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Seattle mayor candidates: Time to sharpen those elbows

At a Town Hall gathering, Seattle's mayoral candidates all spoke about their love of the arts. What's new?
KeyArena: Could its site be an option for a new sports arena?

KeyArena: Could its site be an option for a new sports arena? Photo: Flickr user compujeramey

The Chihuly Glass and Garden at Seattle Center on a December afternoon

The Chihuly Glass and Garden at Seattle Center on a December afternoon Wonderland

Joey Gray

Joey Gray Photo: Vote Joey Gray

Civic Cocktail

Knute Berger will be on a Civic Cocktail panel at 6 p.m. tonight discussing the Seattle mayor's race, the  Legislature's special session and the business climate in Washington state. Registration has closed but limited seating may be available by calling 206-682-7395 or at the door at the Palace Ballroom, 2100 Fifth Avenue. Registration is $12 for Crosscut or CityClub members and $15 for non-members. Doors open at 5:30.

The mayor's race is still in a mushy phase. The electorate has not made up its mind or zeroed in on the upcoming August primary. The candidates are doing endless group forums, but there is little media buzz about the campaign itself. Voters seem to be a bit overwhelmed by the number of options: some very new (Joey Gray) and others who still haven't broken through to define themselves in the general public's mind. What are the policy differences between Ed Murray and Mike McGinn, for example?

This week, there was a "Cultural Community Forum" at Town Hall where candidates addressed an issue that their handouts and stump speeches rarely, if ever, do: the arts. If people were looking for differentiation between the candidates, there was little to be found here. What do you think they said? They love arts and culture. Surprise.

Even a message that bland wasn't unwelcome to a large audience of arts and cultural supporters and patrons. It's safe to say that Bruce Harrell, Kate Martin, Mary Martin, Mike McGinn, Ed Murray, Charlie Staadecker and Peter Steinbrueck are now all on the record for wanting to budget more money to support arts and culture. Late entry Joey Gray — a librarian, non-profit consultant and former executive director of the Ultimate Players Association (now USA Ultimate) — was oddly left out off the panel. Still, interesting tidbits did emerge.

On the subject of Seattle Center, Bruce Harrell wants more open space and seemed okay with the idea of tearing down KeyArena if need be. Mike McGinn would rather find some adaptive alternative use for Key than tear it down. Peter Steinbrueck would like to see the Sonics back in there. And Charlie Staadecker suggested imagining that it be converted into a high-tech high school a la the Bronx School of Science.

Most seemed to want more sustainable funding for arts and culture, and Steinbrueck suggested that the city's bonding authority would be better used for arts infrastructure than a new SoDo sports arena. Murray said that more money should be a priority and pointed to his record of helping to get public funds for McCaw Hall, the new Museum of History and Industry and Hugo House. He modestly declined lengthening the list.

Interestingly, Murray made a quick pitch for a world-class natural history museum in Seattle. He is a supporter of expanding and scaling-up the Burke Museum at the University of Washington (in 2012, the Legislature appropriated $3.5 million for the expansion design). Still, no one asked him how more money would be possible from the state in this era of declining budgets and gridlock.

McGinn defended his record on arts funding during the last few lean years, saying he had protected it from cuts. He pointed out that the city had refurbished the Center House — now the Armory — on his watch, cut a deal to get Chihuly Garden and Glass up and running and mentioned that even the waterfront's Great Wheel was spinning off tax revenues that would help fund other arts programs.

Commerce is important to arts and culture, others noted, including Staadecker, who pointed out that "The Arts" are the sixth-largest industry in the Puget Sound region. Cultural tourism is a big part of Seattle's appeal and contributes to the art's revenue stream (hotel-motel tax).

Socialist Workers Party candidate Mary Martin averred that the arts were a basic human need, not a commodity, and extolled the virtues of ballet in Cuba. The capitalist system, apparently, is bad for the arts, but I found myself thinking I would rather have the art produced under the Medicis than that under Stalin or Mao. Still, many artists are socialists at heart and a WPA-style public works project would be welcomed by many, thank you.

One welcome aspect of the arts forum was a format that featured some thoughtful questions by Steve Scher and a panel of culture professionals. It had less game-show, lightning-round gimmicks — where candidates have to whiz through yes-or-no answers or hold up cards as if they're on a dating game (which they kind of are).

As you see them speak at different events, it's hard not to glaze over at repeated talking points, instead focusing on the bits of personality that emerge. Steinbrueck and Harrell speak with the most passion — native sons of Seattle who have compelling personal stories to tell. Staadecker is the slow, deliberate voice of reason — the wise grandpa of the group. Kate Martin is full of wonky ideas, unafraid to say the James Corner waterfront plan is a failure and that she'd like to keep the Alaskan Way Viaduct standing as "open space" like New York's High Line. Mary Martin — who works in a local popcorn factory — can't wait for the Revolution to begin.

Murray and Harrell are most likely to challenge McGinn on style, with Murray attacking McGinn on leadership and Harrell criticizing the mayor for a lack of "collaboration" (Harrell occasionally undercuts that message when he refers to himself in the third person). Steinbrueck uses the SoDo basketball arena deal to club the mayor, but Murray seems most ready to get testy and McGinn often seems to be trying to hold a forced smile; you can tell that's not for long. The campaigners are going to have to sharpen their elbows and ideas to begin to break out from the pack and give voters a better sense of who's who.

Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.

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Posted Wed, Jun 5, 8:55 a.m. Inappropriate

I imagine you could throw millions upon millions into arts funding hereabouts and it wouldn't change the fundamental provinciality that I have seen so many artistic directors flee during my 20 years in these parts - theatre is an area in which I am a bit of an old hand. Too much pettiness, backstabbing, false promises, too few critics. Roger Downey, as a critic, certainly did yeoman's work I noticed. But then it is an area without a building audience, thus no great surprise that so many small ventures have disappeared, also for reasons of mismanagement or grandiosity. Had I Paul Allen's resources I'd know what it would take to be the right kind of Medici in that area, say like the HB Studio in New York - Herbert Berghof Uta Hagen Studio to put names with the initials - actor development, an uncompromising dose of truly contemporary and classical theatre, do that for about 25 years and you have something, as well as a loyal educated audience that realized that it had a gem in its midst. A better newspaper would help but is not essential. Give it another 100 years and Seattle will be just like told old-time Vienna!


Posted Wed, Jun 5, 10:35 a.m. Inappropriate

I was in the house Monday night, and was dismayed at many of the lackluster responses I heard from the panel. When they were asked the most predictable of questions ("what's your favorite piece of public art in Seattle," or "name a art or cultural event that really stands out for you") most of them were strangely at a loss for answers. They could reel out a list of institutions or art forms, but when it came to actually talking about their own experiences, they often had trouble being specific.

I appreciated the discussion about the stadium proposals -- big capital projects have a significant effect on the funding climate for everyone here. And there were thoughtful comments, especially about re-apportioning the admissions tax funds so that 100% of the revenues are invested back in the cultural community. But when I come home to tell my family that the best thing about the event is that it happened at all, that's pretty faint praise.


Posted Thu, Jun 6, 2:15 p.m. Inappropriate

The admission tax at the proposed arena would be used to pay for the proposed arena. All businesses at the propose arena would be Seattle tax exempt; so there would be no tax revenue available from the arena for anything in Seattle.


Posted Wed, Jun 5, 11:09 a.m. Inappropriate

Lackluster responses now typify the political discourse about the arts in Seattle, which once was a national leader in supporting the arts. Several factors: the real money for the arts, via the hotel-motel tax, goes to the county and 4Culture, so the city is a marginal player. The only real public funding for the arts tends to be for capital projects, which provide jobs for workers and ribbons to cut for the pols. (But we have built just about every facility we can.) The city has shifted its arts agenda from the fine arts, reflecting a bourgeois city in the past, to nightlife and music, reflecting a much younger, much more single lifestyle.
So look for mostly kind words and few dollars, until we have a really major institution in crisis and the city feels the need to come to the rescue.

Posted Wed, Jun 5, 3:27 p.m. Inappropriate

"But we have built just about every facility we can."

I disagree -- as someone who watches the dance community here, I wish we had more access to a performance space that seats 300-400 people. We've got a good collection of small spaces (and are building two more in the 12th Avenue project) and a handful of truly large ones, but if you have a growing audience good luck finding something in the middle that's not already booked to the gills.


Posted Thu, Jun 6, 10:30 p.m. Inappropriate

This is a good point. Seattle could use a smallish space that is set up for dance and for chamber music and other unamplified music. Several cities (Chicago, Minneapolis)have recently done so. The problem is these halls, if new, are so expensive to rent that the desired users can't afford to do more than a show a year in them.

Posted Thu, Jun 6, 2:18 p.m. Inappropriate

It is no surprise Harrell wishes Key Arena torn down. Harrell was extensively lobbied by Hansen and Ballmer, and Key Arena being torn down would assist Hansen and Ballmer.


Posted Fri, Jun 7, 10:57 a.m. Inappropriate

The full video of the forum is available through the Town Hall Media Library!

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