Answering the “what” or “why” of one’s work is the driving quandary of being an artist. Figuring out the “where,” however, is a more formidable and redundant challenge.
Last year, I helped write and produce an original play with a group of friends, which later grew into an artist-run nonprofit. Naively, we assumed that local theatre owners would greet us with open arms, ready to lavish discounts upon anyone brandishing a play that could “change the world.” Turns out, until you have nonprofit status, artist resumes or friends in key places, you’re no different than the greasy-haired garage band that walked in before you.
Unable to secure a legit theatre space, we researched big and small spaces around Tacoma, Columbia City and Capitol Hill in Seattle. We looked at cabarets and coffee shops, at spaces above bars and even in historical churches; we considered spaces that clearly violated fire codes. Every place, however, only offered one or two of our four requirements: a) right size b) available c) offered necessary equipment d) affordable.*
Finally, we rented Freehold’s space in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood and things went over just fine. But the search for a suitable and affordable venue reared its head again with our second performance. And our third. And it still, over a year later, remains the biggest obstacle in the steeplechase that is creating arts programming.
Seattle is a lush place to experience art. There’s more going on in one night than I could ever hope to see. However, when you make the transition from consumer to producer, you suddenly find yourself on the other side of the ten-foot-high stone wall keeping the secret garden fenced in. You marvel at its coldness.
And you soon learn that behind every solution lies a frustrating compromise: tear-jerking monologues cannot compete with garbage trucks unloading in an alleyway. Lady Gaga rakes against concertos. Bleary-eyed bar staff may forget to show up at your load-in with keys. And choosing between amenities like air conditioning, handicap access and a space to prepare refreshments becomes the way in which you handpick your own narrow homogenous audience, which you previously railed against in the big venues.
Add to the difficulty of finding performance space the plain difficulty of creating work that relies on more than one person working together. Unless you’re a mime – or a spoken word poet – creative collaboration of any kind is like National Lampoon’s version of a family canoe trip through the Amazon. Someone is complaining of the heat, someone else can’t figure out how to paddle in time; others are so scared of what’s lurking in the water that your own steely confidence soon begins to chip. Before you know it, what started as a collective adventure starts to feel like a lonelier version of Aguirre Wrath of God. Except without all the glory and resounding drum rolls of storybook myth.
When talented artist groups break up, I’d wager it’s less often about “artistic differences” and more because the strain of finding a place to meet, getting there on time with everything you need and still having the energy to collaborate once you get there became too much. When the work becomes more about the administration and facilitation of art –instead of just creating it – people tend to waver. It really does come down to space.
In Boston and New York, several community arts facilities raised with public and private support have helped turn otherwise forgotten neighborhoods around. Elsewhere, Leveraging Investments in Creativity (LINC), a ten-year, national initiative funded primarily by large corporate and family foundations, provides programs that have effectively increased financial and material options for artists working in all disciplines. Scanning LINC’s Artist Space database, a plethora of equally exciting arts spaces exist right now in the heartland: the Armory Arts Village in Jackson, Mississippi; ARTworks in Beaufort, South Carolina; Zootown Arts Community Center in Missoula, Montana; and the Emporium Center for Arts & Culture in Knoxville, Tennessee, to name a few.
These spaces repurpose derelict buildings, support individual and group artists working across disciplines and, at some level, are getting government funding to do so because they inject new life into neglected neighborhoods. Why? Because it’s been proven that arts activity is a key part of a healthy community (and economy). From a distance, what seems really successful about these buildings is their mission to foster space for collaborating artists in multiple disciplines to both work and to present. These aren’t just a stack of studios or just a theatre. They are working spaces that facilitate both process and presentation.
The only Seattle space listed in the LINC database is the Tashiro Kaplan Lofts: one city block in Pioneer Square dedicated to visual art and some retail space and the home of 4Culture, all of which come together as a beacon of exciting activity during First Thursday Art Walks. I want to know: Where is the TK for performing artists? Does one exist in Seattle?
A new work lofts space just opened downtown, called INSCAPE. It’s a former Immigration and Naturalization Services building, which sat empty for four years, was going to be repurposed as office space and now (after a much cheaper renovation) is being offered up as artists studio space for rent. Spaceworks in Tacoma is partnering artists and developers to make temporary, creative use of empty storefronts. A similar project, “Storefronts Seattle,” will make vacant storefront space available for creative use in the Pioneer Square and Chinatown/ International District neighborhoods in our city.
But all of these spaces are threatened by too much temporariness. I don’t feel that performing artists should have to be squatters in the same city where they pay taxes (on income and ticket sales) just because their needs are more complicated than a 4’ x 6’ room with a power outlet. And I think we can dare to dream a little bigger than glorified unfinished office space, which artists will be allowed to use until it’s needed for something else (remember Federal Center South?).
I want a permanent space that is equipped specifically for performing arts – dance, theatre, music and everything in between – that refuses to be categorized. I want it designed (or refurbished) from the ground up with performing and collaborative arts in mind: flexible walls, efficient storage, sound proofing and welcoming common spaces (see fig. 1.1)—everything performing artists need to meet, work, build, store and present. And I want the cost it takes to build it subsidized by city funds, which could be offset by membership dues, revenue generating activities and rental “deductibles.”
What the city doesn’t need is another exclusive theatre space open to only some kinds of art or some kinds of the public, like those gleaming cruise ships parked like a mirage in our harbor. I want a place that rolls up in its community like a neighbor’s brand new RV, where everyone comes out to climb on board to marvel at all its crazy features (they’re not crazy because you haven’t seen them before but because you’re seeing them in a whole new context!).
Build it. We have already come. We are already standing in line.
*Fig. 1.1 – A Dream Home for Performance Art: Amenities
1. Three separate performance spaces: a black box, a proscenium and a thrust (seating capacity should range 60-500). These are performance and rehearsal ready with flexibility in terms of seating, similar to a high school gym, where bleachers would unfold from the wall whenever you needed to host a crowd. Sound and lighting capabilities should be suitable for all manner of music, dance and theatre.
2. A street-side retail shop where member artists rotate sellable wares on a first-come- first-served basis and where other local artists can donate merchandise to support the cause.
3. A street-side café, where member artists and people in the neighborhood can gather for conversation, coffee, WiFi and good scones. A small stage should be included in order that this space can easily accommodate small performances, readings or open mics.
4. A street-side or basement pub (like Third Place Pub in Ravenna). Replace coffee and scones with mac’n’cheese and beer. Add karaoke and trivia nights. Don’t forget the stage. Any gathering space at this center should be ready to host performances at some scale.
5. Private artist studios available at an affordable rent. These generate revenue and ensure the building is populated with working artists 365 days a year.
6. Three multi-purpose “classrooms,” which can function as meeting rooms, rehearsal rooms or conference rooms (perhaps separated by temporary walls so this can be opened up to serve as an additional large performance space/rehearsal hall). Small business owners or neighborhood organizations would be welcome to rent these spaces for town hall meetings.
7. Individual-sized practice labs for musicians to rehearse or conduct private lessons. Another revenue generator.
8. Men and women’s bathrooms: some designed for public access. Others complete with showers and built in such proximity to performance space that they serve as dressing and/or green rooms.
9. A small 50-seat theatre designed specifically for viewing and screening films or giving multimedia presentations.
10. A computer lab available to members only for emailing, surfing, writing, printing, scanning, photo/video editing, website designing, audio composing, or just docking a laptop. Part-time tech support person on site to help on those days that technology hates you.
11. An office available to members complete with fax, copy machine, inboxes for mail and internal communication, and boom boxes or iPod docks and laptops available for checkout in classroom or rehearsal uses. Occupied by small, friendly full-time staff that manages building operations, space scheduling, maintenance and membership. These are experienced arts administrators who know how to deal with artists: sympathetic to the “struggle” but don’t take any guff.
12. A communal kitchen: fridge, coffee maker, teakettle, microwave and dishwasher. Vending machines too, if any local companies want to donate them. Large tables where groups can meet and eat. Dry erase boards for brainstorming, internal communication or playful doodling. A magazine rack where trading of good articles is encouraged.
13. A lounge. Simple open space where people can gather informally without taking up workspaces. Couches would be large enough to accommodate napping or overnight stays. If set-up in an amphitheatre fashion, could also work as another casual performance space (similar to where nine “o’Clock” Lab Bands at University of North Texas perform in the student center).
14. Equipment lockers available at a cheap rate. So you don’t have to schlep your paper mâché Bottom’s head and fairy wings on the bus between rehearsals.
15. Workshop for heavy-duty making, equipped with tools, paint and cleaning supplies and space for artists to assemble and store set building materials. This should include a loading dock to give access to larger set materials and supervised by a resident “tool master.” An experienced artist willing to work for free space.
16. Rooftop terrace or an outdoor common space that can also be host to a small reading or open mic. Hopefully has a pretty decent view so killer fundraisers or community building “block” parties can be hosted on site regularly.
17. A garden, where interested artists can grow things (herbs and vegetables could be used in the café). Because it’s Seattle.
18. Twenty-four hour access and security. Key cards, badges or IDs employed to keep artists and materials safe.
19. Bike racks, underground parking and bus routes to ensure that the space can be accessed easily and routinely.
20. A welcoming but open reception area to ensure it doesn’t feel like a community gym or school. I would start with a wideopen space that can be quickly transformed into a gallery or a facility-wide meet-‘n’-greet area.
21. Windows. Light. Access. Openness. The theme of the design at all times inspires connection, inclusiveness and shared, flexible multipurpose space. This should be a place free of insurmountable walls.