How Paul Allen transformed Seattle’s cultural landscape

From MoPOP to SODO Track and beyond, locals reflect on the billionaire’s indelible contribution to the Seattle arts scene.

The day after Paul Allen’s death, his Museum of Pop Culture featured a memorial on the marquee and a photo montage in the Sky Church. Also on view were a few of his favorite artifacts: Spock’s tunic from Star Trek and a Fender Stratocaster played by Jimi Hendrix. Oct. 15, 2018. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight) 

Almost two decades ago, Paul Allen poured $240 million into what would eventually become Seattle’s cathedral of oddities, an undulating and polychrome edifice that pays homage to the Microsoft co-founder’s twin passions: science fiction and rock ‘n’ roll.

On a cloudless Tuesday, the day after Allen’s death from non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the Museum of Popular Culture (formerly the Experience Music Project) glimmers in the sun, the surrounding trees erupting in reds and yellows. Inside the Sky Church, a cavernous, concert hall-like space extending upward some 75 feet, a crop of visitors who could’ve been Allen’s peers sits, necks craned, watching a video of The Doors performing a wistful song about lost love. In the center of the room an impromptu display shows two encased artifacts that belonged to Allen: Spock’s tunic from Star Trek and a Fender Stratocaster played by Jimi Hendrix during Woodstock. An unexpected pairing, but one that speaks to the many threads Allen wove into Seattle’s cultural fabric, and to the outsized legacy of a peculiar and special Seattle son.

Allen’s commitments to science and technology have forever transformed Seattle, but so too have his other philanthropic devotions. In MoPOP, we glimpsed the inner workings of a private man who, for better and worse, achieved a towering presence in the local arts scene. His enormous influence on Seattle’s cultural landscape was particularly felt by those working in music, film and the visual and performing arts. 

Here, we’ve collected comments from people familiar with how his generosity continues to benefit local artists and arts enthusiasts.

Kimerly Rorschach, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO, Seattle Art Museum

“Paul was a leader of Seattle’s cultural community and a frequent lender and donor to the Seattle Art Museum. A tireless champion of art, he and his foundation supported many exhibitions and programs at the museum. Through the years, he generously lent works from his remarkable private art collection, including 39 works presented in the 2017 exhibition, Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from The Paul G. Allen Family Collection.

Paul Allen's Seeing Nature at SAM
 Allen had a remarkable art collection, pieces from which he frequently lent for exhibitions at Seattle Art Museum, including Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks (shown here, Thomas Moran’s “Glorious Venice”)

“For the Seattle Art Museum, one of Paul’s most impactful philanthropic gestures was his substantial financial contribution in support of the creation of the Olympic Sculpture Park. Whether you are a visitor to the Olympic Sculpture Park, the Museum of Pop Culture, or the Seattle Art Fair, Paul’s cultural legacy surrounds us. We will miss him greatly.”

On Monday, Oct. 15, 2018, the evening of Paul Allen’s death, a small shrine began forming at Jaume Plensa’s sculpture “Mirall,” which was funded by Vulcan Inc. and sits outside the Allen Institute for Brain Science. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Peter Boal, artistic director, Pacific Northwest Ballet

“Paul Allen affected the world through his innovation and philanthropy. His generosity also included Pacific Northwest Ballet, where we would see Paul periodically slipping through the crowd at intermission. He was always keen to bestow praise on the ballet through social media or through acquaintances. Paul was more than a supportive subscriber to the ballet. The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation served as one of PNB’s major contributors and helped to enhance my artistic vision for the Company. We will miss him in many ways.”

Book it touring van
 Paul Allen and his sister Jody gave a grant to Book-It Theatre that helped greatly expand the reach of the Arts and Education touring van. (Photo by Shannon Erickson Loys)

Myra Platt and Jane Stevens Jones, founding co-artistic directors, Book-It Repertory Theater 

“The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation was instrumental in developing and sustaining Book-It Repertory Theatre, and helping Book-It get a foothold in this community by supporting the company generously — a total of $940K for 15 years.

“In 1999, the Foundation was one of Book-It’s first season supporters. Through the support of the Family’s Foundation, Book-It produced over 70 subscribed mainstage shows. In 2010, the Foundation chose to honor us with a Founders Grant to celebrate the Foundation’s 20th Anniversary. In 2011, Paul Allen and his sister Jody provided a substantial three-year grant to honor the passing of their mother Faye Allen, enabling Book-It’s Arts and Education touring program to expand its reach to schools and libraries across the state of Washington. This singular contribution vastly improved Book-It’s ability to bring art and literacy education to the provinces, bringing 45 productions of books as theater for thousands of children, many of whom experienced live theater for the first time.”

 Allison Rabbitt, director of development, Seattle Opera

“Paul Allen was a 29-year subscriber to Seattle Opera. His lifetime philanthropy totaled just under $500,000 to support opera productions and programming.”

Alfredo Arreguin, painter

“The Paul Allen Foundation donated $50,000 for the publishing of [Arreguin’s art book, Patterns of Dreams and Nature]. The painting on the cover is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of American Art. Lately, one of my salmon paintings was acquired for the Allen Institute. Thank you Paul Allen for being part of my success as an artist.” [posted on Facebook]


Seattle Symphony Octave 9
Allen was both an audience member and a funder of Seattle Symphony, including giving financial support to the Octave 9, the forthcoming high-tech surround-sound concert space. (Rendering by LMN Architects)

Leslie Chihuly, Seattle Symphony board of directors chair emeritus

“He was a lifelong passionate lover of art and music. His generosity across the entire arts sector in our region made a huge impact. He enjoyed musical performances of all kinds. He loved rock and roll. He loved the London Proms. He loved a great piano concerto.

“The Paul Allen Foundation has given to the Seattle Symphony since 2002. He attended Seattle Symphony concerts and in recent years, he was actively engaged with us in conversations about projects to excite and bring audiences together in new ways, including through his commitment to MoPOP and to the Upstream Music Fest and Summit. Through his support and entrepreneurial approach, Paul was a major force in creating Seattle’s rich and diverse arts community. He recently gave to the Seattle Symphony’s new state of the art, technology-infused space, Octave 9. We are so grateful to Paul and his generosity to our orchestra, to our arts community and to our city as a whole.”

Otb tv
On the Boards received funding from Allen that helped launch their streaming performance series (OtBTV), as well as many other programs. Shown here: Kyle Abraham’s “When the Wolves Came In.” (Photo by Carrie Schneider)

Betsey Brock, executive director at On the Boards 

“I like to think that it was a ‘takes one to know one’ situation. Paul Allen is known for innovation, research and experimentation — and the Foundation’s support made those exact things possible here at OtB.

“On the Boards is extremely grateful for The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, who continued to fund On the Boards until 2015. Their support enabled decades of contemporary performance, as well as built organizational capacity that serves us to this day. Our administrative offices were named for the Allen Foundation for the Arts when they supported the purchase of On the Boards’s building in 1997. Allen funding was also instrumental in helping kick off and in supporting programs to better serve the community.”

Seattle Repertory Theatre

“We were honored to have Mr. Allen as a subscriber for 25 years, and grateful for the Allen Family Foundation’s generous support of youth arts education and new work, which supported student programming and world-premiere productions serving hundreds of thousands of people. His civic spirit had a tremendous impact on our community, and he will be deeply missed.”

John Richards, DJ at KEXP

“He saved the station back when it was very much in need of saving. He gave us the seed money to become self-sufficient when we took control of our own destiny. He never once influenced our programming or told us what to do during that time.

“He gave us a home to create and build the KEXP community for $1 a year for many years at Dexter and Denny. It allowed us to grow and fend for ourselves. He supported the new home campaign when he had already done enough, pushing us towards our goal. He complimented me on my show and I once hung out with him and Bono for a few minutes in the basement of the arena of the basketball team he owned...both of us clearly fans of U2. Plenty to critique when you’re a billionaire but I’ll tell you this much, if he hadn’t given a shit about the station and music in our city, there wouldn’t be a KEXP that is independent, commercial free and continuing to be a place that we can gather and create.” [posted on Facebook]

After a grand opening in 1963, the Cinerama movie theater had fallen into disrepair by the 1990s. Paul Allen saved the theater from demolition by purchasing the building in 1999 and updating it with the latest film technology. Hours after his death was announced on Oct. 15, 2018, the marquee paid tribute to Allen. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Sarah Wilke, executive director at SIFF

“[Paul Allen’s] Vulcan productions is a really loyal and great partner. With the Cinerama and Vulcan-produced films, we at SIFF constantly benefit from the investments he has made in film.

“I also always appreciated that he supported arts infrastructure through things like the issuing of the ‘bright spots’ report. And the whole city was a beneficiary of Art Fair and Upstream and MoPOP. We partner with all. And I did like the fact, personally, that he ‘blurred the silos,’ as a lover of art, sports and pop culture. That’s always a good thing!”

Henry Art Gallery
The Allen-funded expansion of the Henry in 1997 quadrupled the museum’s size, allowing the gallery to better present and preserve its collections and to increase exhibitions and public programs. (Photo by Jonathan Vanderweit)

Sylvia Wolf, Henry Art Gallery director

“We are deeply grateful for the visionary support of Paul Allen to the Henry and to the arts in our community. The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation was a generous contributor to our expansion in 1997, and the facility was named in honor of his mother Faye G. Allen. In subsequent years, the Foundation supported our exhibitions and programs, allowing us to present artists’ work that would not otherwise have been seen in the Pacific Northwest. The impact of his gifts will be felt for generations.” 

Bernadine C. Griffin, managing director at The 5th Avenue Theatre

“The Foundation made a $300,000 gift toward the building of our basement rehearsal space, Downstairs at the 5th, or what we call DAT5 for short. This gift and the new space that it supported was a game changer for us. Prior to having DAT5, we rehearsed mostly at Theatre Puget Sound. The spaces at TPS were smaller than our stage, so they would be choreographing giant dance numbers and the actors were told to imagine that they would have five extra feet or that a set piece would be ‘over there.’ That is no longer the case; DAT5 was designed to be the same size of our stage. Everything is all under one roof now.

“DAT5 is in constant use and is essential to our operation. We rehearse all of our productions in it, use it for our education programs (including the Rising Star Project), hold auditions, our New Works program and developmental labs, events, meetings, and more. DAT5, which was completed in 2008, is a vital part of what makes it possible for us to be a leading producer of musicals, particularly new ones.”

Funded by Paul Allen, the “DAT5” rehearsal space ensures that The 5th Avenue Theatre can develop and rehearse work on an appropriately sized stage. Here, the cast of Ragtime rehearses in DAT5. (Photo by Jeff Carpenter)

Katie Kurtz, former program director for Seattle’s Center on Contemporary Art (CoCA):

“When I was program director at CoCA in 1999, Jacob McMurray (now senior curator at MoPOP) came to me with a blank check to buy a piece of art from one of the shows. I can’t remember the piece or the show but I was happy to know it would have a permanent home somewhere. Jacob and I talked at length about how his job was traveling around with a checkbook to build Paul Allen’s collection and that nothing was out of bounds. It used to annoy me how much EMP/MoPOP morphed since it opened (I always thought they should just call it Experimental Museum Project) but the more firsthand stories I heard about Paul, the more it made sense for his personality. His imprint on the city sprawls over a lot of territory — kind of like a blackberry bush left to meander.”

Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Paul Allen with Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Paul Allen, who helped fund the world-renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival, celebrating in Elizabethan style with OSF's Bill Rauch. (Photo by Julie Cortez/OSF)

“To many, Paul Allen was first and foremost the co-founder of Microsoft. To us, he was the man who started coming to OSF in his youth, and who later made it possible through his and his family’s generosity for countless young people to have their lives changed here. He’ll also forever be the man willing to pose with Bill Rauch in an Elizabethan ruff as we commemorated the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016. He passed the day after we closed the theatre that bears his name — the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre — for the season. Rest in peace, Paul.” [posted on Facebook]

Andra Addison, communications director, Seattle Public Library

Seattle Public Library's central branch in downtown Seattle during 2011
Seattle Public Library’s central branch in downtown Seattle is one of the many institutions that have benefited from Allen’s arts giving. (Photo by Frank Dürr, CC via Flickr)

“Paul G. Allen gave more than $23 million to benefit The Seattle Public Library. His gifts have supported books and materials for children and adults, programs for immigrant and refugees and ESL patrons, and capital enhancements to our library buildings and endowments. Libraries and books were a big part of Paul Allen’s heritage.

“His mother, Faye G. Allen, cherished reading and had a strong commitment to public libraries. She believed in the power of books and served on The Seattle Public Library Foundation. Paul Allen’s father, Kenneth S. Allen, was a longtime associate director of the University of Washington library system. The family regularly used the Northeast Branch of The Seattle Public Library growing up. Faye Allen started reading to Paul when he was three months old! Paul Allen’s generosity to The Seattle Public Library has helped ensure future generations continue to have access to essential Library resources.”

Seattle Art Fair
Visitors at the 2018 Seattle Art Fair, an event founded and funded by Allen. (Photo by Jovelle Tamayo for Crosscut) 

Randy Engstrom, director, Seattle Office of Arts and Culture

“No one has had more impact on the arts and culture of Seattle. The scale of what he did, the willingness he did to take risks. From his family foundation to KEXP to the hip-hop residency (at MoPOP) to ‘Let’s bring an art fair to town!’ ‘Let’s bring a music festival to town!’ He did all these incredible things.

“I really respect that he never stopped trying to change the world. He really believed people, the city could be better. And he believed that arts and culture could be the catalyst for that.”

Tracey Wickersham, director of cultural tourism at Visit Seattle

“Paul Allen’s many passions and interests in arts and culture helped create a dynamic cultural landscape that not only makes our city more vibrant, but draws visitors as well. MoPOP, KEXP, Olympic Sculpture Park, SODO Track, the Cinerama, Living Computers: Museum + Labs, The Flying Heritage Museum, Upstream music festival, Seattle Art Fair – that’s just a partial list of arts and heritage organizations and projects that were either founded by him or substantially funded through his generosity. Each of these draws audiences to Seattle and adds something completely unique to our region’s cultural DNA. 

“The Allen Foundation was also one of the earliest supporters of Visit Seattle’s Cultural Tourism initiative, granting us seed money to launch both a series of heritage guides to celebrate Seattle’s diverse communities, and a creative guide to our city from the perspective of artists who live here. I am grateful that music and art were important to him, and that he chose to support art and artists frequently and expansively. He leaves an indelible legacy in our cultural community.”

Tamar Benzikry, public art project manager at 4Culture

“Mr. Allen’s family foundation was the first to invest private dollars in our public art project, SODO Track. They took a risk on us before we had proof of concept. In fact, they helped us create proof of concept – with $40K for our 2016 pilot – and transform the idea for SODO Track into a real experience. Those first murals made it possible for me to convert property owners into project partners, and their additional $10K to kick off our second phase enticed many others to support us, too. It is with thanks to the foundation’s jumpstart that we have moved Seattle to the front of the international, large-scale mural movement. This past June, we had two SODO Track artists – Andrew Hem and Ola Volo – live painting at Upstream music festival, and we offered a SODO Track artist-led tour to the Seattle Art Fair collectors group, bringing things Allen/Vulcan full circle. My team and I are very grateful for Mr. Allen’s vision and support. His legacy lives on in so much, including the SODO Track.”

Seattle has the longest mural corridor in the world, thanks to Paul Allen’s seed funding for the SODO Track project. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Editor's note: In 2014, Crosscut was one of 53 grantees awarded financial support from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. The funding, which ended in 2016, was used to support arts coverage. 

Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Mason Bryan

Mason Bryan

Mason Bryan is formerly Crosscut's associate opinion editor.