Empty Spaces, Open Minds

Artists invade downtown’s lonely places.

The celebrated theatre director Peter Brook famously said, “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage.” Faced with alarmingly vacant storefronts downtown, the City of Tacoma, the chamber of commerce, Shunpike and some visionary property owners decided to stage a major drama this month called Spaceworks.

Michelle Acuff’s Scenes from Nature; what dystopic vision will she visit upon Tacoma?

About seventeen rising stars (chosen from fifty-five applicants) will transform the emptiness with temporary art installations, performances, special events and artist residencies. “It’s actual artists in their natural habitat,” says Tacoma arts administrator Amy McBride. “The idea is to activate dead spaces, dead zones – to turn what could be a liability into an asset. These downtown spaces are like a gap in a beautiful smile.”

The art installations are called “Artscapes.” The Woolworth Building windows will bloom with work by name artists (Lisa Kinoshita, Andrew Peterson, Joseph Songco, Gretchen Bennett). At 9th and Broadway, says McBride, “Ben Hirshkoff will make these cool cloud installations, and Michelle Acuff will do faux animals that juxtapose nature with the grossly synthetic.” Acuff’s life-size plastic stags have horns that proliferate into giant polystyrene webs, in candied colors that Acuff accurately calls “surreal, saccharine and dystopic.”

In the same venue, the Warehouse will put on music and art shows, Sam Olsen will host an all-ages event and Tiffany Peters will operate a handmade fashion boutique. “It’s like a Chinese puzzle,” says McBride. “You have to see what hangs together curatorially, fits the space and expresses what the artists think.”

After the first wave of artists and performers descends this month, more will join the fray. Kristie Worthey and Shakespeare in the Parking Lot Theatre Company are slated for a space to be named later.

“It’s a bold synergy,” says McBride. “We’re trying to nurture a creative community. It’s also for the citizens to celebrate downtown by introducing them to the creative class.” The property owners will celebrate when more crowds get used to the idea of venturing downtown.

McBride says the program aspires to have more than a temporary effect on the participating artists. “Shunpike is devoted to business development for artists. How do you become a nonprofit? How do you maybe make a living someday?” If Shunpike succeeds, maybe some of those temporary artscapes can become permanent paying tenants.

Nobody has yet seen how (or whether) Spaceworks will really work. “Who knows what experiments will develop?” says McBride. To find out where to see what does develop, call 206.905.1026. •