ArtSEA: A new chapter for Seattle’s historic Columbia City Theater

Plus, Northwest outdoor music festivals are back in full swing.

Façade of a short, white brick building with windows

The Columbia City Theater. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

The pandemic has shaken the local cultural scene with the force of an 8.6-magnitude earthquake, and the aftershocks haven’t stopped. In this context, it can feel strange to celebrate positive arts news. 

But my job is to report on the good, the bad and everything in between — and this week, well, there’s a lot of good news. 

We’ll start with the most recent: a historic Seattle venue is getting a new lease (or should we say sale agreement?) on life. On May 18, The Cultural Space Agency, a local nonprofit that preserves arts venues, joined community radio station Rainier Avenue Radio in purchasing the historic Columbia City Theater. 

The century-old Rainier Valley cultural hub has been a movie theater, jazz club and punk/rave venue over the years and cycled through a host of owners since it reopened as a popular music venue in 2010. With the sale, it will remain an intimate performance space programmed by Rainier Avenue Radio, under the auspices of founder Tony Benton. The new owners also plan to use the space as a “Creative Arts Digital Media Academy,” aka a learning hub where students can take classes on how to create their own videos, news broadcasts, websites and on-air radio broadcasts; Rainier Avenue Radio will broadcast (over the internet) from the space as well.

The two organizations acquired the theater for $3.2 million (with the cash coming from Seattle’s Strategic Investment Fund) and plan to reopen the facility — which has been mostly dormant since the COVID-19 pandemic — in 2023, after renovations. 

The announcement comes on the heels of another major purchase by the Cultural Space Agency — more than 32,000 square feet of property in South Park. That property will become community-owned cultural space through the new El Barrio Community Trust, meaning various buildings are de facto insulated against commercial development. These two purchases are just the tip of The Cultural Space Agency’s iceberg. So far, the nonprofit has raised more than $17 million for half a dozen other projects, and at least 10 more partnerships are in the works. 

That’s exciting news for Seattle’s cultural scene and, I can’t help but notice, comes amid a busy spring for new arts venues (see our latest ArtSEA!). Seattle’s affordability problem hasn’t gone away — and yet, the scent of something new seems to be in the air. Is it the post-lockdown cheer? Increased appreciation and government support for the arts? Summer approaching?

Gail Grinnell’s “Fiat Lux” is on view at the San Juan Islands Museum. (Jean Behnke) 

If you’re also ready for that summer feeling, may I suggest a little Northwest island getaway? The major museums on Vashon, San Juan and Bainbridge islands — each a scenic ferry ride away — have great art shows up this month. 

Seattle artist Gail Grinnell is taking up the entire atrium of the San Juan Islands Museum of Art in Friday Harbor with a major installation titled Fiat Lux (through May 30), Latin for “Let There be Light.” Dropping down 22 feet from the ceiling is a thicket of curled and drawn-on, semitranslucent pattern paper (held together by straight pins), which forms a squidlike body or fungal network that seems to breathe with the light. In a recent phone call, Grinnell told me she hopes visitors will pay attention to the light and how, during the day, it “dances around the piece.” 

In Americans Incarcerated: A Family’s Story of Social Injustice at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art (through June 12), Jan and Chris Hopkins commemorate a dark period in American history: the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. Through mixed media sculptures embedded with paper dolls, photos, cedar bark and flower blossoms, Jan Hopkins takes visitors along the journey of her parents, Japanese Americans who met at Camp Harmony, a temporary detention facility at the Puyallup Fairgrounds. Together with Chris Hopkins’ oil paintings, charcoal drawings and sumi ink block prints, the works tell a story that must never be forgotten. 

Also not to be forgotten is the storied career of Akio Takamori, the late Seattle artist — a seminal figure in contemporary ceramics and the Pacific Northwest art world — who passed away in 2017. His work is now on view in a retrospective called Time at Vashon Center for the Arts (through May 29). Curated by his widow, Vicky Takamori, the exhibit focuses on the work he created on Vashon Island from 1988 to 1994. The show also includes more recent work, including one solemn sculpture from a series of men apologizing (which Takamori began shortly before his death), as well as prints of lovers embracing/making love — all good reminders that our time here is brief, so we’d better make the best of it. 

Seattle dream-pop band Hibou performs during the 2019 edition of the Timber! Outdoor Music Festival. 

Speaking of which, the outdoor music season is here after a long pandemic pause. Kicking things off is the Fisherman’s Village Music Festival (May 19-21), a lively local mix resounding in downtown Everett, including Digable Planets, Tres Leches and The Cave Singers

Warren Dunes and others are performing Thursday and Friday in various locations across downtown Seattle during the free Love, SeaTown mini-festival. Also this weekend: SeaTac's first-ever Make Music Day celebration at Angle Lake Park (May 21). 

Good news — I’ll just keep saying it — Northwest Folklife is also back in person (as well as virtually) at Seattle Center this Memorial Day weekend (May 27-30). With its rich panoply of performances, demonstrations, panel discussions and interactive workshops showcasing a variety of cultures and art forms, Northwest Folklife is almost impossible to summarize, but here are just a few things you can see or do: hear the Louisiana-flavored Seattle band Bayou Envie and Haida singer-songwriter Randall Kimball, partake in a sea shanty singalong or learn Scandinavian dances. 

Ringing in June is Woodland Park Zoo’s ZooTunes series, which kicks off next month, but you may already be too late to see your faves (The Indigo Girls, The Roots and Cake have all sold out). Be quick, and you can still grab tix to Old Crow Medicine Show or Chaka Khan. Woodinville’s Chateau Ste. Michelle Concert Series (June-September) boasts big names for the boomer set — Chicago, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Steve Miller Band — as well as Norah Jones and Michael Franti & Spearhead.

Capitol Hill Block Party is back (July 22-24) with several local bands on the lineup, including The Black Tones, Brent Amaker and the Rodeo and The Grizzled Mighty. The popular Timber! Outdoor Music Festival (July 21-23) in Carnation brings Built to Spill and excellent Northwest acts Deep Sea Diver, Tomo Nakayama and Adra Boo

Oh, and the Capitol Hill Block Party-produced Day In Day Out festival is due for its second edition at Seattle Center (August 12-14), with some big names on the list: Mitski, Soccer Mommy, The National, Shabazz Palaces and Cherry Glazerr — and more!

Lastly, THING is back for a second year of arts and music at Fort Worden in Port Townsend (Aug. 26-28) with an evolving lineup including Father John Misty, Helado Negro, Sparks and local excellence in the form of Terror Cactus, Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio and Enumclaw.

Whatever kind of music says ‘summer’ to you, get ready to grab those fleeting moments.

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