Arts subsidies at Seattle Center: Why stop there?

With SIFF delaying part of its move to the Center, details emerge about how much the Center incubates and supports arts groups on its grounds. Good idea, but is it fair to other city arts groups?
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Seattle Center: enduring icons of 1962

With SIFF delaying part of its move to the Center, details emerge about how much the Center incubates and supports arts groups on its grounds. Good idea, but is it fair to other city arts groups?

The Seattle International Film Festival, whose annual big festival opens Thursday, has just announced it's delaying the opening of its Film Center in Seattle Center's Alki Room. Fundraising has been slower than expected, due largely to the recession. So the year-round SIFF facility (classrooms, offices, a 100-seat theater) will have to wait. The Film Festival goes on, full-steam-ahead.

The Seattle Times' story on the delay sheds some interesting light on the inner workings of Seattle Center, whose budget woes have led it to push for a Dale Chihuly exhibit near the Space Needle as a way to get more revenue. The story details the largely rent-free SIFF arrangement as the Center incubates the growth of an attractive new use at the Center. The city is contributing $150,000 for the reworking of the Nesholm Family theater at the McCaw Hall for showing films, with another $200,000 pledged for construction on the Alki Room Film Center. No rent is being charged at the Alki Room during the fundraising period (and the new delay), and no rent is charged for SIFF films at McCaw, except during the spring Seattle International Film Festival.

All worthy uses of city subsidies, I would say. But it does underscore how much subsidizing of rents and building for arts groups does go on at the Center. Many of the properties are not rent payers, such as the Space Needle and the Science Center, which own their own grounds. (The Needle does pay rent on the city-owned land it leases for its auto drop-off circle.) In other cases, rent is much reduced since the arts organization stepped up and improved the building. In general, the Center's fiscal woes are a reflection of all the arts groups it is subsidizing and other favors it is doing to some pet causes.

You might think this would call for a performance audit of the Center before the City Council agrees to such things as commercializing some of the hoped-for open space such as the Fun Forest. Such an audit conceivably could recommend that the Center solve its $12-15 million annual shortfall not with more commercial buildings but by raising rents and backing away from so many free events, such as its dozens of ethnic festivals.

Don't hold your breath on that one. Seattle Center is such a tissue of favors and sweetheart deals that an audit would stir up a whole hornet's nest of angry special interests, against which the generalized "public interest" would have no chance of prevailing. Still, there's a tough new budget director at City Hall, so there might be some quiet turning over of rocks, looking for more income.

There's another issue here. Arts groups that are not at the Center can sometimes be heard to grumble about the unfairness of all the public subsidy for Center-based arts that does not spill over to other arts groups. That grumbling extends to the public relations issue of Seattle talking about Seattle Center being the city's arts center while there are probably more arts organizations in the downtown and Pike-Pine corridor. (Symphony, SAM, ACT, 5th Avenue, Paramount, Moore, Town Hall, and the rising complex of off-Broadway theaters and galleries extending up Capitol Hill.)

Some have talked about forming a kind of arts district for this other "center," perhaps called NoMad (North of Madison), and offering ticket-sharing and other promotional events. A recent version of this is to use Pike and Pine as a way to connect "downtown" arts with "Greenwich Village" arts on Capitol Hill.

One happy ending to this might be to find a way to provide more subsidy for arts groups at Seattle Center (mostly by tapping the nearby neighbors and businesses to support the Center and its park-like grounds), combined with a way to do the same for NoMad (perhaps by creating a cultural district with zoning incentives, as Councilmember Nick Licata is urging).


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