So Long, 2014: A Chat With Sharon Arnold

Sharon Arnold is one of the It Girls of the DIY art generation. A Seattle native, Arnold arrived on the local art scene after spending a few years in New York City working as a chef then studying art at Pratt. What she found lacking here, she made up as she went: a blog devoted to art writing, an art subscription company, a brick and mortar gallery. Here’s how she felt about last year and what’s ahead.

Amanda Manitach: What was 2014 like for you?
Sharon Arnold: I feel like a lot happened this year, and I was caught up in a whirlwind: City Arts included me on the 2014 Future List, which was a great way to begin. In April I was able to step down from my position at Gage to run LxWxH Gallery full time. Talk about the best fulfillment of a dream ever—to be self-employed. Curating the Neddy Exhibition at Cornish was also an honor. Of course the biggest news I have for this year is that I’ve become partner and Director at Roq La Rue Gallery to join forces with Kirsten Anderson. This is a year of transition, for certain.

Who were the artists that really turned you on this year?
Ben Zamora for All Rise on Denny, Lilienthal and Zamora at Suyama Space, Dakota Gearhart at 4Culture, Chris Engman, Darren Waterston. There’s the work that has come through my own gallery—does that count? Jared Bender‘s work is blowing my mind. Seriously. Davida Ingram’s show stereoTYPE was powerful. Also, two particular exhibitions that Interstitial had in my space: John Marc Powell and Babette DeLafayette Pendleton collaborated on a performance at the beginning of December that was incredibly powerful (“Veil of Forgetfulness”) featuring two performers locked in a “battle” that was accompanied by incredibly loud ambient noise. I’m still processing it. I also really loved Hannah Patterson’s WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHERE, a surrealist video featuring a lush psychedelic jungle and lithe, expressive creatures formed by a performer’s hands which responded to their changing environment.

I wanted to bring up stereoTYPE. Considering what happened at Ferguson and all that’s occurred this year, in hindsight, that exhibit feels ominously prescient, or I guess just very timely.
It was timely. There was a discussion about Trayvon Martin happening when putting stereoTYPE together.

What was the response to that show overall?
stereoTYPE was received very well! Davida’s curatorial lens is so sharp and gentle. I felt like I was bearing witness to something incredibly important that meant listening to voices, and specifically listening to women. I want to see Davida curate more! She’s doing amazing work right now.

Speaking of women, the subjects of women and feminism and privilege really came to the forefront this year. What are some of the takeaways from those conversations?
This year was politically frenetic. I was just talking about how I feel that despite outrage culture or the din of voices speaking over the ones we should be hearing that the overall conversation is becoming elevated. I know that politics themselves are regressive. But maybe this is a hopeful kind of something. I’m not sure I feel that art has to be didactic or always speaking to this. I would argue that in most ways, art can’t really escape its reaction to socipolitical climates.

Let’s talk about your investment in Seattle and its neighborhoods. You’ve been particularly active in Georgetown for the past two years. What do you think about the formation of arts districts in the city?
I think arts districts are critically necessary, but it has to be more preemptive. I’m happy about the Capitol Hill arts district but it feels like it should’ve happened years ago, so that they could continue to move southward and westward. Even northward!

Yeah, I think that feeling is generally shared regarding Capitol Hill.
However, the conversation about affordable housing for artists is exhausting when we have a problem with affordable housing in Seattle, period. Housing for artists is exclusive to the rest of the people who need it, like students, immigrants, elderly and so on. A solution for all includes artists. But we also have some great artist live/work spaces here, which is a blessing and leg-up on other cities. It never hurts to work on more of that. I’m hoping the movement for arts districts continues to include space and assistance for artist co-op galleries, galleries, independent curators and curators in general. We aren’t helping ourselves if we don’t include the venues artists are shown in. I’m excited about Georgetown, the Central District and other neighborhoods in Rainier Valley because of what those neighborhoods have to offer. I plan on continuing to help out however I can in Georgetown and my own neighborhood, Rainier Beach, but it’s a challenge to figure out how. Where are the meetings? Who do we talk to?

Are you sad to be leaving Georgetown?
I’m sad, but not really. I’m excited to be a spectator at the art walk here and enjoy it. Interstitial Theatre is upstairs and will carry on. Actually I should’ve mentioned them earlier—I’m so excited about the work they’ve been showing and even more thrilled they have a venue. And I found someone to take over the space! Julie Alexander and Julia Freeman are teaming up to curate exhibitions in the former LxWxH space. Their gallery will be called The Alice. I feel like this is building up on the momentum that Georgetown has gained over the last few years and it’s pretty exciting.

Finally, what’s your forecast for 2015?
My forecast for 2015 is that we will see a lot of transition. Vignettes is exploring an online venue, there are some new independent galleries popping up. This might be the year that Seattle begins to pay attention to the world outside. I could just be optimistic but I think we’re ready to seek context, and shows in Seattle will reflect that. Or maybe I’m just talking about myself again.

I like that flip. Usually people are begging for the lens to be turned on us.
I think you have to have one before the other. What people don’t realize is how much the outside is already paying attention. But you know, it’s a two-way street.

Anything else on your mind?
I have something controversial to say: I don’t want to talk about how to “tap into” the tech community anymore. That’s marginalizing to both industries. Rather than talking about how to proselytize better, which is kind of seedy and insulting, I want us to get better at what we’re doing. I want to see critique groups pop up between artists. Like, let’s rip into each other and thicken our skin. Let’s compete. Let’s race. If we’re going to start thinking and believing bigger, this is our weakest link: We don’t know how to take a punch. It means we have to learn how to deliver that punch better, too—it’s not about being gentle. It’s about being objective and critical. I just got a lot of heat for using the word “quality,” but why not? There are ways to measure that, whatever it is to whomever is looking. So when we’re looking, how can we look better? These are just things I’m wondering. It’s a fever dream.

I think there’s this bad attitude towards tech and people in tech. A lot of artists tend to look at them like dollar signs or assets or potential saviors and get angry or impatient when that doesn’t pan out.
I agree. I see that happening all the time, but also because half the people I know are tech people and they don’t need to be sold on art any more than we need to be sold on gadgets. So I agree we should start on more neutral ground with mutual respect. It’s weird to assume that people in tech all make millions. They don’t. They’re mostly middle class. But in the interest of our earlier discussion, there’s also a lot of misplaced blame on the people in tech and the industry for reshaping our city and San Francisco, but the truth is that it isn’t the tech industry doing that. The cities themselves, the developers, are who we should be fighting. I mean, I know I’m not an expert, but let’s think about who actually builds a city and ask those people the hard questions. It’s not the tech industry, not directly. Cities that don’t have tech culture or a predominant tech industry are suffering the same fate. It’s like the Nothing from The Neverending Story.