In trying to understand what’s possible, we at Arts of Clark County have been looking at what other cities have done, and we’ve met and talked with arts leaders there. We’ve revisited the past—the jumbled mix of fleeting efforts and false starts that has been our community’s history with the arts. And we’ve come away with greater optimism than ever before. Here’s why:
1. Creative placemaking has become de rigueur
Arts and culture as an economic driver is a fact that is now widely accepted and understood among cities, counties, and states wanting to attract employers and employees. The arts are no longer seen as an amenity but as a public good. Enlightened city leaders are now moving their arts and culture programs out of parks and recreation departments and under offices of economic development.
2. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone
Regional cities like Seattle and Tacoma are looking at how to protect the remaining community-driven arts infrastructure that has organically evolved and is now critically vulnerable to displacement. Just this spring, Seattle published a report defining strategies for creating and preserving cultural spaces. Last year, Tacoma created a 5-year plan addressing similar concerns with policies that affirm the economic role of arts and culture. Portland’s arts community has been impacted as well by displacement and will likely need to move in the same direction. In Commissioner Nick Fish’s letter on the state of the arts in Portland, he says, “Portland is fast becoming unaffordable for artists and non-profit arts organizations.”
3. Visionary leadership can make a difference
Everett, on the other hand, has been fortunate in having Lanie McMullin as Economic Development Executive Director. Recognizing the importance of the arts as a catalyst for transforming downtown, she was an early proponent of ArtSpace Everett Lofts and Schack Arts Center, which share a building on Hoyt Street in downtown Everett. It’s an amazing place to visit.
We talked with kilted actor/director/playwright and Everett Lofts resident/Facility Manager Liam Cole who happily took us to the rooftop garden. With a wide sweep of his arm he said, “See all that new development? It’s all here because of this building.” The phenomenal success of the Schack has led its executive director, Judy Touhy, to a seat on city council, and this fall, she is hoping to be on the ballot for mayor.
4. Our local leaders are listening
In Vancouver, we generally haven’t had geographically concentrated arts communities that could be threatened with displacement on the scale that other cities have experienced. Over the past five years, our Clark County Open Studios program has shown us that hundreds of artists are dispersed throughout the area. They work individually in their home studios or shared studios in underused retail or warehouse spaces. Vancouver’s North Bank Artists Gallery has been the one significant exception. Its recent closing and the uncertain future of existing studios in the building should serve as a reminder. If we want the benefits that arts and culture brings to our city—the vibrancy, attracting both employers and employees—then we need to find sustainable ways, generally through some kind of public investment, to integrate space for the arts in the development of the urban core. We believe our civic leaders understand this.
5. In times of change, there were advantages to inaction
Unlike other cities in the region, Vancouver has not had an arts and culture office since the Vancouver Cultural Commission was disbanded in 2005. As a result, the general assumption seems to have been that if you are looking for arts venues or infrastructure requiring any sort of substantial public support, you’ll need to look to Portland. This means we have (thankfully) neither sunken investments in outmoded buildings nor entrenched bureaucratic policies that could get in the way of forward thinking. Our city now has the opportunity to take a fresh approach that smartly anticipates the future.
6. We can learn from the past
With the shifting focus of our new economic landscape, employers and their employees want to live and work within communities that offer easy access to arts, culture, restaurants, and grocery stores. Building arts infrastructure is as important as building railways and freeway interchanges. In the past two decades there’s been a marked change in what people are looking for and their choices have influenced the kinds of places in which people hear music, experience art, and make stuff.
Everything has changed, and where it finally settles, will leave behind the outdated, overpriced, and underused buildings of a past that wasn’t too long ago. If there is anything we can learn from previous attempts to create publicly funded arts facilities, it is that we need to take notice when the earth is moving right beneath our feet.
The public’s $40M investment in the Sunlight Supply Amphitheater is a case in point. Unfortunately, it has never paid its way and requires subsidies each year to stay afloat. It hasn’t been able to book the originally anticipated 40 concerts per year. This year there are eight. Planned in 1997 and built in 2003—in the midst of a tectonic shift in the music industry—perhaps this was just bad timing and paying attention to a shifting culture might not have changed the outcome. In any event, we now have an 18,000-seat amphitheater in a time when younger audiences are increasingly seeking authentic, intimate, unpackaged, and unpredictable experiences.
Reflecting on the big takeaways from a recent conference on arts engagement, Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune said last week that this moment in history is “not good for an arts organization that expects its audience to sit down and be quiet.”
The once-hoped-for Block 10 performing arts center is a case in which we may have dodged a bullet. It was a grand idea, but not one that the community was ultimately willing to support; despite the City putting a two-year hold on development of the block, in the hope that performing arts center proponents could raise funds. But more importantly, could we really afford to build a facility for what may be declining audiences? Was this just another idea that would require sustained subsidies to stay alive?
It is absolutely urgent that we pay attention to generational and technological change. Audiences now want intimate experiences where performances often happen in smaller spaces and sometimes without seating. The key words that seem to describe new audiences and new makers are flexibility and sustainability. Sometimes out of necessity but often by choice.
The push for the Post Hospital to be developed as an art center fizzled for a number of reasons. What was notable to us though was the disconnection between a well-intentioned idea and the actual people (artists) for whom the idea was intended. Discussions devolved to concerns about restoring fir floors and tin ceilings to the point of preciousness. Meanwhile, artists actually need raw spaces to get messy in. Yes, there were costly challenges all around with the Post Hospital, but at a fundamental level, an art center with studio and exhibit spaces would be designed entirely differently (and more cost-effectively) if designed thoughtfully from the ground up.
7. Multiple potentially arts-infused projects are coming into focus
This is an exciting time for the arts as Vancouver hires a consultant to revise its 1997 Cultural Plan. The Port’s Terminal 1 development promises that arts and culture will be integrated throughout the master plan. Vancouver School of Arts and Academics is being renovated and a new arts elementary school will be built in downtown. Talk of a performing arts center is still alive and the National Parks Service buildings at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site are ready to become something as special as Headlands Center for the Arts or Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture in San Francisco. Add affordable and market rate live-work lofts into the mix and suddenly the arts core of our urban center can thrive without the threat of displacement from gentrification.
8. Creative District certification is on the horizon
In May of this year the legislature passed, and Governor Jay Inslee signed, the Certified Creative Districts bill (SHB 1183) to be administrated by the Washington State Arts Commission (ArtsWA). Much like the successful Main Streets program, this bill will help define the opportunities and expectations a city needs to meet to support a creative hub. It is exciting that Washington is one of the first states to get this going. Knowing that there is a program behind this designation will strengthen the idea of a community where arts and culture can flourish.
—Karen Madsen and Cam Suttles, Arts of Clark County