A growing enclave for the arts, 30 miles from Seattle

The City of Destiny was not destined to be Puget Sound's cultural capital. It is a small star. But the arts scene in Tacoma has managed to shine.
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"No matter where you are, it's who you know," says Catherine Swanson, co-owner of the Art on Center Gallery in Tacoma. (Lisa Albers) CLICK ON PHOTOS TO ENLARGE

The City of Destiny was not destined to be Puget Sound's cultural capital. It is a small star. But the arts scene in Tacoma has managed to shine.

Tacoma has a long-standing rivalry with its well-endowed sister city to the north, or perhaps it's an inferiority complex. During the three years I lived in Tacoma, I heard a lot of talk about what Tacoma could do to be more like Seattle (or better than Seattle), or to attract more Seattleites (especially artists) to defect to Tacoma, or at least patronize it. This is due to the historical rivalry between the two cities, the seeds of which were sown when Washington was still the Wild West but continue to germinate resentment to this day.

Tacoma successfully swiped the Northern Pacific Railroad out from under Seattle in 1873, putting Tacoma, and not Seattle, on the path to world-class recognition. But Seattle far surpassed Tacoma regardless, benefiting from a succession of economic booms – a Gold Rush, aerospace, info tech – while Tacoma stagnated for decades. Tacoma never fully recovered from this "could have been" history; living there, you feel as if your city thinks it is an undiscovered genius, like Basquiat looking for an Andy Warhol to recognize him.

Historical grudges aside, modern-day comparisons between the two cities' cultural offerings are neither fair nor relevant. Seattle's in-city population in the 2000 Census was 563,375; Tacoma's was 193,177, a number much closer to that of Spokane, at 196,143.

In this respect, Tacoma's cultural efforts are highly commendable. People who have lived in Tacoma all their lives express amazement at how the waterfront and downtown have already been transformed into a welcoming arts district. There are two major museums devoted to the arts Â'ꀔ the much-touted Glass Museum, Dale Chihuly's gift to his hometown, and the Tacoma Art Museum, which deserves more praise than it receives, as curators not only make a point to support and showcase local artists but develop cutting-edge shows, such as the recent installation by Trimpin.

There are several strong art galleries in Tacoma, from notable heavyweight William Traver to the homegrown start-ups, Art on Center and Brick and Mortar. Two exciting efforts are Tollbooth, the "World's Smallest Gallery Dedicated Exclusively to Experimental Video and Wheat-Pasted Paper Fine Arts," and Woolworth Windows, where artists are invited to create installations for 100 feet of window display space.

The Kittredge Gallery at the University of Puget Sound is now hosting a show organized by Seattle Print Arts (SPA) and Sarah Suzuki, assistant curator for the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. Sally Schuh, president of SPA, said of the event: "We want our membership to reach beyond Seattle." When the show opened, quite a few Seattleites were in attendance, despite a propane explosion that shut down Highway 16, wreaking havoc on traffic near the university.

I spoke with Catherine Swanson, owner of Art on Center (AOC) Gallery, as she prepared for an opening on the same Saturday afternoon as the Kittredge's. She and partner David Goldberg had just moved AOC from its original Center Street location in the Nalley Valley industrial area to a prime spot adjacent Tacoma's art-house theater, Grand Cinema. When they opened the Center Street gallery a few years ago, their primary need was studio space for their own art and for Swanson's work as an art instructor. The gallery space downstairs simply came with the deal. "But the gallery became a thing of its own," Swanson explained. "We wished we were in a better location." She is cautiously hopeful about how well the new locale will promote business. "Here we pay the same amount of rent but have less space," she said.

The couple has moved their studio space into a house they own, which is one of the reasons they moved to Tacoma in the first place. They had lived in Seattle in the 1990s, moved to New York in 1997, and then returned to the Northwest in 2000. "We wanted to live in Seattle, but we couldn't find a place [we could afford] to buy," she said.

Swanson, who grew up in Tacoma, says she enjoys the working-class feel of her hometown. "People don't put on airs here," she said. She also credits the city for fulfilling its promise as far as the arts are concerned. "So much has changed; it's really living up to their marketing," she said.

Still, Swanson expressed frustration about some Tacomans' lack of interest in the arts. "In Seattle, there's a younger, more-flush buying crowd. Regular people know about art." Are there any art collectors living in Tacoma? Swanson says yes. "But they go to Seattle to buy art." And Seattleites aren't flocking to Tacoma for art bargains either, in her estimation. "The freeway only goes one way for Seattleites," she said.

Even so, Swanson pointed to Tacoma's new City Arts publication for helping to promote the local scene. She's also fueling her own networking, which she says is the key determining factor in any arts enterprise, whether gallery or individual artist. "No matter where you are, it's who you know," she said.

Back downtown, a gallery owner with an entirely different business model let me interrupt his Saturday afternoon retail reverie. Tom Michael and his wife, Leslie, own The Seven Muses Gallery on Broadway. The two met in Germany, where they were both stationed by the U.S. military. Their trajectory has since taken them through bachelor's and master's degrees and teaching stints. Leslie Michael now teaches at Pierce College in neighboring Lakewood. Tom Michael mans the gallery, an eclectic mix of art and collectibles, half of which are one-of-a-kind creations, including their bestseller, his whimsical lawn sprinklers made of found objects.

They opened the shop three years ago and find that most of their customers are out-of-town visitors from the nearby convention center. "Occasionally, we'll get others," said Tom Michael. "One group came from Olympia by boat and docked at the waterfront." He hasn't noticed very many people from Seattle, but when they do come in, they're surprised by what they find. "Seattleites ask me, 'How can you sell this so cheaply?' But most people in Seattle don't know that there's anything to come down here for." The sprinklers are priced between $150 and $200.

At 2:30 pm on a Saturday, the street was desolately quiet (except for the aforementioned propane explosion, which shook the windows and made the lights flicker). In the hour I spent talking with Michael, only one customer walked in. After three years, the shop is not yet profitable. "But we pay for ourselves; we're not losing money," he said. He had to pick up an online class recently to make up for less than robust sales. Michael pointed to the parking spaces in front of the store, which are zoned for only 15- and 30-minute stays. "You can't have lunch or dinner in that amount of time. You can't browse." He says there are parking garages nearby, but the very same people who think nothing of spending $12 to park in downtown Seattle don't think they should have to pay that in Tacoma.

Michael believes that what downtown Tacoma needs to attract more foot traffic is high-end clothing stores like Anthropologie or specialty shops such as Sur La Table. "When Tacomans do wander in here, they say, 'I didn't know this was here; I never come downtown anymore,'" he said. "They go to the mall instead."

Notably, Seven Muses has never had a write-up in the Tacoma News-Tribune. Michael bought ads in the paper in the beginning, but the ads were expensive, and when asked, no one visiting the shop said they came in because they saw an ad in the paper. Seven Muses was highlighted in Northwest Home and Garden, but that magazine identified them as a Seattle gallery.

Michael credits Tacoma's popular arts listserv as one of the best things the city has done to help artists and gallery owners advertise. He routinely posts photos of shop items and receives a great deal of interest in return. Leslie Michael uses the listserv to advertise Seven Muses' ongoing reading series of published Pierce College writing instructors.

In 2005, I read at Seven Muses as part of my participation in the Tacoma Artists Initiative Program grant. It was a generous award for a writer – $3,000 for completion of two collections, one poetry and one fiction. The grant enabled me to devote a summer to the work, for which I secured the notice of a literary agent. Such grants are a boon to Tacoma artists and most certainly rival funding made available in much larger cities, such as Seattle, which typically grants half that amount to writers.

Do Seattleites have an unfair bias against Tacoma, and if so, does that hurt Tacoma's arts scene? During my three years there, it took quite a bit of convincing to get my Seattle friends to drive down to Tacoma. They complained about the "vibe," which they characterized as depressing, conservative, even trashy. A Tacoma musician once told me about an event he had organized in collaboration with experimental musicians from Seattle. The Seattleites didn't want to stick around after the show, preferring instead to head back north, to a "real city," he said. He never forgot the snipe.

On the other hand, once my Seattle friends saw what Tacoma had to offer, they routinely trekked southward when invited. Some considered moving there for the cheaper housing alone. Out-of-town guests marveled at the big-city offerings coupled with small town benefits, such as fewer crowds and easier traffic and parking. When I read in Seven Muses for the Tacoma arts grant, there were several guests from Seattle who had braved rush-hour traffic just to be there, including my agent's assistant. Not one member of the Tacoma Arts Commission, however, was in attendance. We writers are grateful when anyone shows up to hear us read, so I hadn't even noticed the slight, but a fellow Tacoma artist did, wondering aloud how they could fund the work but not show up in support of its creator.

Maybe the key to lasting success for the arts in Tacoma is for city residents to fully embrace art themselves, and to stop worrying so much about what Seattle thinks of them.

Tom Albers contributed a visual artist's perspective to this story.


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