Building a Better Destiny

Every November for the last decade, Tacoma has celebrated its arts and the party just keeps getting bigger

In the mid-1990s Mauricio Robalino took numerous train trips between his home in Los Angeles and Seattle, where he sometimes made art. During each trip, the train would stop for a few minutes in Tacoma. Robalino would look out the window at the urban landscape and shudder.

“Tacoma was a scary place to stop,” he says. “It was so incredibly dull and boring and rundown.”

Even while living in Seattle full-time in the late ’90s, the visual artist rarely visited Tacoma, only traveling down I-5 to take in an exhibition at the Tacoma Art Museum, which was still crammed into an old bank building on Pacific Avenue. Tacoma, the state’s third largest city caught in the shadow of Seattle, was an afterthought to most artists, less a blank canvas than a barren wasteland. As Robalino walked the galleries of TAM, he had no idea that Tacoma was about to make a great leap forward. In a single decade, it would transform from an old port town into an art enclave that Robalino, and many more artists like him, would call home.

By the turn of the millennium, the transformation was well underway. Plans were being made for a new Tacoma Art Museum building, as well as a Museum of Glass, both designed by world-renowned architects. With funding from the Gates Foundation, the Tacoma School of the Arts was opening. The City of Tacoma was reviving its public-art-funding Percentage for the Arts program, which it had scrapped in 1985, and the Office of Community and Economic Development hired Amy McBride, giving her the title “public art coordinator.” At the time, most people defined “public art” as hulking pieces of art in public squares. McBride sought to change that definition.

“Not every artist does ‘public art,’” McBride says. “I made it my job to figure out how to get visual artists and other artists exposure, access and opportunity so that there is not just one crumb that everyone is fighting over.”

In the fall of 2002, McBride introduced the city to a different type of public art. Initially called Tacoma’s Artists’ Month, the 30-day citywide initiative was built on a relatively simple idea: Ask Tacoma’s artists to open up their studios to the public and ask businesses to open up their shops to the arts by hosting exhibits and performances. Anyone who opened their doors would be included in the month’s events, their location listed in a widely distributed program created by the city. Free advertising for artists and businesses alike seemed like a no-brainer.

“I remember going door-to-door and having people ask, ‘What do you mean you’re the city and you want to come do this program?’” McBride recalls. “They were kind of suspicious.”

McBride quelled fears and put together a program of 50 events in that first year. Thenmayor Bill Baarsma issued a proclamation declaring November “Tacoma Artists’ Month” and recognizing artists as “vital assets to Tacoma’s cultural life, economic development and quality of place.”

Since then, every November finds an increasing number of businesses and artists joining in the celebration. The city has rechristened the month Art at Work: Tacoma Arts Month and added more featured events—including the Art Slam at the Rialto Theatre, which presents the works of poets, dancers, musicians and visual artists in tandem, and the AMOCAT Awards (yes, that’s Tacoma backward), which honor outstanding members of Tacoma’s arts community.

As Art at Work has grown, the city’s arts community has also blossomed. Artists are moving to Tacoma for the cheap rent and the City’s Spaceworks and mural programs, which have developed a year-round audience while beautifying the city. Many of the city’s theatres are more active than they have been in years, with the Broadway Center tripling its audience since 2006. Tacoma Art Museum and the Museum of Glass continue to attract tourists and residents alike, acting as the cultural center while new galleries pop up all around.

McBride is careful to point out that she does not view Art at Work as the catalyst for the revitalized arts community in the city, but as a barometer to measure that growth. To read that barometer, one only need look at the events’ program, which this year features original illustrations by beloved Tacoma artist Art Chantry. The book contains 300 events; six times as many as there were nine years before.

The difference in Tacoma is startling and inspiring, says visual artist Lynn Di Nino, who has participated in every Art at Work. Di Nino moved to Tacoma from Seattle in 2001 because home prices were cheap enough for her to own.

“When I moved here, I looked around and said, ‘Where the heck are the artists?’” she recalls. “There were no hangouts, almost no events that I could detect. Now the art community is very solid.”

Robalino, who also moved to Tacoma in 2001, sees a city that is far from the crumbling burg he viewed from his train window. At the center of it is Art at Work.

“It’s not water or air, but it’s a wonderful addition to the life of the city,” he says. “It definitely has enriched my life because I am able to have people come to my studio and share with me and look at my work. I think it makes for a much nicer city to live in and much more fun.”

Illustration by Stacey Rozich.