Best of 2009: Peter Donnelly and the Seattle way of arts

We've followed the have-it-all mode for building the arts rapidly, with many gains and tradeoffs. What will it be like After Donnelly (A.D.)?
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Seattle Opera's recent production of Schoenberg’s challenging "Erwartung."

We've followed the have-it-all mode for building the arts rapidly, with many gains and tradeoffs. What will it be like After Donnelly (A.D.)?

Editor's note: This is another of our Best Crosscuts of 2009 series, reprising an article that first appeared on April 2, 2009.

Historians of modern Seattle during its great city-building era, 1965-2000, will likely include on the list of key architects such figures as Jim Ellis, who spurred the civic revival; Sen. Warren Magnuson, who funded much of it, especially the University of Washington; and Peter Donnelly, who oversaw the cultural flourishing. Donnelly died unexpectedly at age 70 last Saturday. What are we to make of his legacy, and what will the arts be like A.D. (After Donnelly)?

Donnelly was the great central orchestrator of this artistic leap forward, and it was a nationally notable surge, the envy of many mid-sized American cities. In his role as head of the Corporate Council for the Arts (currently called ArtsFund), Donnelly kept the corporate givers interested, fascinated them with backstage gossip, and assured them of an orderly (and ambitious) plan well stitched into corporate interests such as tourism and the projection of the Seattle "brand."

More than $1 billion of new buildings for the arts was accomplished in the 1990s, vaulting many organizations into lengthy seasons and large budgets. Donnelly also helped coach artistic administrators and entrepreneurs, keeping an eye on fever charts and artfully suggesting a person who should take a job (or cure a sick board) at a struggling organization. Above all, he conveyed a sense that there was a guiding philosophy for Seattle's audition for the big time.

When Donnelly retired in 2005 from ArtsFund, the central clearing house for corporate support for the arts, there was a decision among the business community, probably conscious, to dispense with a central arts czar, a single person keeping order in the arts playground, a position Donnelly somewhat accidentally grew into. Donnelly would be a difficult legend to follow. But more than that, Seattle arts seemed to have outgrown the need for so much adult supervision and belatedly have become ready to try a more entrepreneurial and competitive mode of nurturing the arts. That's been the Portland way all along — preferring creative ferment of storefront theater to Seattle's grander, safer programming in big-budget palaces.

It's a good and open question whether the city waited too long to shift gears from its "Get big fast" mode. The positive way to look at this is to say Donnelly and his generation provided the foundation for a more generative and edgier arts scene. Another way is to say we have built a gilded cage.

At any rate, the Seattle way for the arts was to create and grow a full-bore representative in all five major arts (visual arts, theater, opera, symphony, and ballet). Few cities short of major national capitals have all that. (San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Toronto come to mind.) Most have two distinguished institutions (Symphony and museum, as in Boston and Cleveland, the likely leaders) and then a lot of smaller, sometimes highly creative, lesser art forms. That's a formula for selective excellence, not breadth. In Boston, for instance, the budgets for the Symphony and Museum of Fine Arts are well more than double the Seattle counterparts, while the budget for the Opera is about one-tenth Seattle Opera's.

Seattle's formula is for breadth, with none really achieving the very highest level. (Seattle Opera comes close, though it takes relatively few repertory risks.) The Seattle World's Fair, suddenly creating all those facilities to fill up, is the main cause for this I'll-have-one-of-each formula. Another is Seattle's insecurity, and its lust for "major-league" status. We did the same thing in sports, with the embarrassing end result of lots of losing teams and even one lost one team. Instructively, the one sport we neglected (aside from hockey) is soccer, and it may be the biggest hit of all.

In the great boom of the 1990s, when the city might have shifted to a more Darwinian mode, allowing an organization or two (opera, ballet?) to spurt ahead, Seattle chose instead to keep "having it all." Donnelly, as the master Medici, did not want to pick winners, possibly because his knowledge of the arts was deep in one area, theater. And so we built a new SAM, a new home for the Symphony, and one for Ballet and Opera; the Rep already got its new home (though one with an undersized lobby and an oversized auditorium).

To a degree, this was a bubble, an act of levitation. All the new Microsoft millionaires building mansions on the lake shores beguiled arts organizations (and their consultants) into thinking they would be fools not to have a capital campaign, tapping that wealth, right away. (The covert purpose of capital campaigns is to create powerhouse boards and fundraising departments.) These ambitious organizations soon found, however, that the new economy folks, aside from visual arts, are not very interested in the fine arts; and their presence on establishment-dominated boards could produce a kind of culture shock.

Another problem came from the anemic public sector. It is an irony commonly observed that the more liberal the local politics, the less the funding for the arts. The reason is that social service agencies scream loudly at any sign of funding frills like the arts, sending the elite liberal politicians scurrying for cover at the first charge of "elitist!" even while muttering how much they love the arts. Ron Sims is the local champion of this maneuver, and Donnelly would perform, in private, a hilarious imitation of Sims professing his undying love for the arts, as a way of explaining why he was cutting support.

Another awkward fact of public funding the arts locally is that the only real money, from hotel-motel taxes, is captured by King County, a fluke of its being tied to stadium bonds, which are county facilities. The county finds it politically tricky to flow money to Seattle, where the major organizations are, as opposed to gladdening the hearts of each councilmember in all nine districts. Moreover, this tourism-related funding source has been cut recently, and it is usually tied up with stadium and sports interests, making for a scary melodrama in most legislative sessions (including this one).

And so we blew ourselves a big culture bubble, one now in danger of popping. Those big new halls have much higher operating budgets, and lots more seats to fill up. Artist salaries have gone up, as have union contracts, in expectation of coming windfalls. Few of our big-budget organizations have endowments at anywhere near the level needed, and those endowments are suddenly down 30-40 percent. Corporations like Boeing and Safeco move out of town, others like WaMu collapse, and many of the rest are shifting contributions from arts to social services and education. The Gates Foundation gives relatively little to the arts, though the Allen Foundation is both generous and edgy in its gifts. Public funding continues to stagnate. And now that there isn't enough money for doing everything, a big fund drive by the Art Museum seriously dries up money for other groups. Definitely A.D.

The paradoxical outcome is that Seattle arts are too big, or at least grew too fast. In my experience working in the arts while running Town Hall, 1998-2006, I came to believe that the key determinant of quality in the arts is the knowledgeability, the passion, and the willingness to take risks, of the audience. Outgrow that natural core audience too much, as Seattle has done with its enormously outsized audiences per capita, and you have a lot of unknowledgeable, fickle folks sitting in those seats and wanting reliable, easily digestible entertainment before heading back out to the suburbs to get to bed by 11. For those audiences, art is not part of life; it's the occasional big night out, so it better be certifiably "good."

In such a setting, the programming gets conservative — and Seattle is something of an extreme case in this regard. An organization like the Seattle Symphony has to do lots of pops programs, and always have a name composer or a name soloist in the show. Seattle Opera can rarely afford to do a contemporary work. The Rep, now in a tailspin, has to fill up a large hall of 800 seats for weeks' running; that greatly reduces its ability to take chances. On the other hand, a smallish, hugely knowledgeable audience for something like On the Boards or the Early Music Guild produces some of the leading work in the country.

Another thing that happens when you put the major arts organizations on steroids is that the mid-sized organizations falter and die. Seattle used to have chamber dance groups, chamber orchestras, contemporary music groups, ethnic theater — now mostly gone. (By contrast, they are flourishing in Portland.) Fully mature artistic capitals have a vibrant mid-sized sector (budgets ranging from $3 to $8 million). That's where budgets are manageable, audiences are risk-takers, board training takes place, and tickets are affordable. It's where the next artistic breakthroughs can take place. And the artistic experience is more intimate and enthralling for close-up audiences.

There's one more mismatch in our rush to the big time. The creative economy, of which Seattle is one of the leaders, attracts a young, experimental, eclectic population — yet we have put nearly all our chips on a very middle class, older, and respectable set of institutions. Think for instance of are few arts venues carved out warehouses, breweries, railroad roundhouses, armories, or massive concrete grain silos, quite common in other cities. Instead, EMP aside, we have quite conventional, even corporate architecture housing our major arts groups. The main venue, Seattle Center, is a suburbanized zone for the arts, blocks away from real urban streets or lively ethnic neighborhoods.

I know. This is too broad brush. There are some examples of a better match of arts venues and the new Seattle audience. What's happening at the funky old Moore Theatre, for instance (two displays of European avant garde Monteverdi operas, recently). Capitol Hill fringe theater in rundown buildings. An early music explosion in church basements. Electric jolts from Spectrum Dance, showing up in assorted venues. The Tractor Tavern, with Bach and suds.

But why so little, in a city so young and creative? The reasons are described above — our partly conscious and mutually reinforcing policies designed to produce rapid, but conventional growth in our arts, in every sector, even if the money and dedicated audiences to sustain it were not there yet (and maybe won't ever really be there). But as I say, this might be a launch platform, rather than a trap.

It's a remarkable, if lopsided and topheavy, achievement. In a sense the economic hard times and the shake-outs and collaborations it will produce could be a kind of benefit in disguise. Suburban venues are finally getting into the act, and they could provide incubation venues. The Web provides new ways of reaching micro audiences, adding the social mixing to the arts scene.

Now we'll see, A.D. Can we adjust, do the infill, play from a different songbook, bend boundaries? It would be a wonderful tribute to Peter Donnelly if we did so, since I'm pretty sure he would very much approve. Too bad he's not here to help it happen, and to enjoy it.


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