ArtSEA: NW Folklife Festival kicks off summer concert season

Plus, the local arts organizations facing financial straits, and dipping a talon into falcon culture.

photo of a festival setting with the space needle in the background and banners reading Northwest Folklife

The Northwest Folklife Festival has showcased a huge range of musical styles since 1972. (Northwest Folklife)

Memorial Day is upon us, and according to local custom, this weekend marks the beginning of our outdoor music season — regardless of whether the weather cooperates.

That’s thanks to the sprawling Northwest Folklife Festival, which since 1972 has presented an electric cross-section of cultures across multiple stages. The free four-day celebration (May 24 - 27) enables the joy of discovery by presenting diverse musical traditions (blues, taiko, bayou, polka and neo-soul, as a small sample) and movement (tango, contra, swing and break-dancing), all within the Seattle Center grounds.

My advice (besides bring your slicker): Pick one thing you’re interested in and leave time to drift around and stumble upon surprises, which might come in the form of a Celtic jam or an Afrobeat dance party.

Side note: Just about the only music you won’t find at Folklife is Pearl Jam, but the steadfast Seattle band will be at Seattle Center soon after (May 28 & 30 at Climate Pledge Arena). The grunge legends will be showing off tunes from the acclaimed new album, Dark Matter... and of course, playing the hits!

For more outdoor music, STG Presents and Remlinger Farms kick off the brand new Concerts at the Farm series tomorrow with Portugal. The Man and Bomba Estéreo (May 24, doors at 4:30, show at 6 p.m.).

Leaping ahead to the unofficial end of the outdoor concert season, Bumbershoot (Labor Day weekend, Aug. 31 - Sept. 1) released its music lineup this week. Among the mighty mix of bands are Pavement, James Blake, Cyprus Hill, Ladytron, Helado Negro, The Polyphonic Spree, Black Belt Eagle Scout and Kassa Overall. 

And on the far-out front: Bumbershoot’s new partnership with NASA promises “Songs for Space,” in which images from the James Webb Space Telescope will be shown in the PACCAR IMAX theater and paired with live vocal groups singing opera, gospel and Gregorian chants.

L-R: Calder Jameson Shilling and Nathaniel Tenenbaum in ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Precarious Position’ at Taproot Theatre. (Robert Wade)

But it’s not all picnic blankets and beer gardens in the local arts scene. As we move into the dreamy days of summer music festivals, some Northwest organizations are showing severe signs of financial stress. 

Taproot Theatre’s current production — Sherlock Holmes and the Precarious Position (extended through June 22) — is a lighthearted whodunit. But this week the organization sent out word of its own precarious position under the headline, “Costs of producing theatre surge, outpacing Taproot’s ability to keep up.” 

The press release reports that Taproot, founded in 1976, must raise $1.95 million (an increase of 62.5% since pre-pandemic budgets) by the end of December in order to produce the next season. The company has taken cost-saving measures such as reducing full-time hours and selecting plays with small casts, but director Karen Lund said she worries “Taproot will be forced to shrink to stay open,” and in the process will lose special arts initiatives such as those for youth and people with early-stage memory loss.

This news echoed a similarly urgent tone coming from Hugo House, which in late April sent out a press release from acting executive director Pepe Montero, who explained, “... we ended 2023 with a significant deficit and financial uncertainty looming.” The longstanding literary center has done some belt-tightening “in an effort to right-size the organization,” Montero wrote, including reducing staff and “streamlining” the board. It is also opening the venue to rentals.

And back in February, Bellevue Arts Museum issued a dire financial alert in the form of an emergency fundraising campaign called “Save BAM: Keep Bellevue Alive.” (Earlier this month, The Seattle Times took an extensive look at the organization’s history of financial woes.) In the press release, newly appointed executive director Kate Casprowiak Scher noted, “I think it would surprise my neighbors in Bellevue and beyond to realize we are so massively underfunded.” 

Meanwhile, Theatre Puget Sound announced “signs of hope amidst financial struggles” last week, when it avoided “imminent closure” after the board of directors voted to keep the nonprofit running. Executive director Crystal Yingling said the success of the recent “SAVE TPS” campaign offers “a longer runway to continue rebuilding from the ongoing effects of COVID closures.” That runway now stands at 18 months.

While raising the alarm, the directors of each of these organizations expressed optimism that the necessary funds would come through — via grants, sponsors and individual donors. But the rush of critical financial news reveals the perilous post-pandemic state of many local orgs.

Related: On May 21, ArtsFund and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation announced the recipients of this year’s Community Accelerator Grant program, totaling $10 million in unrestricted awards divided among 811 Washington state arts and culture groups. Of the abovementioned orgs, Taproot and BAM each received $2,500; Hugo House and Theatre Puget Sound each received $17,500.

A falcon strikes a pose on the ledge of 1201 Third. (Urban Raptor Conservancy)

Last weekend I traded much of my usual art-surfing time in favor of watching a “falcon cam” installed on a high ledge of the 1201 Third building Downtown. A bird-brained friend had tipped me off to the live feed and I immediately became obsessed with the pair of floofy fledglings taking their first steps toward flight. 

Peregrine falcons — once nearly extinct due to the effects of DDT — are the fastest animal species in the world, with a top flying speed of 200 mph(!). They’ve been nesting in Seattle since 1994, and 1201 Third building management has partnered with the Urban Raptor Conservancy to make the fledgling process viewable from a safe distance. (You can watch a second falcon cam at the AGC building in South Lake Union.)

If you’re squeamish, approach with caution — it can be a little “nature red in tooth and claw.” The first moment I tuned in, the parental falcon was tearing apart a pigeon for the baby falcons’ lunch. Dinner was a rat. Raptors don’t keep a particularly clean roost and they sleep splayed flat like passed-out drunks. (They are not dead, as I feared at first!) But falcon culture is fascinating, even now that the youngsters are taking off on their own.

For more birds nesting Downtown: 

< Celebrated novelist Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club) shares the joys of birdwatching (and her own drawings) in her new nonfiction book The Backyard Bird Chronicles: A Nature Journal (Seattle Public Library Downtown, May 29 at 7 p.m.). 

< I Dream, Therefore I Am Raven (through June 1 at Traver Gallery) features new bird-centric blown and etched sculptures by Northwest glass legend Preston Singletary.

< At Steinbrueck Native Gallery near Pike Place Market, look for eagles and owls among the striking carved-wood masks by Tsimshian/Cree artist Phil Gray

Reminder: We’re halfway through our 10 artist reveals for Black Arts Legacies: Season 3! Missed this week’s artist? It’s cellist Gretchen Yanover, a classically trained musician who has found her own voice in an electric cello and a looping pedal. Stay tuned next week for another artist who’s made a percussive impact (that’s a hint!) on the Seattle arts scene. 

Sign up for the Black Arts Legacies newsletter to be among the first to discover each new artist in this year’s cohort.

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