The Mayor’s Arts Awards

Illustrations by Michael Dougan

Andy Warhol Foundation director Archibald Gillies once said, “How we treat our artists, even when they tell us things we may not wish to hear, is a measure of the quality of our society, and of its confidence.” To take the measure of Seattle, visit Bumbershoot on September 4, when Greg Nickels hands out the Mayor’s Arts Awards in a ceremony emceed by Nancy Guppy, host of Seattle Channel’s Art Zone in Studio, and sponsored by City Arts. In honor of the winners, who prevailed over 360 other contenders, we present these tributes, along with artwork by Michael Dougan, the world’s youngest medieval manuscript illuminator.


The Mayor’s Arts Awards Winners of 2009

rtist Trust executive director Fidelma McGinn, the only Seattle arts administrator who could beat Katharine Hepburn in an elocution contest, likes to cite a horrifying statistic: 83 percent of Americans say they value the arts, but only 27 percent say they value artists. “How do we change that?” asks McGinn. Through Artist Trust, that’s how. It’s one of the only groups in the nation that give money directly to artists: over $5 million to 1,765 artists to date, some of whom have gone on to win MacArthur genius grants (Trimpin, Linda Bierds). And the grants are not just handouts. Artist Trust has pragmatic programs to help artists reconceive themselves as small-business owners. Says McGinn, “We want to ensure that the phrase ‘starving artist’ becomes an oxymoron.”

pera News had a great news editor in the ’60s, but he never wrote a wilder story than that of his own subsequent career as Seattle Opera’s director. For a quarter of a century, Speight Jenkins has upped the ante on founder Glynn Ross’s audacious bet to put Seattle on the map. He’s proud that when he wrought America’s first conceptual Ring in the ’80s, “there were as many boos as there were cheers — and then it ended up as a great success.” He’s proud and amazed that in this economy, Seattle could pull off the esoteric one-two punch of Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung, so rare and good they were hallucinatory. If Seattle Opera were a boxer, it would be famous for punching above its weight. Coach Speight is why.

esse Higman has had the strangest career path of any Seattle artist. “I swerved to miss a squirrel when I was fifteen and a half in my sportscar. I rolled the car. I wasn’t wearing my seat belt.” Paralyzed, living in a trailer in the country, he laboriously regained partial use of his hands with a flexor hinge splint, fell in love with MTV, painted music-inspired designs on leather jackets, and presented one to his idol, Ian Astbury of the Cult. Astbury introduced him in 1989 to some Seattle longhairs on the brink of fame. Soon Higman was doing T-shirts, posters and stage designs for billion-dollar babies like Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam. Now he’s matured. His new work goes beyond his grunge-era hits on view in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and EMP. His “alluvial paintings” are kind of like Paul Jenkins’ poured-paint works, except that they’re much slower to complete (it takes Higman three years to prepare the complicated canvas for the pouring of the paint). “The most important thing I learned from musicians was the scale on which they did things.”

eattle Youth Symphony Orchestras is the biggest such organization in America, says music director Stephen Radcliffe. And the member orchestras don’t play kid stuff. “We play the same music as the Berlin Philharmonic or Seattle Symphony: Mahler, Tchaikovsky. We put mountains in front of these young students, and we guide them up.” SYSO just got a mountain of cash from the Wallace Foundation: half a million bucks. Music is a wise investment, says Radcliffe. “It’s one of the only things that unifies the rational side of the brain with the intuitive creative side. You have to put your finger in the right place, but at the same time you need to feel the energy of the crescendo, feel the beautiful song and the lyrical phrase.” Eleven hundred SYSO players do so, and some have thereby been catapulted from Seattle to the world’s major orchestras.

ap dancing has been a passion of Melba Ayco’s since she was seven years old, watching Shirley Temple movies in Louisiana and fashioning her own tap shoes by fastening rattling bottle caps to her Keds. Now 118 kids aged five to nineteen follow in Ayco’s percussive footsteps through her group Northwest Tap Connection. Though it serves South Seattle urban kids in particular, Ayco says, “I wanted something that connected dance across communities and styles, rhythm tap, African, ballet, swing, even salsa.” Her charges have danced with Savion Glover and Gregory Hines. The key is to tap into kids’ hearts. “I know all my kids. It’s a little bit more than just about the dance here. It’s about the child, about keeping the children off the streets.” Ayco’s a twenty-three-year Seattle Police Department veteran. She finds that if she sees kids at Northwest Tap Connection, “I don’t see ’em at the police department.” She says one word defines Northwest Tap: “Family. I’m all up into their business.”