State of the Arts: Does Seattle have an arts aesthetic?

The Hideout, a Seattle arts gallery with a full bar. Credit: Photo: The Hideout

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Is there a Seattle arts aesthetic? At first blush, the topic seems better fit for a late-night barstool debate than as a point of serious conversation among civic and economic leaders. But that would mean a missed opportunity for Seattle as a whole. Defining the character and values of our arts community is not just possible, but valuable. 

Proper articulation can help better allocate resources, define policy and direct visitors towards our best cultural assets, not just the most visible. Seattle’s very identity as a city of creativity requires that we properly know and support our local arts community on its own terms.

At first glance, a singular citywide aesthetic is nearly impossible to define. The style of our poets is different from our painters and different again from our performers. And even if we were to dive into each individual discipline, we would find little stylistic rigor within. 

In fact, Seattle seems to eschew the very idea of stylistic rigor, opting instead for a myriad of independent and equal voices. Non-conformity, irreverence and independence are common traits among our artists and artworks, and can be mistaken for a lack of continuity. But instead it points to our first characteristic:

Seattle’s artists are pioneering.

Just as the city itself is not long removed from its roots as a frontier outpost, Seattle’s artists are still but pioneers, opting to blaze trails in the aesthetic wilderness over walking the well-paved avenues of our sister cities to the East. Authenticity, earnestness, irreverence and do-it-yourself values drive the majority of our output. These are pioneer values.

Examples are found all over, but especially in the music scene, where local artists are driven continuously towards new and authentic personal voices that gain national attention. We saw it with the punk ethos of the seventies. We saw it with grunge in the 80s and 90s.  And today we see it with indie and hip-hop groups, including celebrated examples like Macklemore, Blue Scholars, The Head and the Heart, Modest Mouse and Band of Horses.

Seattle’s art is also enterprising. 

When looking for the brightest spots, our regional history seems alit by a constellation of sprawling business empires scaled up from humble origins.

Whether it was William Boeing constructing seaplanes in a boathouse, Bill Gates hacking up code on Lakeside School’s Teletype or the Starbucks founders scrambling about their small storefront in the market, Seattle’s best-known brands have simple beginnings and ambitious creators. 

The arts community is no different. A study last decade put Seattle at the top of the list for arts organizations per capita. Many (if not most) of these are founded by the artists themselves and have their origins in the same storefronts, basements, warehouses and garages that housed early Amazon, Microsoft, Boeing and Starbucks. 

Our artists, like our business leaders, are enterprising, innovative and entrepreneurial — as interested in the context of their work as in the work itself. 

There are big international examples like Dale Chihuly and Quincy Jones, who have remade their medium by turning their studios and their names into international production powerhouses.

More locally and more recently, artist entrepreneurs like Greg Lundgren (of Walden 3 and The Hideout) blur the lines between culture and commerce, combining restaurant and retail projects with more traditional art and performance installations.

Walden 3, a proposed Seattle arts center, would take over the building formerly occupied by the Lusty Lady. Concept photo: Olson Kundig Architects.

Most commonly, artist-run collective galleries and performance groups have sprung up all over, such as SOIL Gallery in Pioneer Square and Annex Theatre on Capitol Hill, offering artists a commercial refuge in which to present and sell their work without too much financial pressure.

Seattle’s artists are civic-minded. 

While you still find a few that cloister themselves in their studios like hermits, Seattle’s artists generally see their work as intrinsically tied to a very public conversation and identity. This brings art-making together with city-making for new developments in both.

Most famously, this includes two local trends that have spread all over the country. First Thursday Art Walk, which takes place every month in Pioneer Square, was the first of its kind when founded in the 1960s. Now it has offspring not only throughout the city, but throughout the world. 

Similarly, Seattle and the state of Washington were among the first in the country to implement ‘percent-for-art’ public art programs, revolutionizing the process of community engagement and planning, providing the model for other cities and states throughout the nation.

The tradition of innovation in the public realm continues today. Efforts like Storefronts Seattle, the Alley Network Project, MadArt Seattle, Urban Artworks and the Free Sheep Foundation have sprung up in recent years to further increase the arts-based activation of underutilized public and private spaces.

Eva Isaksen installing her work in Chinatown as part of Storefronts Seattle. Photo: Storefronts Seattle. 

In addition, we see artists engaging in arts-based social programs to educate, rehabilitate, organize and enliven all kinds of local populations, including seminal programs such as The Vera Project, Reel Grrls, ArtsCorps, PATH with Art and the Keeping the Faith Prison Project.

Of course, these three traits of Seattle’s arts aesthetic are just a few of many. The more we think and talk and write about what traits define our city’s artistic and cultural life, the more we’ll know what makes us unique in the world.

It is important that we support the large institutions that bring us world-class artwork, but it is also true that that artwork often looks and sounds much like the work in other cities. So, it is imperative that we locate and articulate Seattle’s own aesthetic and support it above all else. 

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