ArtSEA: Bumbershoot festival embarks on an extreme makeover

Plus, turmoil at Seattle Symphony and omicron’s influence on Northwest arts events.

Seattle Center grounds with Space Needle in the distance and large cardboard letters spelling out BUMBERSHOOT

Big changes are afoot for Bumbershoot, Seattle’s 50-year-old music and arts festival. (Brangien Davis/Crosscut)

When we last checked in with Bumbershoot, the 50-year-old arts and music festival was having a bit of a midlife crisis. Sure, the pandemic quashed the 2020 and 2021 installments. But even before that, the storied Seattle Center event had lost its way, grasping at relevancy by way of flashy headliners and big-spender entry fees. It had started to feel like a quirky art nerd trying too hard to hang with the Coachella crowd — and losing her weird magic in the process.

In September, Seattle Center issued a cry for help in the form of a request seeking a new producing partner to “reimagine and reinvigorate Bumbershoot.” Yesterday, we learned who was selected to execute the big makeover. New Rising Sun — a nonprofit collaborative effort boasting an optimistic name with a Jimi Hendrix connection — is led by three Seattleites well-versed in arts and entertainment production: Steven Severin (Neumos, the Washington Nightlife Music Coalition), Greg Lundgren (Museum of Museums, Out of Sight arts shows) and Joe Paganelli (McCaw Hall, The Fillmore San Francisco).

ArtSEA: Notes on Northwest Culture is Crosscut’s weekly arts & culture newsletter.

“Our vision and our goal are to transform this historic festival into a year-round brand, which fosters youth arts education, provides opportunities to our region’s artists, elevates historically marginalized voices and reimagines what a festival can be,” Lundgren said in a Seattle Center press release. New Rising Sun will partner with a variety of community groups to make this happen.

This all sounds very promising to people like me, who appreciated the years during which high-caliber visual arts and literary events were as plentiful at the festival as the opportunities to discover new favorite local bands. While the anchor event won’t return until 2023, the idea is to get back to the best parts of Bumbershoot, with “a focus on the festival’s original essential characteristics,” Severin said. “An affordable, inclusive and engaging arts and music spectacle designed to stimulate and delight with artistic excellence.”

Conductor Thomas Dausgaard rehearses Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Nov. 19, 2019. (Stephen Hegg/Crosscut)

Meanwhile, another legendary Seattle cultural institution — this one almost 130 years old — is going through its own leadership shift. Already dealing with an ever-evolving concert lineup resulting from COVID-19 complications, the Seattle Symphony on Jan. 7 announced its music director, Thomas Dausgaard, would be stepping down immediately.

Based in Denmark, Dausgaard had been plagued by pandemic restrictions and visa issues that caused him to miss several concerts over the past two years. Still, his resignation seemed sudden. But the symphony’s press release was all good vibes on both sides, including Dausgaard, who stated, “My partnership with Seattle has been rewarding beyond measure.”

On Jan. 11, the New York Times published a very different story, in which Dausgaard said he left because he felt “unsafe” and “threatened” by a culture “ruled by fear.” (The orchestra denies the allegations.) Dausgaard had presented a list of grievances to the Seattle Symphony board in February 2020, but the board’s investigation found them to be without merit. The story also reported that while Dausgaard was liked by orchestra musicians, “his prolonged absence during the pandemic frustrated some, who began to have doubts about his commitment to the ensemble.”

In short, it’s complicated. And unfortunate. But while the organization searches for a new music director, several guest conductors will step in — including the previous music director, Ludovic Morlot, who’ll conduct Mahler in March.

Among the many local events affected by omicron is an upcoming Seattle Arts and Lectures talk by author Bernardine Evaristo, which has moved from in-person to online. (Jennie Scott)

The Seattle Symphony has also announced that several planned performances have been rescheduled because of COVID-19 concerns, including by renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman (who moved his whole West Coast tour from January to April). That’s just one of many local examples of how the omicron onslaught has the live performance scene feeling rickety underfoot.

My inbox is pinging with announcements citing an “abundance of caution” for rescheduled and reworked events. Last week, Stonington Gallery refrained from participating in the First Thursday Art Walk (despite the name of its terrific new group show of Native art, Reconnection: Celebrating Coming Together, on view through Jan. 29). Book-It, which was scheduled to resume live stage performances on Jan. 21 with a Beowulf adaptation, has decided to shift to a streaming production, with hopes of an in-person restaging this summer. And Seattle Arts & Lectures has moved its talk with Booker Prize-winning novelist Bernardine Evaristo (Girl, Woman, Other) to an online-only format (on Jan. 24).

Northwest Film Forum, currently screening shorts from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival (in-person only, Jan. 13-20), now requires double-masking in the theaters, regardless of vaccination status. It also “strongly recommends” booster shots — but unlike the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Music Center, does not require proof of boosters for entry. Will a three-shot mandate be forthcoming from Seattle arts orgs?

E. Faye Butler (shown here in a Chicago production) stars as the famed voting rights activist in the new musical ‘Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer,’ by Seattle playwright Cheryl L. West, at Seattle Rep. (Liz Lauren)

The show will go on — at least at press time, check the website! — at Seattle Repertory Theater, which is set to make its grand reopening with Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (live at Seattle Rep Jan. 14-Feb. 13; streaming version available Jan. 24-29). Just under a year ago, Crosscut contributor Misha Berson wrote about Seattle playwright Cheryl L. West’s music-packed show when it was in the workshop stage.

West has become known for penning musical stories from Black American history, including 2019’s Shout, Sister, Shout!, about gospel artist Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Pullman Porter Blues, about African American train workers in the Great Depression. For this new one-woman show, she focuses her insightful lens on Fannie Lou Hamer, the Mississippi sharecropper turned civil rights activist whose speech at the 1964 Democratic Convention served as a national wake-up call for voting rights.

And while self-administered rapid tests are all the rage, don’t wave your triumphant plastic stick around the Rep like a symphony conductor — those are not admissible proof of testing negative for COVID-19. (If you are unvaccinated, you must bring proof of a negative PCR test from an official test provider or laboratory.) We’ll have to find some other creative use for those and other omicron artifacts.

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