ArtSEA: Big plans for Seattle’s Coliseum-turned-Banana Republic

Plus, a slate of events to celebrate Pride and myriad mosaics in Pioneer Square.

Two photos of the historic coliseum

Seattle’s historic Coliseum Theater has lived many lives since 1916: in 1934 (at left; courtesy MOHAI) and as it began its decline in the 1980s (at right; Seattle Municipal Archives). In 1994 it reopened as a Banana Republic, but is now getting new life as a pop-up art space. 

In early 1916, Seattle’s Coliseum Theater opened with great fanfare and big lines for what was advertised as “the world’s largest and finest photoplay palace.” (One of the first theaters designed specifically for films, it had no stage.) For decades, the elaborate, Italian Renaissance-style terra-cotta accents promised a glamorous and artful experience for all who paid admission.

About 75 years later, it became a Banana Republic. And that’s how many (comparatively recent) Seattleites think of the grand downtown edifice. The retail chain stacked merino sweaters and silky slacks under the curved ceilings from 1994-2020, at which point the pandemic took its toll.

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

But now the building is returning to its artistic origins, as the arts collaborative XO Seattle transforms it into a pop-up gallery full of visual arts, fashion shows, live art-making, music performances and dancing. Called XO23, the space opens July 13 and will have regular weekend hours, special installations and “happenings” through the end of the year. 

At a preview earlier this week, the space was still very much in progress, with red ladders visible and drywall smelling fresh. Sheets of paper stuck to the walls with strips of blue painter’s tape indicated where some of the artists’ work would be — I saw notes for Barry Johnson and Sheila Klein in the main space, Maikoiyo Alley Barnes and Nikita Ares in the old dressing rooms.

Sutten Beres Culler's “Yellow #5” is one of the first installations in the XO23 takeover of the Banana Republic/Coliseum Theater building. (Brangien Davis / Crosscut)

XO co-curator Julianne Johnson said the space came about thanks in part to Monorail Espresso, another longtime Seattle cultural institution, whose tiny coffee outlet is wedged into the exterior of the historic space. Impressed by XO’s art-takeover of the empty Railspur building in Pioneer Square last summer, someone from Monorail suggested XO look into the shuttered Banana Republic. 

“We thought ‘Hot damn!’” Johnson said at the preview, “this could be the ultimate arts space in Seattle!” Negotiations with the owner took about six months, after which the XO crew got to work replacing clothing nooks with art walls. Some 60 artists will be featured in what Johnson called a “temporary contemporary art gallery.”

Walk by and you’ll already see one of the window displays — bright yellow balls that look like they might have been covered in glue and rolled around in all manner of pop-culture detritus. Called Yellow #5 (and composed largely of yellow yard-sale finds), the installation is by Seattle art trio Sutton Beres Culler

To me the piece reflects the snowball effect of culture: how each new thing builds on the old, not so much erasing as compounding. Look closely and you’ll even spot some old movie references, including a VHS tape of The Pink Panther and a box of Lemonheads.

Everything is seen through rainbow-vision during Pride weekend. (Genna Martin)

Speaking of walking around downtown — there’s a new art walk to add to your cultural meanderings: the Downtown Art Walk, on fourth Fridays (5 - 8 p.m.). The inaugural event is tomorrow (June 23), and includes traditional art spaces like Anxestral Gallery, Traver Gallery, Vetri, Ghost Gallery and Gallery Onyx, as well as new shows in hotel lobbies such as W Seattle, Hotel Vintage and Hotel Monaco

And here's another reason to walk around downtown during a sunny Pride weekend. Check out HistoryLink’s ever-expanding list of self-guided walking tours, including the LGBTQ+ history tour of Pioneer Square. As you stroll (IRL or virtually), you’ll learn all about old-school LGBTQ+ venues including the South End Steam Baths, the gay community center, taverns like the 611 and the Golden Horseshoe, as well as popular 1970s disco bar Shelly’s Leg

Of course you can also go traditional and walk the Seattle Pride Parade (from Westlake Center to Seattle Center). The festivities step off at 11 a.m. on Sunday (June 25) and culminate in Seattle PrideFest at Seattle Center, with bands, DJs and drag queens. Need more Pride? Capitol Hill’s Queer/Pride Fest is a three-day affair (June 23-25), with a packed music lineup including Betty Who, Peaches, ParisAlexa, La Luz and the one and only… Charo!

Left: “When she play Bingo, she wins,” a glass mosaic by Elisheba Johnson (courtesy Right: “Fresh Organic,” a multimedia painting by Narsiso Martinez (Greg Kucera Gallery). 

Finally, I wanted to note a couple of terrific visual arts shows happening in Pioneer Square — both of which are coming down soon, so hurry!

Wa Na Wari arts space co-founder and curator Elisheba Johnson has a show of her own artwork at Gallery 4Culture. Based on the history of numbers games and state-run lotteries, Department of Imagination (through June 29) reveals the ways Black communities have worked around the inequalities of capitalism to create new channels of financial support. What does that look like? Colorful glass mosaic portraits of gamblers, in which each intricate piece feels like a small hope. 

And using a different sort of mosaic art to tell stories of American economies is Mexican American artist Narsiso Martinez. In Supreme Fresh, at Greg Kucera Gallery through July 1, we witness his stunning portraits of agricultural workers, which he paints directly onto the boxes in which our produce is shipped. “When people see my work,” Martinez recently told The Village Voice, “I hope they see individuals who work in the fields — real people who are really at the frontlines of food production; as human beings who have dreams, who have families.”

Get the latest in local arts and culture

This weekly newsletter brings arts news and cultural events straight to your inbox.

By subscribing, you agree to receive occasional membership emails from Crosscut/Cascade Public Media.

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