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Just when I thought 2015 would mark an era of fewer renegade art spaces—as Seattle startups like Vignettes, LxWxH, Blindfold and others gradually petered out or matured and moved on—I found myself in Los Angeles one night, descending a concrete staircase into one of the most unlikely galleries I’ve ever visited. 

It was at a shopping center a stone’s throw from MacArthur Park. The sidewalks all around were scattered with bootleg DVDs, the air clouded with the sweet smell of tamales roasting on open flames. One woman tended to strips of beef sizzling on a shopping cart filled with red hot coals. For a moment I was positive I got the address wrong. But I continued down two flights of steps, past market stalls overflowing with audio equipment, bins full of candy and sports paraphernalia.

Finally, on the basement level was the “gallery”—a postage-stamp exhibition space called Selecto – Planta Baja. It was sandwiched between a salon on one side, where a barber was trimming hair to the cacophony of daytime talk shows blasting on multiple screens, and a clothing shop on the other, lacquered in a waterfall of children’s wear and (apparently) timeless, plastic backpacks emblazoned with the toothy, virginal grin of Hannah Montana.

A small crowd gathered and chatted art while cracking three-dollar cans of Modelo. In one corner, a dinosaur of a tv looped the soothing image of snow-white static that had been digitally rendered to mimic the grind of white noise. German artist Else (Twin) Gabriel had planted video art throughout the many kiosks in the market, offering a scavenger hunt of an exhibit. It was one of the most bizarre and delightful uses of everyday space I’d encountered in a while.

These days there’s a lot of conversation about the artist’s relationship to physical space in the face of rising real estate costs and runaway development. But it’s really nothing new. Especially since the ’70s, when urban centers and suburbia began to compete as desirable places to live and work, artists have learned to be nomadic and nimble, continually migrating and chasing affordable space. As a city changes, the artist’s relationship to space changes too. In order to thrive, that relationship to space—and to the city—must be adaptable. For the contemporary, city-dwelling artist, this is both a cross to bear and a thrill to chase. It also means artists have to actively compete to be culturally relevant to justify taking up precious space.

I keep getting the feeling that there’s a huge learning curve for the arts in Seattle. At present the city stands almost uniformly against change, with a bullheaded resistance toward new strategies of adaptation and engagement—let alone having fun.

One example that demonstrates this tension between preservationism and adaptability is the Public Safety Art project spearheaded by poet Yonnas Getahun and Courtney Sheehan, director of programming at Northwest Film Forum. They solicited local artists to design PSA-style posters to be placed on poles around Capitol Hill in an attempt to combat the burgeoning and too-frequently destructive party culture taking over the Pike/Pine corridor on weekend nights. The messaging ranges from vitriolic to hesitantly friendly salutations. The posters are a commendable gesture in one sense, but they also edge into a quasi-xenophobic zone too common in a local art community that resists engaging the community at large. We are an art community against, not with.

Seattle artists and arts organizations have an opportunity to live up to the new conditions of a bona fide city, replete with an unprecedented diversity of people and economic range. Now more than ever, it’s survival of the fittest for the arts—survival of the most creative.

For the longest time, Seattle artists have played in the shadows, content with self-affirmation, occasionally buoyed by a handful of local benefactors doling out prizes like so many ribbons at a county fair. But increasingly, artists no longer exist in a hermetically sealed Northwest vacuum where no one outside our social circle pays attention. Congratulations, Seattle: Our era as a sleepy little fishing village is over. To stay relevant and to engage with the world will take more effort, ingenuity and vulnerability than we’ve ever shown. Artists must find new ways to inject themselves in unlikely places—more renegade, more daring, more inviting—and have fun while doing it. Right now I don’t see enough of that.

Image by John Criscitello (courtesy of #CapHILLPSA) and Selecto Planta Baja.

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