Long ago you could find art studios throughout Seattle neighborhoods, including downtown. They might open their doors for First Thursday. More often they would host ad hoc shows. The Virginia Inn used to invite artists to come to the tavern and paint dishes. I recall sitting in the V.I. with those artists when a young woman ducked in, liked what she saw, and returned a moment later with her date, Bill Gates.
How important was it for Melinda French and Bill Gates to find that tableau? Or for any of us to live in a place where art was happening everywhere? Seattle has a wildly successful arts history. But the cost of living and the lack of engagement among the city’s newest residents are reducing the chances of encountering art in Seattle.
Seattle’s greatest arts patron, Virginia Wright, died in February. She helped fund and furnish the Seattle Art Museum starting in the 1960s with modern art she acquired in New York and Europe. That she had the foresight to start the city’s museum is one thing. that she took the lead for the benefit of artists and residents is something else.
Encountering art in Seattle is getting harder. Art patronage is wonderful, but it doesn’t change the economics of living in Seattle. The average cost for a one bedroom apartment in Seattle is $2,000. Artists, many already making ends meet with part time jobs, have to find housing (and their galleries) outside Seattle. The city attracted 100,000 new residents in the past 10 years many of them young tech workers who have relatively little time for or interest in the city’s arts-and-culture scene.
Seattle artists are faced with the semi-circumstances of part time jobs and couch surfing or living across the county line. That’s great news for the next county, but leaves the city feeling soulless. There are possible solutions happening now. Seattle for Artspace is developing subsidized artist housing, including a new 57-unit building near the Mt. Baker light rail station. But more artist-affordable housing is needed, especially in the urban core.
Art doesn’t just happen. Seattle is going through changes, but some are for the better. There are billions of philanthropy dollars sloshing around the city, much of it from everyday millionaires. Arts and government agencies must make it easier and more attractive for new patrons to fund the arts. Let’s use this cycle to start a new era in Seattle arts and continue the legacy that Virginia Wright left us.