Artless Politicians?


While the candidates scramble to shape some — any — position on local arts, culturati wonder what Seattle’s
new mayor will do to the art business.


Photo Illustration by Andrew Saeger

Deep in the dim, sweaty grotto of Belltown’s Rendezvous restaurant on a hot September day, mayoral candidate Mike McGinn meets with Seattle’s arts leaders, from ACT exec Carlo Scandiuzzi to Anne Focke, whose name adorns the gallery at City Hall, plus a nightclub impresario or two. You can see him sift what they say, formulating policies in his head. When I press for specifics, like whether he’d continue outgoing Mayor Nickels’ pro-nightlife City of Music initiative, he demurs. “I don’t know enough to answer,” he says. “It gets too detailed for me now.”

Details are what everyone is looking for from McGinn, an environmentalist, and his rival Joe Mallahan, a cellphone executive. Both geared up to challenge Nickels; when both neophytes amazingly beat Nickels in the August 18 primary, their campaigns were rendered shapeless. Now voters want answers; and the candidates are scrambling to define their agendas. So far, clear positions on the arts are in short supply.

The (non-Republican) elephant in the room is McGinn’s absent rival. Many arts people were horrified by a proposal Mallahan allegedly floated to Erica C. Barnett and Josh Feit of the website Publicola. Mallahan, whose central pledge is to cut government waste, was said to advocate slashing the city’s Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs. “He said he would likely ‘cut some smaller departments like the arts department,’ and that he would ‘merge [Arts] with the Office of Economic Development,’” Barnett says via email.

“If the mayor closed the arts office it would have a terrible impact on the arts community, the artists, the arts organizations,” says Beth Sellars, who curates Belltown’s influential Suyama Space. “There is always an unfounded attempt to ‘save money’ by axing the arts. It’s pathetic. The arts budget is always the smallest.” The Stranger’s arts pundit Brendan Kiley agrees: “It’s not just that the arts are like Brussels sprouts and they’re good for you. They generate money.”

While his spokesperson Charla Neuman did not make Mallahan available for an interview, she said via email, “Joe will not disband or consolidate the arts office. I heard him expressly say that in the utmost certain terms that that was not even up for consideration.”

Barnett insists that she got Mallahan’s quote right, and that his words appear identically in her notes and Feit’s. “We don’t retract it, because he said it. Period,” she says. “I would assume that the arts department would be on somewhat shakier ground in a Mallahan administration than in a McGinn administration, because Mallahan seems to really want to place a lot of emphasis on neighborhoods and senior services.”

But Mallahan told KCTS “we can protect the arts” by running “a tight budget,” so that fiscal crisis doesn’t force cuts. Neuman emailed City Arts this Mallahan quote: “Supporting arts is something we all need to do, especially the city; and I will continue to do that as mayor.” 

Back at the Rendezvous, McGinn has a simple answer regarding Mallahan’s alleged, now repudiated proposal to axe and reshuffle the arts office: “I would not do that.”

What’s startling about the arts world’s concerns over this election is that members of the richer, more established highbrow arts community seem in disarray, while their music-and-nightlife counterparts have far more political focus.

“Everyone I’ve talked to in the arts community is confused,” says Sellars, who used to curate the City of Seattle art collection and knows a bit about how art and government work together (or fail to). “The mayoral candidates need to be put into a position where they have to state their honest perceptions of the arts.” She suggests that City Arts sponsor a panel with both candidates, like the one Allied Arts sponsored in 2001. We hereby invite them to such an event.

Nightlife activists like David Meinert think it’s up to the arts community to make itself a political force to be reckoned with. “My impression is that high-arts people don’t want to soil their smooth-skinned hands with that sort of thing” says the nightlife crusader and co-owner of the Crocodile, site of a September 30 pro-McGinn rally, featuring the Presidents of the United States of America, Nirvana bassist-turned-activist Krist Novoselic and other musicians who back what Meinert calls “Urbanist” politicians. “Look, if you can give thousands to the opera, write a check to some candidates. Get some friends out to vote.”

“There’s no trick to politics,” says Meinert. “It’s about votes. And money. And work.”

Meinert might be right. The hard fact is that the arts have not loomed large in this season of Seattle’s mayoral politics. And because they’ve been so activist, it’s the pop lobby that scored the first victory. Days after ducking questions at the Rendezvous, minutes before City Arts went to press, McGinn came out foursquare in their favor. Because the music industry generates eleven thousand jobs and ninety million a year in tax revenue, McGinn vowed to retain the Office of Film + Music, meet quarterly with the Seattle Nightlife and Music Association, continue the City of Music initiative, forbid developers from driving out clubs and force them to soundproof residences built near nightspots. To keep the peace, McGinn wants more late-night patrols in “hotspot” neighborhoods, staggered closing times so noisy drunks don’t stumble out en masse and public transit open until at least 3 a.m. to discourage DUIs.

McGinn also wants the next school levy to include funding for music and art programs.

McGinn will announce more arts policies shortly. Mallahan, who cannily fended off many press inquiries for most of September, while he assembled a kitchen cabinet of very heavy hitters from Seattle’s political establishment, will no doubt sound off about the arts soon. But so far they don’t seem to be his top concern.

The real question is, how well can newbies execute arts policy, be it ever so noble?  “I think both expected to be facing Nickels,” says Kiley. “I get the sense they’re a little bit unprepared.” Barnett concurs: “Both Mallahan and McGinn are going to have a steep learning curve. Nickels was a strong advocate for causes he championed, because he knows the job. Mallahan and McGinn have never held elected office or worked in government, which I think is going to hinder either of them in a first term.”