Last year, when Matthew Richter became Seattle’s first-ever cultural space liaison, he had two tasks ahead of him: figure out the exact definition of “cultural space” and then inventory every single square foot of it in the city limits.
At the city’s first cultural space symposium, hosted by Seattle University’s Lee Center for the Arts on Nov. 18, Richter said his team’s city-scanning effort is one-third of the way through, yet it already counts 2.8 million square feet of cultural space—the largest such place being the downtown public library, and the smallest being the 46-square-foot work table inside of shadow puppeteer Scot Augustson’s Capitol Hill apodment.
At the symposium, a crowd of 100-plus artists, community organizers, developers, nonprofit managers and other local arts advocates were present to help him come up with ways for the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture to expand and support cultural space. The consensus? Championing arts organizations whose presence adds to the character, diversity and economic stability of a given neighborhood.
Many of the symposium’s 15 short presentations focused on needs that were squarely space-related—as in needing a new one. Representatives from Theatre Off-Jackson, Freehold Theatre, Reel Grrls, Book-It Theatre and Spectrum Dance Theatre all described factors—expiring leases, dilapidated buildings, cramped quarters—that forced them to hunt for brand-new spaces.
Town Hall executive director Wier Harman announced a 15-month renovation plan, potentially starting in summer 2015, that would include a project called Town Hall Inside Out: During renovation at its First Hill location, Town Hall would host its talks and events at interim spots in as many as seven neighborhoods. Harmon sought help finding interim locations that “could persist once [Town Hall] returns to the mothership.”
Organizers in need of arts tenants were also present, including reps from New Foundation Seattle in Pioneer Square and 12th Ave Arts in Capitol Hill. Representatives from SIFF and the Pratt Fine Arts Center explained that their ability to foster new tenants depends on development deals, such as SIFF’s negotiations to take over the shuttered Egyptian Theatre. Georgetown Merchants Organization president Larry Reid provided comic relief when describing his neighborhood’s efforts to provide artist-friendly spaces while keeping the industrial district affordable. “Georgetown has only 1,250 residents, and we like it that way,” he said.
City representatives discussed developer incentives for cultural space and art as a part of the Waterfront project. Such incentives are the first step in sparking conversation between developers and artists, but the meeting itself was crucial, and Richter promises symposiums every six months to continue the conversation.
For Jane Richlovsky, founder of ’57 Biscayne artist studios in Pioneer Square, that puts local artists in a better position to define and maintain cultural space. “That’s when [developers] treat us as businesses among other businesses,” she said. “We don’t want the artists-as-gentrification-bait story. We want to write the new story.”