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Revive Seattle’s creative spirit by inciting cultural trouble

Seattle used to be a place where young artists could afford to experiment with work, life and one another. Credit: Flickr user takomabibelot

Knute Berger’s recent piece in Crosscut about Seattle and creativity raised several good questions, most importantly at the article’s conclusion, when he asks rhetorically whether the city is delivering what it takes to “nourish people with creative appetite.” In response, it might be useful to consider what brought those with these appetites here in the first place.

I arrived in Seattle 1973, along with my wife Patricia, from Italy where we’d been working and studying for two years. We met in Berkeley a couple years before going to Italy, she finishing her architecture degree, me trying to set out on a course of being a visual artist. In between Berkeley and Italy we lived in a loft in San Francisco. We left San Francisco as the city was gentrifying around us at an alarming rate — all our artist friends were being forced out of their lofts.

We chose Seattle, because like so many others, we’d camped up here in summer, and had left dazzled by the surrounding beauty. But it wasn’t really that. The city was exceedingly laid back, asleep, even comatose. Most unlike San Francisco, it wasn’t in the slightest bit self-conscious about its place in the world. There were cheap rents and cheap eats. We both pretty easily found as much work as we wanted. We didn’t really think through whether we’d stay, but Seattle offered a chance for us to experiment with life, with our young skill sets and with one another, all without economic pressure.

Seattle wasn’t much on anyone’s radar in the ’70s because it was sort of nowhere, which in fact was its primary attraction to us, and to many of the other artists who arrived around the time we did. We knew we weren’t at the center of anything. But we had space, for both our studios and our ideas, and time — months and years, to mess around, alone and collaboratively. We survived, even thrived, on benign neglect.

Those times however, are long, long gone. Seattle’s not going to be cheap and easy anytime soon. And it’s no longer nowhere.

So if creative people, whom I would define as those who generate their work by using their hands, hearts and minds in concert, can’t find easy livin’ here then, as Knute asks, are there enough other benefits to being here to override the steep costs? Yes and no.

If I were young, and pretty much penniless as Patricia and I were when we arrived, I’d keep moving. I’d pick maybe Detroit, or some other Rust Belt city. Geez, you say, “but it’s cold, dark, screwed up and nobody goes there.” That’s exactly what our San Francisco friends told us when we were moving to Seattle. But there is wide open opportunity in these places to invent yourself, feed your passion, stake out a career even — as there was here once upon a time.

If on the other hand, you’ve got some economic wherewithal, have carved a niche for yourself, why not? In large part due to Seattle-based efforts, the world is far more culturally decentralized than it used to be. An artist can make work here and it can be seen (if not always experienced) all over the place. Hey, the eats are steep here now, but they’re good.

The biggest disappointment for me is that historically there’s been only the ever so tiniest overlap between the tech community and the artistic one here. That potential bleed would seem to offer Seattle unique possibilities. What if tech, scientific and medical research entities partnered as a matter of course with artists here, not for product production or promotion, but for the sake of basic research — just to see what might bubble up?

I understand that there is inordinate pressure to “ship” or “publish,” but what if there was some time/place at these institutions set aside for dreaming, with artists? If this could happen, ideas could be nurtured in ways that the old space/time continuum supported long ago. The effect just could be far-reaching and artists would be involved as they are in few other places anywhere.

I do believe the artists of my generation owe this place something. We benefited enormously by being left to our own devices (and I certainly don’t mean digital ones). In return we ought to be pushing at the culture institutions to loosen up in as many ways as we can muster.

We used to have long unruly hair and we used to think we were going to change the world. Okay, so the hair’s gone and maybe change is too strong a word, but we can still shove. We can and should help Seattle nurture its creative self by continuing to cause cultural trouble. If somehow we’ve accrued some influence, we should use it to shake things up. A shook-up Seattle will always be far more interesting.

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