How we missed the summer arts festival boat

We have the perfect climate for such festivals, and Oregon shows how well it can be done.
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Seattle Center: enduring icons of 1962

We have the perfect climate for such festivals, and Oregon shows how well it can be done.

The New York Times has just published its annual national guide to summer arts festivals, good reading for fantasizing about vacations. One notable fact: not a single event in Washington state is listed. (Oregon gets mention for Ashland's Shakespeare Festival and the Peter Britt Music Festival in nearby Jacksonsville.)

The omission is telling. This state, with its cool summer weather and lovely natural surroundings, ought to be a mecca for summer festivals, which tend to migrate to the northland, such as Canada and New England. So why so little worth singing about?

Partly, it's an oversight by the New York paper. We do have some listings-worthy events, such as the summer Wagner production by Seattle Opera (Tristan und Isolde this year), the Seattle Chamber Music Society's annual six-week festival (formerly at Lakeside School but now moving to Benaroya Hall), a middling festival by national standards; and a few chamber music festivals scattered among the Puget Sound islands and in the Methow River valley. The Bellingham Festival of Music has been running for 15 years. Both ACT Theatre and Intiman Theatre run their seasons across the summer, but that seems only an incidental aspect of their nine-month seasons.

That there aren't more, or more high-goals festivals, may reflect the way Seattle arts are stretched thin and can't add much more to their seasons. There has been talk over the years of an ambitious, multi-arts summer festival, maybe every two or four years, as happened with the Goodwill Arts Festival in 1990. Peter Donnelly, the late head of ArtsFund, used to float the summery idea of a Lake Washington Festival, with venues at U.W., Sand Point, Kirkland, and other shoreline locations. But these ideas never went very far. U.W. tried a polyglot festival a few years ago that didn't last long.

Somehow, we just haven't got into the game, big time. One obvious location for a festival, Port Townsend, has terrible ferry congestion on summer weekends and not enough hotels. Bellingham has a lovely WWU campus and can draw from two big cities, Vancouver and Seattle, but it doesn't have a major arts organization to anchor such an effort. Cross the Cascades and the weather can get too hot and the distances from population centers too far. Then too, most of the good ideas for a national festival (Shakespeare, dance, major symphony in summer quarters, jazz) are spoken for.

There is, to be sure, one very logical place for such a festival: Seattle Center. The problem with Seattle, though, is that none of the major arts organizations would like it if another one took the lead (Opera somewhat has, however), and all are stretched too thin, at least for now, to want to risk such an expensive venture. Maybe, as we look for new ways to fund and manage Seattle Center and to give it some exciting new scripts for the next 50 years, a multi-arts festival could be one of the Next Hot Things?


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