In October, I interviewed a few people on the ground floor of Tacoma's growing visual arts scene. I found that while truly commendable efforts are being made in the city in the form of a revitalized downtown core flanked by flagship museums, it remains to be seen whether or not Tacomans themselves will embrace the arts in a manner that will support both artists and the gallery owners who sell their work.
I've since talked with Amy McBride, arts administrator for the City of Tacoma. McBride has held the position for nine years and has done much to fuel Tacoma's renaissance – although she's more likely to credit Tacoma Arts Commission members and others for the city's success. McBride says that a record 31 studios were open for the Art at Work month studio tour this November, up from just 14 when the program launched six years ago. She has also seen the number of arts events in Tacoma quadruple during that same time period.
Still, McBride acknowledged that Tacoma could do much better in some areas, such as providing affordable space for artists to live and work. "I'd die for something like that here," she says. "I've tried, but the right mix hasn't coalesced yet."
Top on her list is to promote a thriving downtown community. "We want to see street-level vibrancy," she says. McBride sees the high-end museums and grassroots arts activity as a good start, but she worries about proprietors such as Tom Michael and Catherine Swanson, two gallery owners I interviewed who spoke to the difficulties of economic survival in Tacoma. "If you're a professional artist, where do you show your work in Tacoma?" McBride asks. "We would like the gallery owners' efforts to be more sustainable. They're out there struggling their hearts out."
At this point, McBride can only hope that new condominium development and the residential impact they will make on the downtown core bring an increase in retail activity. "What's the tipping point?" she asks. "Will the people who move into those condos buy artwork?"
That's anybody's guess.