How arts and music helped pull Seattle through hard times

When Congress cancelled the SST, plunging the local economy downward, the city turned to new ways to lift its spirits and spur its economy. The arts, especially rock and roll, were a key part of the rebound.

Kurt Cobain with Nirvana, circa 1992. (J.P. Rage, Wikimedia Commons)

Kurt Cobain with Nirvana, circa 1992. (J.P. Rage, Wikimedia Commons) None

Original artwork for the influential Sub Pop 200 compilation, which featured Nirvana

Original artwork for the influential Sub Pop 200 compilation, which featured Nirvana Travis Hay

Editor's note: This story is an adaptation of a series of reports by the author on "Changing the Sound," which recently aired on KUOW Public Radio.

By the time Nirvana released its groundbreaking major label recording Nevermind, in September of 1991, Seattle had already changed irrevocably from the isolated seaport it had been for most of its existence.  After many decades as a center for logging, fishing, and aerospace, by the 1980s Seattle had become the home of the software giant Microsoft.  East Coast transplant Howard Schultz had acquired Starbuck’s, and was in the process of transforming the basic cup of joe into a lucrative global corporation.  A new class of young professionals was moving in to work for these growing businesses.

Along with these nascent industries, Seattle had also developed into a popular culture hub that centered around a thriving music scene.  In the mid-1980s, Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman founded Subpop Records and started releasing singles by local bands like Mudhoney, Alice in Chains, and Nirvana.  Subpop was one among many record labels in the area that focussed on the burgeoning indie rock scene.  The difference:  Poneman and Pavitt not only knew how to pick their bands; they knew how to hype their product.  They flew in a prominent British music journalist, Everett True, and gave him the grand tour.  True published a glowing article about the Seattle Sound.

After that, it was all golden for the label.  Seattle was inundated by music fans, and aspiring musicians.  Music historian Peter Blecha says, while Seattle’s tourism economy may have picked up, the city’s elite wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to become a rock and roll destination.  “I think they were very happy with us as the Space Needle place, the place you could see Mt. Rainier from.”  Nevertheless, by the time Nevermind hit it huge, Seattle was at least as famous for music as it was for Boeing airplanes and Wagner Ring cycles.

Some observers trace Seattle’s rock and roll reputation back to 1962, the year of the Seattle World’s Fair.  The late arts impresario Peter Donnelly arrived in the Pacific Northwest just two years after the Fair.  Donnelly remembered thinking the city was little more than a frontier outpost at the time.  But he also recalled that the city’s elite were ambitious for something more.  They envisioned a new Seattle, a metropolis to rival New York, or Paris, or San Francisco.  “All of a sudden,” Donnelly said, “it wanted to put in place the things that cities with big aspirations had.  And the arts were an important component of that.”

Donnelly came to Seattle from Boston as a Ford Foundation intern to learn arts management at the new Seattle Repertory Theater.  The Rep was housed in one of the empty World’s Fair exhibition halls (now Intiman Theatre). Other old Fair buildings were given over to the Seattle Symphony, the Opera, and to a new contemporary art wing for the Seattle Art Museum.

These institutions established themselves during Boeing’s commercial airplane heyday and the big Cold War spending on Defense and education.  Between 1960 and 1970, Boeing rolled out three new commercial jet models.  In 1966, Boeing won a federal contract to develop and build the nation’s first commercial supersonic transport, the SST.  Unfortunately, five years later, on March 24, 1971, Congress killed the program, and the next day Boeing laid off 7,000 workers.  Despite that cataclysmic blow to the regional economy, the arts groups hung on.

That summer of 1971, to help buoy his citizens’ spirits, Mayor Wes Uhlman decided to mount a cultural festival.  “I felt very strongly we should be doing something to add some life and vitality,” he says, “maybe divert attention from some of the sad things going on economically.”  While the Mayor’s Arts Festival may not have dispelled the economic doldrums that gripped Seattle, it was at least a small sign that the end of the world was not imminent. (It also eventually grew into the massive annual Bumbershoot Festival each Labor Day weekend.)

Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!


Posted Tue, Oct 25, 9:57 a.m. Inappropriate

This is an awesome piece. It highlights one of the often-overlooked ways of diversifying an economy. Any city should support the arts as much as it can, because a vibrant arts scene is good for the economic (and cultural, and social) health of a community - even of people who don't personally enjoy art.


Posted Tue, Oct 25, 10:08 a.m. Inappropriate

I love this article! I recently returned from Europe and was reminded how the Europeans value "the arts" as a fundamental necessity for a happy life. The arts ranks up there on equal footing with food-water-sleep and shelter. As a whole, I don't feel the U.S. is even close to this frame of thinking. But this piece reminds me that Seattle skews a little more toward the 'european' way of thinking. I guess that's why I'm happier here than any other U.S. city. Thanks crosscut for reminding me --again --why Seattle is a cool place to be.


Posted Tue, Oct 25, 4:39 p.m. Inappropriate

This article is off base. The arts previously succeeded in Seattle because of affordability of living space, work space and show space, plain and simple. Todays Seattle is too expensive for the studio arts and that my friend is that. No amount of money for performing spaces will change that unless there is a focused effort to protect and encourage sustainable studio space. The artist who feels secure in their work space, who also works in a local restaurant or school, who adds to the creative fabric of the community, is ultimately the one who percolates the atmosphere so necessary to ignite a class of people, the much desired "creative class". Rarely is the catalyst for that "creative class energy" going to come out of an air conditioned office or a brie and white wine party. OK, there have been a few programs that have come from on high-like the Federal Arts Subsidy called CETA and the City of Seattle 1% for Arts program-that had big impacts on local artists but in general if you want the "creative class" in your community you have to have affordable studio and living space. Creative types hang out in affordable bars and cafe's and work out their solutions to world problems there; they purposely don't choose high end wine bars. It was First Thursday that really sparked the early art scene in Seattle, not the latest ballet productions. First Thursday was a 70's promotion put together by galleries and restaurants in Pioneer Square because of the negative economic impact of the Boeing Bust. Arts, the creative inventive lets-do-a-show Arts often do well in trying times, at least in terms of ideas and inventiveness because after all what else is there? Affluence often crowds the art scene with "everybody is an artist" abundance and make speculative demands for work space that crowd out real artists needs. What doesn't change is that real solutions must come from the community and communities are not established over-night. Thats the real tragedy of Pioneer Square; an arts community over 30 years in the making vanished in less than a decade of real estate-speculation much of it brought by dot com mania. There are real attempts to gather the foundations of that creative community together once again; in Georgetown, Belltown, Ballard and Capitol Hill. even Chinatown but time takes time and in the meantime who can afford to go to the opera?


Posted Tue, Nov 29, 8:41 a.m. Inappropriate

The Seattle Rep was not located in a former exhibition hall. The Seattle Center Playhouse was designed and built as a theater, used during the World's Fair and for many years after by the Rep. Previously, the city voters had passed a bond issue for construction of a new hall. Fair planners were able to use these funds to remodel the old civic auditorium into the Seattle Center Opera House, but only after a long and contenious legal battle. Opponents held that the bonds required construction of an entirely new building. They eventually lost. The opera, symphony, and ballet used the "new" opera house for decades, until it was once again recycled into McCaw Hall. The Seattle Art Museum did utilize a pre-fab Fair building for a modest contemporary art space that was effectively evicted by the King Tut exhibit.


Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »