What about an industrial bubble machine?”
James Allan Tucker is brainstorming ways to liven up the annual Tacoma music and art festival Art on the Ave. “We could blow paint bubbles! When they pop, it’ll literally create bursts of color.” Wearing a T-shirt printed with a googly-eyed Hokusai wave swallowing chocolate-chip cookies, and standing in front of a particle board spray-painted with a giant cookie monster, Tucker might seem like he’s kidding. He’s not.
As president and founder of the Tacoma Artists Collective, he takes his job seriously. Every Sunday evening, a rotating cast of 10 to 20 artists gathers in a garage on Market Street, a shared studio space attached to the Happy Belly restaurant and juice bar, to discuss how to help each other show, advertise and sell artwork. Since its start in June 2017, the group has resuscitated the Tacoma Art Walk and brought back the 100th Monkey pop-up art parties, which infamously gathered a lively arts crowd in various locations in the early 2000s.
Tucker believes the collective can help make the city a “utopia for artists” through its self-reliance. As a group, it can leverage more publicity for events, or pair young artists with more seasoned artists to help hang their work during the monthly art walk. As one artist says during a Collective meeting, “Just call me and I’ll be there to help.”
A similar spirit fills a room at the Grand Cinema the following Monday evening, when the sneak preview of Masahiro Sugano’s magical-realist film Deadlock screens to a packed house. The crowd spills out of the theater’s red velvet chairs, into the stairs and aisles.
“It was the most community-based screening I’ve ever had,” Sugano explains later, sitting at a picnic table with his partner in life and art, performance artist Anida Yoeu Ali, as their kids play in a nearby sprinkler park. “Neighbors showed up. Parents of our children’s friends, writers, elders, people from Seattle and even our carpenter, who’s also an artist. It feels like there are no elites within the art community here. No MFA groups comparing each other. You can just call someone up instead of having to wait three weeks for an appointment.”
Tacoma can play with the big cities now reads a headline in The News Tribune from last October, in a story about the extension of the Prairie Line Trail, a sculpture park connecting the UW Tacoma campus to the city’s Brewery District. Much like the High Line in Manhattan, walkers encounter art along the way, such as an installation by Hai Ying Wu, whose 100 brass boxes pay homage to the Chinese workers who died while building the Northern Pacific Railroad, the same road Chinese residents were forced to leave the city on during the Chinese expulsion in 1885.
Tacoma is not New York. It is not Seattle. It is its own place—one that’s now coming into its own. Though it’s always had a “low-key creative vibrancy,” according to Chimaera, a visual artist, lyricist, filmmaker and the creative director for Groundswell Arts Collective, it has taken on a new gravity of late. With multi-million dollar projects in the pipeline, nearly 30 public arts projects finished in 2017 and an industry that generates about $137 million in economic activity, Tacoma’s vibrancy is no longer under the radar.
In this respect, the City of Destiny is fulfilling its destiny. In the ’90s, City leaders envisioned art as an essential tool in Tacoma’s renaissance. Twenty years on, the city is grappling with breakneck growth and gentrification. Communities are under threat. Artists and art administrators alike wonder: Is it too late to do something?
Much of Tacoma’s recent attention is drawn to the city’s resident talent. Musicians Clemm Rishad and Will Jordan have penned Grammy-winning tracks for artists like Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Rick Ross and Meek Mill, transmitting the 253 sound across the world. University of Puget Sound professor Renee Simms, who debuted her first short story collection earlier this year, received a 2018 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship for creative writing. Visual artist Christopher Paul Jordan (Will’s brother) won one of Washington’s biggest art prizes last year and exported COLORED, an immersive multi-day event and exhibit showcasing Black visual artists and poets, from Tacoma’s Carpenters Building to Trinidad and Tobago.
Ambitious projects whip up further attention. This spring, organizers reopened the 23,000-square-foot Carpenters Building as Alma Mater, a 500-person capacity concert venue, café, art gallery, restaurant and incubator with studios and coworking spaces. It also hosts an artist residency and a slew of literary, comedy and other events, including a monthly late-night variety show.
Other massive projects are expanding the city’s cultural footprint. A major renovation of the 35-year-old Tacoma Dome will be completed in October. The century-old Pantages Theatre will reopen with increased capacity later this fall. Tacoma Art Museum will debut a new, $10.19 million wing early next year.
In the meantime, new ventures are popping up everywhere. Auditions recently began for Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center’s brand-new contemporary ballet company, and Summer SOULstice, an arts festival featuring emerging and established artists from marginalized communities, has been promised a second year after a successful inaugural run.
“It was a great reflection of Tacoma’s multifaceted art community,” says Christina Butcher, a reporter and creative writer who showcased her poetry at the festival. Butcher recently launched a poetry press and a podcast, for which she’ll interview people at the “crossroads of different media,” such as city poet laureate and visual artist Kellie Richardson. Butcher, who moved to Tacoma from Honolulu three years ago, says the city is small enough to find connections easily. “Pushing creative boundaries can be really scary. A community of like-minded people can be a safety net.”
You’ll like Tacoma,” “I ❤ Tacoma,” even the city’s area code, “253,” shaped like a heart: Never have I seen so many people wearing T-shirts proclaiming love for their city, I tell marketing creative Richard Penton and he smiles. “People are proud to be from Tacoma,” he says. “Everyone’s always looked to Seattle to be the big brother in Washington, so if you’re from Tacoma, you have to really rep it. To let people know that we’re not a sub-city or subcategory of Seattle.”
Penton contributes to the city’s creative atmosphere with SKY Creative, a marketing agency, music production and events company located in a downtown coworking space, in the former Master Builders Association Building. In September, he and his business partner, songwriter Clemm Rishad, will officially open their dream center for creative expertise—a coworking office, incubator, event space and community space for graphic designers, photographers, music industry folks, entertainers and videographers. “It’s an exciting time to be part of the art community,” Penton says. “We want to help it grow so that we can help out everybody who’s trying to do something for Tacoma.”
These days, the word “community” is brandished so frequently that its meaning is eroding. Not so in Tacoma. Conversations with more than a dozen artists crystallize the sense that in Tacoma, together is better. Collaboration trumps competition. People show up for each other.
Rose Mathison and Clarissa Gines chalk up that togetherness to the city’s DIY character. Their artistic venture, a curatorial and event platform promoting diversity in the art scene, is called the CultureShock Collective. “We were looking for work that, as women of color, reflected us and our experiences,” Gines says. “We couldn’t find it. So we decided to make it happen.”
“We’re known as the Grit City because we’re not afraid to get our hands dirty,” says Mathison, who works at Tacoma Art Museum and is a gallery assistant at Stonington Gallery in Seattle. The result, adds Gines, a Tacoma resident and exhibitions manager at Seattle’s ArtXChange, is a landscape with fewer traditional galleries but more accessible spaces.
Downtown Tacoma is home to six museums of caliber, such as the Museum of Glass and the Tacoma Art Museum, all within walking distance. But with only a few commercial galleries in town, many artists show in bars or shops. Groups like the Tacoma Artist Collective and the CultureShock Collective create their own opportunities to show art outside of the prototypical white boxes.
Meanwhile artists from elsewhere are moving in. RYAN! Feddersen and Tracy Rector recently relocated to Tacoma from Seattle, as did Anida Yoeu Ali and Masahiro Sugano from Chicago and Cambodia, respectively. Tacoma’s art scene has always been here, Gines says, but “people are now paying attention, mostly thanks to the influx of new people and artists from Seattle.”
Amy McBride, the city’s chief arts administrator, makes the same point, lowering her face to the recorder on the wooden table at Alma Mater’s coffee bar. “Can this article please not be about Tacoma being great because artists from Seattle are moving down here? We love having them, but it’s like, oh, now you’re paying attention?” The arrival of artists in Tacoma from Seattle only proves what everyone already knows: Artists are being priced out of Seattle.
Having a moment mostly depends on who’s paying attention. Every few years, some journalist describes the city as, say, Seattle’s cultural sibling or a former cultural wasteland now thriving “like Brooklyn 10 years ago.” Often these stories are told by a Seattle journalist interviewing Seattle artists who’ve moved south for cheap rent—and they cast Tacoma as a formerly rundown place that started glistening with potential after they’d arrived.
Perhaps these observations are not dissimilar to those of the people who moved to a thriving Tacoma in the late 19th century, after Euro American settlers colonized land the Puyallup people and other Native Americans had fostered for millennia, and named it “Eureka.” Later, developers—“boomers” in the lingo of the day—reverted to the city’s original name and started a campaign to attract settlers and the Northern Pacific Railroad. Some two centuries later, another city campaign is attracting newcomers. And for better or for worse, it used art as bait.
For the past century, timber handling, paper manufacturing, copper smelting, the port and the military base have given Tacoma the image of being a hardscrabble, blue-collar port town. Like many industrial cities, its economic cycle conformed to the tempo of war. Thousands of Japanese Americans were interned during the Second World War. Many African Americans came from the South to work in shipyards and airplane factories during wartime. Despite redlining and other racist housing practices, downtown and the nearby Hilltop neighborhoods thrived with local businesses after the war.
Suburbanization, disinvestment, white flight and a new mall south of the city center sucked the life out of downtown in the following years. By the late ’60s, the city’s heart was empty. Over the ensuing 30 years, a bad reputation took hold.
“It was the best,” says Jeremy Gregory, a muralist, painter, stop-motion filmmaker and lifelong skater who fondly recollects the rundown, deserted downtown. In some ways, he’s trying to recreate this vibe with the elaborate sets for the stop-motion skater puppets that will figure into his upcoming web series. “Buildings were empty, there was no one on the weekends. We did whatever we wanted. We were down there with homeless folks, druggies, you name it. I never felt scared.”
In recent decades, vacant buildings have filled up with stores and bars, though to call downtown “lively” would be exaggerating. Many await the 2019 opening of the McMenamins hotel in the historic Beaux Arts-style Elks Lodge building, which will include a restaurant, bar and hotel. For some it signals the city’s yuppification. To Gregory, it’s work. He’s creating paintings and murals for the hotel.
“[McMenamins] has real transformative power,” says Lisa Kinoshita. With partner Paula Shields, she operates Minka, a nearby curiosity shop-cum-gallery where a life-sized taxidermied bear, ceramic boob sculptures, midcentury furniture and a gallery somehow cohere. Kinoshita, also a studio jeweler and curator, is wearing a necklace with four kid fist-sized glass balls and a ceramic shoe when I meet her at the store.
When we sit down at a large table filled with jewelry, antique porcelain and other curiosities, she tells me that she grew up in nearby Fife and recalls “back-to-back porn shops on Pacific Avenue” before Tacoma began its turnaround in 1990. It was a different picture when she moved to the city from Seattle in the early 2000s, like many artists priced out of Seattle during the dot-com boom, and the renaissance of downtown was well underway, she says.
The University of Washington had opened its permanent, $33 million campus downtown. The brand-new Museum of Glass and new Tacoma Art Museum, along with a new light rail system and the Tacoma School of the Arts, polished downtown’s facade. The plan to “revitalize” the city was working.
The first step in the plan came in 1999 when the Economic Development Department created its Culture and Tourism division. The department used the arts as a tool for economic development, part of a top-down attempt to clean up the city and its image.
McBride arrived in 1998 and saw tumbleweeds rolling down Pacific Avenue, she says. Tasked with creating an arts community, she introduced studio tours, offered funding for individual artists and revived the city’s 1% for Art Projects program, which allocates one percent of the budget from publicly funded construction projects toward public art. “A lot of it was throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what would stick,” she says. Artists were lured to the city or downtown by changes to zoning laws so that they could occupy live-work spaces in the area.
Some of this tale reads like textbook Richard Florida, whose influential 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class argued that bohemian hipster havens are the best way to attract a “creative class” and “revitalize” a city. Florida himself preached this gospel during the Creative Cities Leadership Seminar, co-organized by the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce, in Tacoma in 2006. Today the world knows that Florida’s ideas helped open a Pandora’s box of gentrification. His creative class was not only code for college-educated, middle-upper class professionals but also for white. One person’s revitalization is another’s displacement and erasure.
Looking back on those early efforts 12 years later suggests that people with business interests were trying to “artwash” the city. A thriving artistic climate was less about the artists than about marketing and development. Whatever the case, the marketing campaign has borne fruit. Sunset magazine recently named Tacoma the best place in the Northwest: “Tacoma is experiencing a resurgence of its downtown, fueled in part by artists, artisans and creative small-scale manufacturers.”
Tacoma’s PR problems (who said “aroma”?) seem long gone. But below the surface lies an uglier picture of rapid growth, exploding housing costs and displacement. The factors that most distinguish Tacoma’s art scene—its sense of community and interdependence—are perhaps most under threat. Now that the City and its agencies are “revitalizing” different neighborhoods, such as Lincoln and the Theatre District, some wonder who benefits from the upgrades. If potholes are fixed only after new, wealthy white residents arrive, who’s really being catered to?
That’s an ancillary critique leveled at Spaceworks, a joint venture of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce and the City, which many credit as a key player in the changes downtown. Since 2010, the organization has filled empty storefronts and buildings with art-focused businesses and nonprofits, as well as coaching and trainings, in an attempt to create jobs and businesses.
After five years at the helm, director Heather Joy recently left her position with the program, which currently runs 17 studio spaces for artists: 12 downtown and five in Hilltop, a historically African American neighborhood experiencing rapid gentrification and displacement. Some say Spaceworks’ economic development catered to white people with existing wealth, others reproach the organization for accelerating gentrification by making neighborhoods more desirable.
The blue-and-white walled Feast Arts Center, on the top of Hilltop, faces the latter criticism. Artists Chandler Woodfin and Todd Jannausch started the gallery and education space three years ago when they moved to Tacoma after being forced out of Seattle. Since then, the Center has housed an exhibition space for artists from Tacoma, Seattle and around the world, including Jazz Brown, Priscilla Dobler and Anida Yoeu Ali. It also offers art classes in partnership with nonprofits.
The couple says they were unable to do as much outreach as they would’ve liked because of their limited resources when they moved into an empty Hilltop building with the help of a grant. “The choice was just as much about us trying to solve our own problems to survive,” Jannausch says.
McBride acknowledges that anti-displacement work and maintaining Tacoma’s uniqueness should be at the forefront of the City’s arts administration over the next 10 years. “Train artists so that they can make a living here, by teaching folks how to write proposals, apply for grants, do budgeting, have their first art project experiences and make funds for them available,” she says. “We need to make sure everyone knows that they get to come forward and access services and funding. Talent comes from everywhere, and if we’re not doing everything to connect with that, we’re not doing our job.”
With the global and local march of gentrification and displacement so far along, is there enough time left to do things differently in Tacoma?
The Arts Projects Funding Program recently funded 19 community arts projects, with a focus on underserved communities. Later this year, Tacoma residents will vote on a ballot measure for arts funding. A similar regressive tax-ballot proposition in King County, which would’ve increased sales tax by 0.1 percent to fund access to arts, cultural and science education, died in the August primaries last year.
Of course, holding the art world and its players solely accountable misses the point. Art is not a big enough cork to stop macroeconomic forces (or to create them). But if art can lead to harm, shouldn’t it be able to offer help as well?
Chimaera believes that holding space for storytelling through art is a tool for resisting oppression and erasure. The artist creates immersive digital installations, and with Groundswell Arts Collective, they’ve organized a summer camp for QTBIPoC high school-aged youth in the Hilltop neighborhood.
“It’s a way to learn about food justice and filmmaking,” they say, “but mostly about the connection between each other.”
Chimaera’s loyalties lie here on Hilltop, where we’re sitting in a bustling coffee shop on Martin Luther King Jr Way. Chimaera points out how many of the surrounding stores and buildings have changed.
The film that results from the summer camp will be part of a digital installation on Hilltop—a way of archiving what’s happening in and to the neighborhood. “I want to give agency to those impacted, tell stories of those who are displaced or on the brink of losing their homes while also telling the historical story of a thriving community.” It needs to happen now, and fast. “We’re kind of running out of time,” they say.
Anida Yoeu Ali is more hopeful. There is time, she believes, as long as people are willing to come together and have difficult conversations about alternative paths to equity. “People want resources for their community, not to be pushed out,” she says. “We artists are part of that cycle, and we need to not look away but acknowledge it.”
Sugano, the Deadlock filmmaker, and Ali, his partner, acknowledge their transplant status, and they hope to use it to offer innovative ideas to the city. “We could be the symbol of gentrification—or of bringing new blood into the community,” Sugano says.
The duo is currently working on a huge, Hollywood-style sign for public display and a metaphorical extension of hands. It will read Hello. How are you? After its launch at an upcoming block party, they plan to move the piece to parks and churches across the city so that all of Tacoma might ask itself the same question.