In spite of the impending Chihuly World takeover at Seattle Center, there’s lots to be excited about in the development of new cultural spaces in Seattle: SIFF is carving out its new Film Center, a new MOHAI is taking root at South Lake Union, and, even more exciting, significant momentum is building around fresh alternative art spaces throughout the city.
“Given the nature of the drum beat I’m hearing, there’s going to be a different environment in Seattle [arts]. It’s smaller — but muscular,” explained gallerist Dirk Park, who will open a new commercial space in the International District this fall. It’s not just the size or shiny newness that’s exciting about these enclaves. Their moveable fixtures and open-ended missions make them home to artists and projects that stretch across disciplines and explode conventions. Here’s a small, hardly comprehensive, introduction to the spaces that might just be able to redirect bottomed-out real estate to sold-out shows.
1. The Project Room, Visual Art / Performance, Capitol Hill, 1315 E Pine St.
Former Cornish curator Jess Van Nostrand is caring for two newborns this fall: Adorable new baby Oliver and a fresh art space she and her husband, Mike Smith, are bankrolling through personal funds and grant-writing. Conceived to showcase works in progress and interdisciplinary exchanges, their small Capitol Hill storefront first stood in stark, quiet contrast to its neighbors — The Cuff and a store called Bootyland. The Project Room feels more like a Shaker’s foyer, with clean white walls and not much more than a few bold furniture pieces anchoring the décor, welcoming artists to make what they will of it.
That will probably change: Artist Mandy Greer unraveling her cheerful crochet parties throughout August to kick off her seven week residency, during which she’ll begin construction on Solstensen, a fascinating wearable project. Greer will continue to work on Solstenson at a different residency in Iceland and will eventually bring the exhibit back to The Project Room in 2012. Stop by during her open studio hours to learn more. You may even get to help with the crocheting. Also on the horizon are a series of happenings related to John Grade’s commission for MOHAI’s new site, and an online journal titled Off Paper, where writers continue the project’s conversations in the company of an international audience. More than curating standard gallery shows, Van Nostrand wants to challenge herself by pushing toward innovative interdisciplinary use of the space: “I think it’s where we’re headed—toward erasing some of the boundaries between disciplines.”
2. West of Lenin, Theatre / Performance / Film, Fremont, 203 N 36th St.
Entrepreneur and artist AJ Epstein was a little sad to tear down the tacky-chic ’60s cinder block façade in front of his new multipurpose building – but, he explains, it was starting to crumble, having too long been a jungle gym for drunken frat boys. This is not the least of the improvements he has made to the former commercial machine hub located on the quiet end of Fremont’s busy high street. He has added two new office suites, planned a retail front, opened up beautiful natural light-filled walkways and best of all, outfitted an 88-seat black box theatre named for its geographic proximity to Fremont’s famous Lenin statue (“Lenin’s Tomb,” Epstein decided, was less inviting). Because Epstein will lease three of the office suites upstairs, including one to the architect firm Ecco that worked on the building, the financial burden won’t weigh solely on theatre rentals, which are already underway. He seems to think a theatre in Fremont is a no brainer though: “There is a pent-up desire for performance space in the neighborhood . . . the community has been so supportive.”
The fall line-up seems to have a theme of reinstating some storied alumni of Seattle’s performance theme — including theater artists Kevin Joyce and Paul Budraitis — not to mention the early spirit of the Empty Space theatre, where Epstein himself previously worked. Don’t judge the theatre on its size—this space is sophisticated and civilized. Epstein has invested a lot of care into the details that ensure this isn’t just another “funky firetrap,” right down to his selection of affordable, but comfortable, seats and legit dressing rooms. He’s put in a cinema screen, cut out beams that would force lights to hang too low and corrected the room’s bathroom-like acoustics. “It’s mostly sound-tight in here now – except when the World Cup is on [across the street] at the George & Dragon. Nothing can dampen that sound.”
3. Fred Wildlife Refuge, Performance / Photography / Nightlife, Capitol Hill, 127 E Boylston St.
Opened in February 2011 under the stewardship of owner Chris Snell, and billed as a “collaborative habitat for artists,” FRED Wildlife Refuge is hardly new. But the unique offerings of its centralized Capitol Hill space, are definitely still worth shouting about. Part high-tech photography studio (it’s equipped with a giant cyclorama, or curved seamless wall which can supposedly accommodate a small tank), part dance floor, and part multidimensional projection chamber, the space is really like an underground nightclub — without the cheesy velvet couches. Thanks to its capacity for visual pyrotechnics (made possible by a sponsorship from In Focus) and for packing in bodies (over 500 apparently) FRED has been home to some wild parties. One of these is Trouble — the pre-Pride celebration that featured a giant indoor bouncy castle. “When you’ve got projections on both sides of you, it’s like dancing in a 3-D movie,” jokes staffer Ramona Freeborn.
FRED is also a regular host to aerialists, music video shoots, and an exhibition space slated for quarterly art shows. The name is less inspired by the small collection of fake and taxidermied animals in the building, and more by the idea that artists are a kind of wildlife that need to be protected in this community. Hence owner Chris Snell’s focus on promoting events that stress collaboration across disciplines. Highlights to look forward to this fall include a multimedia art installation showcasing an “unseen” side of Seattle’s grunge scene, before it went international (so, a sort of Un-Cobain celebration), Decibel Festival’s Opticlash, more activity from the second annual City Arts Fest, and a locally grown installment of a TedX talk.
4. The Neptune Theatre, Music / Performance / Comedy / Film, U-District, 1303 NE 45th St.
It’s not news that Seattle Theatre Group has taken over the Neptune, the former home to a Landmark cinema. But it is exciting that signs of life are growing inside. In June, Ellensburg native and Queens of the Stone Age band member, Mark Lanegan, performed for the theatre’s soft opening, which marked the first live performance in The Neptune Theatre since its early days in the 1930s. Back then it was home to a University of Washington talent show of sorts — and who knows, it may be again. After seeing several safety updates, the installation of portable seating, and the excavation of its original stage, the theatre is on a path to open officially this fall (Grand Opening festivities TBA).
Once open, it will become home to a slew of events, including concerts, comedy, community events (you paying attention UW?)—and, of course, film. STG, a nonprofit organization, is still raising funds to support the operation, but has announced a line-up that includes Hasidic reggae singer Matisyahu, local funny man Reggie Watts, and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. Notably, while a whole new species of culture will inevitably cross the threshold of this old theatre, those old illuminated gods of stories past will still be watching from the wings.
5. Prole Drift, International District, Visual Art, 523 S Main.
Dirk Park is no stranger to the commercial gallery game. Founder of Platform gallery in Pioneer Square and co-director of the Aqua art fair in Miami, along with his wife, Jaq Chartier, he knows how to stake out prime locations for visual art. This year his pioneering sixth sense takes him to the Japantown corner of the International District, where a former hodgepodge of retail has transformed into a reasonably cute, tree-lined block — fertile ground for creative activity, made all the more optimistic by the current presence of Seattle Storefronts exhibits and IDEA Space. Park’s gallery is named Prole Drift. Short for proletarian drift, the term describes the co-option of elite cultural trends being by the working class (e.g., Tommy Hilfiger, or in reverse: hip-hop). The space will be smaller than 500 square feet, and is still under construction, but Park already seems energized by its potential: “Smaller, yet muscular, like a really badass midget,” he jokes.
The first show, opening September 1, is titled An Empty Vase and features works by Matthew Offenbacher, Gretchen Bennett, Tim Cross, Nicholas Nyland, Chauney Peck, and Jenny Heishman. The artists are taking inspiration from nineteenth-century English architect John Soane's remarkable townhouse museum — otherwise known as a giant curios cabinet you can live in. Park is also planning a quick “hit-and-run” show in conjunction with the Nihonmachi Nights community celebration on August 13. Park's optimism is grounded in both spiritual and business-minded practices: “This is a good time to start something — that is, if you believe there is an up to this down.”