Mayor’s Arts Awards: The Vera Project

When the Vera Project receives its Mayor’s Arts Award later this month, it will be just the latest step in a long dance between the all-ages music club and the City of Seattle.

It’s been a decade since the Project was embraced by the City’s Music and Youth Task Force as a fitting organization to develop a safe all-ages music space. Since then the organization has received some funding from the city and reserved a seat on its board for a representative from the mayor’s office. Otherwise it has remained independent.

“Our relationship has been negotiated in a way that I haven’t seen with any other organizations in the city,” says Vera’s managing director Joshua Powell. “I think it allows us to both be accountable to the city but also be independent, which is very cool. I think that has a lot to do with why we’ve been so successful.”

That success will be recognized when the Seattle Arts Commission bestows the Mayor’s Arts Award on Vera for providing Seattle’s “youth the skills necessary to pursue their creative and professional passions.”

Such a firm embrace of the values of all-ages music would have seemed unlikely in the summer of 2000 when Vera was started. It was then that supporters of all-ages music were in the second decade of a fight against the City’s draconian Teen Dance Ordinance, which made it almost impossible to host all-ages concerts.

Vera’s founders, inspired by a club in the Netherlands, sent a call out to the community to support all-ages music. “If the city supports every other form of art and entertainment,” the invitation read, “why not alternative music and art for everyone?”

Six months later, on January 27, 2001, the Vera Project hosted its first show at the Local 46, an electrical workers union hall in Belltown, featuring Murder City Devils, Botch and Blood Brothers. Soon after, the project gained support from the City’s Music and Youth Task Force. The next year then-Mayor Greg Nickels finally abolished the Teen Dance Ordinance.

Free from the restrictive TDO, the Vera Project has grown into a force in Seattle’s music and arts communities, with a permanent home at Seattle Center, 10 employees and a $550,000 annual budget ($50,000 of which still comes from the city).

Last year the Vera Project attracted 60,000 people of all ages to its space, bringing youthful vitality to the largely city-funded Seattle Center with musical performances and visual arts exhibitions, as well as classes for audio production and silkscreen printing, and leadership training. And the organization continues to attract attention from outside the Northwest as a model of what an all-ages club can be. Just ask Beth Warshaw-Duncan, the founder and former executive director of Girls Rock Philly who recently moved to Seattle to become Vera’s new program director.

“It is a successful all-ages space that is run really professional, but also collectively” she says, “which is a fine line to walk.”

The Mayor’s Arts Awards will be held at Seattle Center at noon on Aug. 31.

Photo of Vera board members by Jennifer Richard.