If you want to know where the next big development will happen, look for drug dealers and prostitutes. They operate on the fringe of a city, as close to the core as possible without drawing attention to themselves or their patrons. I know this because, as an artist and gallery owner, these are the neighborhoods that developers have endorsed me to occupy with the hopes of seeding culture and helping to transform the perception of these areas.
During my recent experience renovating, curating and evacuating a building slated for destruction, I realized three things:
1. Seattle has an exceptional creative class.
2. This group thrives when given the opportunity and a platform.
3. Short-term art spaces only underscore the need for long-term investments in regional contemporary art.
If artists are employed to change the perception of a neighborhood – to make places more desirable and breathe energy into our downtown core – why are they given such short-term opportunities? Progressive developers recognize the value of long-term cultural districts and seek to establish communities around these hubs, capitalizing on our desire to live, work, shop and engage in neighborhoods with galleries, theaters and other channels of creative output.
In reality, these hubs have been dismantled and scattered, given temporary shelter only so long as it is convenient to big (short-sighted) business. Transient communities rarely flourish; instead, they focus on daily survival.
Rather than create single crops of artists who are nurtured and cut down at the end of each season, we need to grow a culture forest—a place that protects, fosters and inspires our artists and community. All that temporary housing and support does is prove that the soil is rich, and the seeds are strong. A protected, nurtured environment allows saplings to turn into titans. With strategy and premeditation, these cultural districts will not only grow but pay out dividends to the city, businesses and citizens that endorse them.
A city’s value and allure is defined by its culture, and we should protect ours like a wildlife refuge. Yet, this is not philanthropy, goodwill or charity—it is good business. Because this culture forest is not a liability or government subsidized public service, solid data proves it bears an enormous revenue stream for the city, developers and neighboring businesses.
1. Over nine million tourists visit Seattle each year, spending well over $5 billion.
2. Arts commerce in the city of Seattle grosses over $447 million annually.
3. King County arts generate over $38 million in city and state taxes.
Seattle has a long-standing history of clear-cutting our culture forests. Our politicians undervalue them, and our developers fail to protect them. Instead of accepting that our artists and culture hubs will exist temporarily in the shadow of development, we must identify spaces that could serve as long-term guardians of arts and cul- ture and petition people with the means and vision to cultivate them.
We need to look at our city core through a new lens and survey our urban landscape for the location of a culture forest. Maybe it’s an old hotel, a city-owned building or an industrial space that has yet to see a wrecking ball. As the Washington Shoe Building and 619 Western have proven, finding an old building is not enough—they need to be protected from the bureaucracy, greed and shortsightedness that courses through the veins of any city.
Culture forests should be controversial and risk-taking; they should be allowed to experiment and fail and grow. This seeming recklessness is the birth of invention: anarchy is what breeds industry. As much as I would like to rely on developers and politicians to champion and protect areas for arts and culture, I think it is the duty of the rich (there, I said it).
It is my hope that there is a Medici, a Rockefeller or a Guggenheim in our midst who recognizes the value and thrill of underwriting a cultural renaissance, the importance of artistic experimentation and the rewards of a culture forest, in this decade and for generations to come.
Seattle has an incredible arts community despite the lack of cultural infrastructure to support it. Not only should we be concerned about retaining our creative class, we should be aggressively building a city that lures artists and visionaries to our shores.
We hold all of the potential to birth a true renaissance—all it requires is harnessing the greatest natural resource our city has and allowing it to thrive. Economically and culturally it is the right thing to do.