc. "The In" hosts 30 residents, many of whom are artists and performers. Built around the turn of the 20th century for a wealthy Seattle family, it has also served the community over the years as a half-way house and a mental health facility. Current residents at the building curate their own independent gallery. They also host free music concerts, plays, and other performance events in the basement theater.
Capitol Hill Artwalk events have become a tradition at the house every second Thursday of the month when visitors are welcome to enjoy the art and entertainment in a public setting. The owner of the building, Pete Sicov, has provided many local artists with affordable housing over the years (he also owned the Summit In and paid to have the childhood home of Jimi Hendrix moved in an effort to save it from demolition). But prospective buyers have been stopping by lately at the In to look at the property, and many of the residents are nervous about the possibility that they may be asked to move if the house is sold.
The In has recently established itself as an L.L.C. - InArtsNW. Part of the inspiration for this move has been the disappearance of so many artist co-ops and galleries over the last few years. As billions of dollars of investment funds are poured into Seattle to build endless condominiums and corporate headquarters, none of that money seems to be going to support the arts community. Where are the wealthy art collectors who could serve as benefactors for the struggling artists? Most of these creative members of the community work long hours at low paying jobs just to pay their rent.
As the cost of living increases dramatically in Seattle, most artists and musicians are feeling very alienated and isolated by the rest of the corporatized community. Seattle is home to some of the most profitable and successful corporations in the world - Starbucks, Microsoft, Boeing, etc. New billion dollar developments are being funded by Google, Amazon and other tech or bio med companies.
The City of Seattle has attempted various "feel good" programs to give the public the impression that the community actually supports the arts. A current program introduced by the city's Office of Arts and Culture is supposed to create a designation for some of Seattle's neighborhoods as an "arts and cultural districts", but the program does not provide direct funding to individual artists, nor does it address the loss of affordable housing.
What the city is offering is a "toolkit" including street signs to promote the neighborhood as a community which is friendly to the arts. It amounts to a city funded ad campaign with little or no real positive effect on the neighborhood. These kinds of politically motivated programs have already been tried in many other cities, including the North Hollywood district of Los Angeles. I have heard complaints from fellow artists in LA who say that the designation of North Hollywood as an arts community has resulted in more tourism, but it has also attracted more corporate real estate developers to the neighborhood. As of this date, I don't know any artists who have benefited directly from Seattle's Office of Arts and Culture "arts and culture district" designation program.
A recent project in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle resulted in the construction of a building simply called "12th Avenue Arts". According to their website, the $47 million project is funded by "foundations, corporations and private individuals". The facility includes many money making enterprises, including theater rentals at a cost of $4,000 to $8,775 for five to six weeks. I fail to see how small independent arts troupes can afford to pay for theater rentals at this price. This massive real estate development also provides "secure parking for the Seattle Police Department".
12th Avenue Arts also purports to offer affordable housing through the Capitol Hill Housing group, but there is no information on the building's website about the cost of renting an apartment. Apparently it does not even focus specifically on providing housing for artists. Nor can you find any of the specifics about the apartments in terms of square footage, design, etc. Mostly they just want you to donate money to them through their website...
In fact, walking into the main entrance on 12th Ave., you would never know that anyone lives there. It's a large institutional style building which also houses the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, Capitol Hill Housing, and other offices. The lobby is a huge concrete space with an amazingly high ceiling and almost no furniture except for a few plastic and chrome hard backed chairs that look like they were appropriated from a college classroom. All in all, it's not a very inviting or creative looking place and it cost an enormous sum to construct. I must report that I have heard from some members of the Seattle and Portland artist community who tell me they are disappointed that the apartments at 12th Avenue Arts are so small.
In an earlier effort to highlight the arts, former Mayor Paul Schell formed the Mayor's Arts Task Force to decide how the 1% hotel/motel tax could be used to fund the arts in Seattle. Myself and several other independent artists forced our way onto the task force in an attempt to represent small arts organizations. Most of the original members of the group were of course allied with the Seattle Symphony, Opera, and other large well-funded institutions.
Unfortunately, after an eight week period of meetings and discussions, all of the task force's proposals were simply shelved and our ideas were essentially ignored by Mayor Schell. Many small arts organizations complained that they were left completely out of the process. Some of us felt that the entire effort had been nothing but a big waste of our time and energy. I had the impression that we'd all been hoodwinked by a clever politician. There was no political support for our independent proposals to provide affordable housing for artists.
US Culture Vs. European Attitudes
I was shocked by this American style apathy towards the arts because during my travels in France I was amazed by the amount of financial support available for interesting artistic and cultural events. I participated in some of these festivals and concerts as a composer. There are multiple layers of arts commissions and funding sources in every French city, beginning at the local village level and leading all the way up to UNESCO sponsored residencies and festivals.
French officials were very surprised that I was unable to find a US government arts organization to sponsor my trip to the festival. One of the festival organizers asked me,
"Why doesn't your community support your art? It is such an honor to have your work recognized at an international music festival. Your city should be very proud of you!"
It was quite obvious to me that the French are very proud of their art and cultural heritage. Being an artist is considered a very honorable and respectable occupation. While I was residing in Bourges local businesses sponsored a free music festival, complete with blues and jazz bands and including an astonishing assortment of healthy culinary delights and excellent wines. The city and business owners donated everything for free as a service to the artists in the community and as a celebration of the town's venerable heritage as a vibrant arts community.
In that one small area of central France on the L'Yevre River one could find nine art museums and numerous beautiful Renaissance style opera houses and theaters. It also hosts a very unique artistic foundation which invited me to hear my composition performed at the beautiful Palais Jacques-Coeur - the International Institute for Electro-Acoustic Music. This institute is famous for its annual international experimental computer music and multimedia sound art concert series.
After witnessing so much support for the arts in Europe, the mayor's debacle with the Seattle Arts Task Force (Farce?) seemed like a slap in the face to me and many other independent artists.
A protest against the Mayor's actions resulted in my arrest during my own performance at Seattle's Symphony Hall (Benaroya Hall). I was on the official program that day to present the world premier of my solo piano piece. My performance had been sponsored by the Washington Composers Forum. (Sadly, a Seattle Weekly article failed to mention that I was a scheduled performer.)
As I stepped onto the stage, I was arrested by members of the Seattle Police Department. No charges were ever filed against me and I was released from jail after the concert. A rumor had circulated that I was planning to damage Benaroya Hall's $150,000 Steinway grand piano. The truth is, before my performance, I was going to stomp on and break a small toy piano I had brought with me. I planned to make the following statement, "This is what the mayor has done to small local arts organizations in Seattle."
Fortunately, my arrest made the evening TV news and it was covered by the local press. I was finally afforded an opportunity to talk with the media and the public about the shameful lack of funding for small independent arts organizations in Seattle.
But these opportunities to speak out publicly about lack of support for the arts are becoming very rare in a city that claims to be so innovative and creative. Seattle's music scene has been incredibly over hyped. When you consider just how hard it is to make a buck here playing original music, it becomes immediately clear to most musicians that Austin, Texas, Portland, Oregon or Bourges, France may be better places to go. Music industry lobbying groups like JAMPAC have a tradition of fighting the city mothers and fathers on issues related to the over regulation of local music venues in Seattle. And, let's face it, it's a lot less expensive to live in Portland where rent is still relatively affordable for most low income folks.
Artists involved with InArtsNW are very aware of Seattle's recent history. They know that there has often been a lack of support for, and at times, even open opposition to independent artists, musicians and promoters in the Emerald City, and that artists face these same challenges all across the nation. In response to the recent over development and gentrification of Seattle neighborhoods, the residents at InArtsNW have organized themselves to counter the current loss of affordable live/work spaces for local artists.
They've seen the writing on the wall in terms of the struggle for survival of the creative culture in Seattle, and they have a response. These artists are aware that Seattle real estate has increased astronomically in value and that potential buyers are interested in the building. During their weekly meetings, a plan has been developed. They have launched a capitol investment funding campaign to raise $1 million.
This may seem like a radical concept to most real estate developers and high profile arts organizations, but the folks at InArtsNW are serious. They want the artists to own and manage their own building. They have stated a GoFundMe campaign which will seek help from the public through crowd source funding. Resident artist Michael Craft and artist/curator Krista Lee Wolfe both state that $1 million is their current goal and they say they are completely dedicated to this process.
Wolfe sees the role of the InArtsNW as an important venue which allows artists to reach out to the community. During our recent interview she told me,
"I'd like to see the building serve as a bridge between artists and the larger community. I often hear people new to Seattle asking, 'Where is the creative art & music scene I've heard about? Where can I go to see it?'"
Wolfe finished with an affirmative statement regarding the co-op where she lives. "Well, my answer to them is - 'The arts are still here!'"
Michael Craft puts it bluntly, "Let's face it - most artists are poor and don't have two dimes to rub together. We want to provide a place where they can live and work on their art."
He sees this effort as a model for other artists around the US who are facing the same kinds of challenges. From New York City to San Francisco art communities have been dismantled to make way for expensive real estate developments, virtually wiping out entire art and music scenes.
So what's left behind in the wake of all the wrecking balls and the bulldozers? This type of unbridled rapid development often results in an increasingly commercialized, homogenized and vapid culture.
A local joke in Seattle goes like this,
"What is Seattle's official city bird?" Answer - "The Construction Crane."
Honestly, there is very little visual difference between a bombed out city block as seen during wartime and the effects of massive real estate developments which demolish whole blocks overnight. Structurally the result is the same - piles of concrete, bricks and twisted re bar. The South Lake Union neighborhood in Seattle is surrounded by these kinds of destruction/construction sites.
Other negative effects of over development include the loss of historic buildings and affordable housing, the displacement of entire populations of working families and immigrants, and the disappearance of creative, innovative, cutting edge neighborhoods. If the artists and residents at InArtsNW have their way, this trend will be stopped by the artists themselves and by other concerned members of the community.
To highlight their efforts to save the building, the artists at InArtsNW will be presenting multimedia shows Feb 12 (Capitol Hill Artwalk) & 14th (Valentines Day). The events, called "Heartbreak Science Fair" will feature local artists, musicians and performers, as well as some science experiments.
Curator Krista Lee Wolfe is examining the artist housing situation in Seattle as a social science experiment. What will the result be?
(Article changed on February 23, 2015 at 21:03)
(Article changed on February 23, 2015 at 21:04)