The State of the Arts: The Capitol Hill Arts District and Why it Matters

David Strand
Posted on February 16, 2015, 8:48 pm
31 mins

Countless articles have been written around the country in the last few years about how communities that were once thriving cultural centers have been drained of the creative and engaged people that made these communities what they were. Art might still be shown in some of these places, but is no longer made there as the artists and performers are pushed out. In some cases, the venues disappear, too. The culprit is almost always the G-word—gentrification—which is flung at neighborhood newcomers (in turn discouraging their participation in the culture) and repeated in despairing tones, assuming that this will always be the life cycle of urban communities and nothing can be done.

But maybe that isn’t true. Maybe there are ways to ensure that communities that become desirable real estate can maintain vibrancy through responsible development and initiatives. Building a thriving community means taking risks, and creative people and artists are by nature more accepting of those risks. There should be a way—even in a capitalist society—for those who invested themselves in a culture to enjoy its growth, not get pushed out by those who come in after the heavy lifting is done. The good thing about our mindset in Seattle—pioneering and entrepreneurial as we are—is that we want to reward pluck and creativity, and when we can bring together different approaches and talents, we all benefit.

This is the concept behind the creation of the Arts District designation in Seattle, and late last year Capitol Hill became the first official Arts District in Seattle. This designation will in the future be applied to other neighborhoods, and perhaps even in other cities around the country, but Capitol Hill will be a testing ground for these policies and programs. This neighborhood was chosen because in it one can find every form of visual and performing art being produced and displayed among bustling restaurants and retail, and because it has been consequently most affected by the steep rise in rental and property prices citywide in recent years.

The creative community of Capitol Hill has long been interwoven with those who have sought improvements to public spaces and tried to maintain aesthetic appeal in the historic architecture itself. Even if one is not already an art lover, everyone benefits from the presence of creative communities that improve the overall aesthetics, preserve the history and create engaging public spaces. The work is shared among business owners, municipal offices, community organizers and artists, and the result can be pragmatic (safer, cleaner, more livable neighborhoods) but the lifeblood is the creative aspect itself.

Everyone ought to be informed, then, of what the Arts District is doing to preserve and promote the existing arts and culture on Capitol Hill, and who some of the central figures are, as what is growing there may become an instrument for historical and cultural preservation elsewhere.

 

The Capitol Hill Arts District

Leaders in the Capitol Hill art community know that change is inevitable. They’ve seen it before. And many of these venues are thriving, thanks to a combination of savvy decisions and new programming. There are hurdles for everyone to overcome, starting with the need for a relaxation of tensions around these changes. If the hill is to remain vibrant, it is crucial for everyone to keep engaging with the community and not flee or condemn change in toto.

As Michael Seiwerath of Capitol Hill Housing puts it, “There is a sense of the ‘other’ that is invading Capitol Hill and people are getting pushed out. The truth of it is more complex than that. I don’t think of it as us versus them.” Seiwerath is the Director of Community Programs and External Relations at Capitol Hill Housing and the founding Executive Director of the Capitol Hill Housing Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization that helps fund CHH. He serves on the Seattle Arts Commission, Washington Low Income Housing Alliance State Legislative Committee and the Cal Anderson Park Alliance Advisory Council. He is also the manager of the Capitol Hill Arts District.

What makes an Art District and what does this designation do? Put succinctly by Seiwerath, “the Arts District exists to preserve and create arts space in the neighborhood.” To that end, the Arts District comes with a ‘Creative Placemaking Toolkit’ that includes resources for right-of-way identifiers, wayfinding, busking and plein air painting, art historic markers, pop-up activation and parklets. The toolkit will evolve and grow over time as needs change and tools are tested.

Only five percent of the Arts Districts programs have been rolled out thus far, with many more coming this year. This past week, one of the new tools launched, called Space Finder, which is “a matchmaking tool for artists and arts spaces” throughout the city, including performance venues and live-work spaces.

Velocity Dance Center on 12th Avenue. Photo by Mitchell Dasteel.

Velocity Dance Center on 12th Avenue. Photo by Mitchell Dasteel.

It is also important that new residents be able to find the arts within their own neighborhood. A lot hides in plain sight, and the Arts District will help bring some additional visibility, but venues are already finding new ways of engaging with the growing population, many of whom may not be art aficionados. There are dozens of such venues, including Velocity Dance Center, Northwest Film Forum, Vermillion Art Gallery & Bar and Hugo House, all of which are artist-founded and run and, with the exception of Vermillion, opened in the 90s. The can-do, DIY attitude typified by these spaces is what first drew Tonya Lockyer, the Executive Director of Velocity Dance Center, to the neighborhood. Lockyer is an Affiliated Faculty Member of Cornish College of the Arts, and has lectured, published and performed internationally.

“When I came here in 1998,” she recalls, “I walked into Oddfellows and saw this space that had organically grown through artists not waiting for something to be provided, but saying ‘we can make this happen. We can make the Century Ballroom happen.’ There are so many organizations that said we have a need here and let’s make it happen.”

In fact, it was the sale of the Oddfellows building in 2008 that sparked a concerted push for an Arts & Culture District, which as an idea had been circulating in Seattle for more than decade. The partial dissolution of Oddfellows’ creative nexus inspired a study by the Cultural Overlay District Advisory Committee that culminated in a 2009 report recommending two actions: the creation of a Cultural Space Liaison for the City of Seattle and the creation of Arts & Culture Districts. The liaison position was officially created in 2013 with the appointment of arts entrepreneur Matthew Richter, followed by the official declaration of the Capitol Hill Arts District in November of 2014.

Richter has been the founder and director of several nonprofit arts organizations, including the Rm 608 Gallery for Visual and Performing Arts and the Consolidated Works contemporary arts center. He was most recently the program manager of Storefronts Seattle, an initiative led by Shunpike (another arts org) to activate unused storefront spaces with art installations throughout the city. This benefits artists by giving them a venue to display large scale art that might not fit in a gallery setting while filling empty spaces that might otherwise depress neighboring businesses.

For Lockyer, the Arts District designation means that the value of arts and culture are being recognized from a practical standpoint, not just an aesthetic one, which hasn’t always been true. She says, “I do think that when you name what you love, when you have an Arts District, you are at least saying that we value artists, we value the arts, that culture matters and that it’s essential to the health of our communities. That alone has a great value. The next key thing is then, how does that get implemented? It needs to be about sharing resources and listening, not just about marketing to develop more patrons.”

This strategy of listening and resource-sharing is a tried-and-true method for Lockyer, who successfully led Velocity Dance Center out of a debt crisis when she became director in 2011, doubling their budget, quadrupling their audiences, and expanding their programs exponentially in the process. That includes the development of Velocity’s first humanities programs, the foundation of an Artist-in-Residence program, and the commission and development of more than forty new works of performance, installation and film. For Lockyer, social engagement was key and she sees part of her success stemming from a strategy that “didn’t immediately go right to fundraising.”

“I asked, are we actually providing the value through our programs that makes people want to support this place and makes them feel that it’s vital? It goes back to, ‘what is your mission?’ What are your values? Are you actually providing a value to your community and responding to their needs?”

Such self-examining questions are difficult but necessary for any who want to thrive in a community. One of the most important takeaways from Lockyer’s experience at Velocity is that “the greatest resource is the creative resource of the people around you and the community around you.”

Tree Swenson is Executive Director of Hugo House, a post she has occupied since 2012, after ten years as executive director of the Academy of American Poets in New York. She co-founded Copper-Canyon Press and was executive director there for twenty years, publishing poets including Nobel Laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners, and garnering numerous book awards. She affirms that the very formation of the Arts District has been helpful, saying, “There is something so powerful about getting people together in a room to talk, especially when it’s a group of creative people. That alone I would say has been a fabulous result.”

Hugo House is one of the city’s major hubs for literature and poetry and is also an example of landowners and developers working in harmony with the creative communities that add value to their properties. It was announced this past fall that the former mortuary that Hugo House occupies (built in 1903) would be redeveloped into a large mixed-used space with new and improved facilities.

The current home of Richard Hugo House across from Cal Anderson Park. Photo by Mitchell Dasteel.

The current home of Richard Hugo House across from Cal Anderson Park. Photo by Mitchell Dasteel.

This development points to two realities. One is the trend of arts venues existing in mixed-used buildings, such as the launch of the 12th Ave Arts building, which includes affordable housing, blackbox theatres, retail space, and underground parking for the Seattle Police Department. The second reality is that the predominance of arts organizations in Seattle occupy buildings that are 75-years old or older, as they tend to be more affordable (and, as it happens, often more architecturally interesting).

Richter notes that developers are not building structures to last that long anymore. “They are building 30-year buildings. In 30 years these new buildings are getting knocked down and replaced.” This built-in transience can also be damaging to a community’s mindset, especially in a town like Seattle built on shaky ground (the Seattle Underground is a good example) and economically known for booms and busts. Conversely, a variety of ages in buildings made with longevity in mind have a demonstrated strengthening effect.

“The more diverse a neighborhood is, the stronger it is, period,” Richter states. “Whether you are talking about people, in terms of age, race, and gender, or buildings, streetscapes and modes of transportation; the more diversity a neighborhood has, the healthier it is.”

The Arts District may strengthen existing bonds, but its greater benefit may be to engage people who have historically been left out of the conversation, people who Seiwerath calls “non-traditional partners.” The Arts District is more than just arts organizations and non-profits. As Richter puts it, true to his position as liaison, “It’s about broadening the connections between sectors. It’s about bringing the housing sector, non-profit arts sector and retail sector together.”

The developers in particular must be engaged, as the built environment lays the foundation for what will follow. Having the arts included in that foundation is the only way to ensure that the community remains a place where diverse groups of peoples and organizations can live and want to live. To improve those odds, the Arts District is working on the creation of B.A.S.E. (Build ArtSpacE) certification. Analogous to the LEED certification that rewards projects for green building practices, B.A.S.E. incentivizes developments that include cultural spaces.

 

Capitol Hill Arts in the Present

The groundwork is being laid for the continuation (and hopefully the expansion) of the arts in Capitol Hill in a model that can be reproduced in other communities and other cities. So now we must ask, what are the existing venues up to?

Many of the arts spaces and organizations that are flourishing in the neighborhood are doing so as a result of a diverse offering of cross-disciplinary programs, classes, workshops and events that engage different facets of the wider community. These organizations not only break down the barriers between disciplines, but also between audience and artist, fostering collaborations and discussions that welcome new and emerging voices in place of traditional hierarchies .

Velocity Dance Center. Photo by Mitchell Dasteel.

Velocity Dance Center. Photo by Mitchell Dasteel.

One exciting new program of this variety takes place on the first and third Mondays of each month at Velocity Dance Center where artists from all disciplines are invited to take the stage. Titled SH*T GOLD, it’s an open-mic performance night where anyone can come in and activate the space. The biweekly event puts musicians in conversation with poets, dancers in dialogue with performance artists.

Northwest Film Forum on 12th Ave. Photo by Mitchell Dasteel.

Northwest Film Forum on 12th Ave. Photo by Mitchell Dasteel.

The Arts District aims to make the walls between arts organizations more permeable, but cross-disciplinary collaborations between organizations and businesses on Capitol Hill are not new, of course. As Courtney Sheehan, Program Director of Northwest Film Forum points out, “Northwest Film Forum and Velocity partner every year on Next Dance Cinema as a part of Velocity’s Next Fest in mutual support. An example of connective tissue between the Film Forum and a local business is our partnership with Vermillion as the venue for our after-party for our local film festival, Local Sightings.”

Sheehan is a relatively recent addition to NWFF, but she is a veteran at working with broad and diverse groups, having produced film programs on three continents. On a year-long Watson Fellowship, she examined twenty film festivals and media centers in India, Spain, the Netherlands, Brazil, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia, documenting their structures and strategies and how they served and pertained to their communities. She also founded Cine Migratorio, a migration-themed film festival in Santander, Spain. SIFF may be the big annual event for international film in Seattle, but NWFF is a tightly run force for the medium and international voices year-round.

Around the block is Vermillion Art Gallery & Bar, one of the few dedicated art galleries that left on the Hill. There is a lot of work by emerging artists on display in cafes and retail spaces on the Hill, but Vermillion is unique in bringing the work to the full attention of customers. It’s an art gallery and a bar, where patrons have to walk through the art to reach the bar in the back.

Founder Diana Adams, a photographer, opened the space in 2007 with that specific balance in mind, which keeps the space accessible, and softens the edges of the gallery as a result. Customers who might be intimidated by a traditional commercial gallery are exposed to art in spite of themselves. It is this kind of accessibility and hybridity that is the spirit of the arts on Capitol Hill, where art is found everywhere and is for everyone. It has attracted one of the most diverse crowds on the hill through its frequent events, including poetry readings, live music, regular hip-hop performances and round-table discussions.

Looking down 11th Ave in front of Vermillion Art Gallery & Bar. Photo by Mitchell Dasteel.

Looking down 11th Ave in front of Vermillion Art Gallery & Bar. Photo by Mitchell Dasteel.

That said, the changing demographics have also required Adams to change strategy. “The older demographic that is more comfortable buying art has begun to move away from the neighborhood,” she says, and while the younger patrons are excited about the art, they don’t quite make the leap to become an art owner.

This past summer, when the lines on the block for the bars became worse than ever, Adams thought it might spell the end for Vermillion. With art sales on the decline, she decided to take the art away to see how its absence would be felt. As Adams says, “Art is something you don’t take for granted, even thought most people do.” In place of the art, Adams installed arcade games. When she reintroduced art back into the gallery this past fall, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Now Adams is more hopeful for the future of the arts in the neighborhood.

“It’s put a fire under a lot of us who have been here for a long time. We remember the 90s when the artists were pretty much ignored, and we had to find little weird niches and rundown spaces to show at. We used to be the weirdos and the freaks,” Adams recalled. “Then we kind of became the status-quo in a weird way. The artists had a lot of momentum for a while, and now it feels like we are back to being the weirdos and freaks again.”

Sheehan and Adams are not passive in the face of these shifts. They are adapting with new programming to keep their loyal customers and perhaps attract new ones. Such programs at NWFF include Videoasis, which showcases music videos by Northwest bands past and present, and Puget Soundtrack, where a local band performs a live score for a film of their choice. These are just a few of the ways that Sheehan is drawing in younger audiences without sacrificing artistic rigor.

Meanwhile, Adams has co-founded Collect Seattle, a monthly event that arranges art tours of galleries and artist studios in a party bus, with snacks and drinks along the way. It provides a sociable and celebratory atmosphere and focuses on emerging and mid-career artists whose works are more affordable for first-time collectors. In some cases, the modest ticket price of the event can be applied toward the purchase of a work from one of the artists or venues featured on the tour, further lowering the hurdle for first-time collectors.

 

The Challenges to Come

These new collaborations are serving to make art less challenging for audiences as new challenges arise for the community as a whole. Central to a lot of the demographic changes in Capitol Hill is the growing focus on nightlife in the neighborhood. The arts and nightlife on Capitol Hill have long had a reciprocally positive effect, bringing in tourist dollars and vibrancy.

Nightlife is, of course, driven by visitors who may not be respectful of it, or even become hostile to residents, and there has been an alarming spike in crime and assault, with racial and sexual minorities being the targets in many cases. Richter remarks, “There is hate on the hill in a way that there hasn’t been in twenty years.” This, perhaps more than anything, is why many residents do not feel welcome in their own neighborhood, and why business as usual is no longer working for some of the venues.

Greg Lundgren's poster for #CapHillPSA. Image courtesy of #CapHillPSA.

Greg Lundgren’s poster for #CapHillPSA. Image courtesy of #CapHillPSA.

Dakota Gearhart's poster for #CapHillPSA. Image courtesy of #CapHillPSA.

Dakota Gearhart’s poster for #CapHillPSA. Image courtesy of #CapHillPSA.

It’s yet another of the central issues the Arts District hopes to address by working with local police. Artists are also already pondering it in projects such as #CapHillPSA, which uses posters as a public forum for artists to address the changes (and the dangers) members of the community are facing. It is headed by Courtney Sheehan and poet and arts advocate Yonnas Getahun (who co-founded Collect Seattle with Diana Adams), in partnership with Capitol Hill marketing agency Northwest Polite Society. Sheehan explains, “In this neighborhood, posters are already the main vehicle of communication, usually for nightlife—but what if we entered that space with artists responding to this very loose, vague prompt we gave them of violence and public safety issues in Capitol Hill?”

So far they have invited a number of notable locally-based artists to create posters inspired by this loose theme. Participants include John Criscitello, Rodrigo Valenzuela, Greg Lundgren, Dakota Gearhart and D.K. Pan (who curated the public art on the Red Wall surrounding the Capitol Hill tunnel construction site). The results range from more abstract interpretations to pointed critiques and warnings to confrontational messages. They have been posted on poles around the neighborhood in two waves, and on February 19, Vermillion will be exhibiting the complete set of posters created for #CapHillPSA.

The mixed-messages sent by the campaign and its artists are intentional on Sheehan and Getahun’s part. “Its not a coherent message. These were not curated in that way. It was just an invitation to express from an artistic perspective about issues of the greater community and civic importance, and that necessarily needed to include a range of perspectives and voices.”

It is worth noting that some construction is taking place in lots that were vacant or were not much a part of the broader cultural fabric. Even if we had a choice between density and sprawl (and surrounded by water, we don’t have that choice), we should want density…done responsibly. Change can be managed and infrastructure can be created to support artists and arts organizations so that they aren’t displaced as density increases, and a truly diverse neighborhood can be enjoyed by all. At its best, the Arts District would provide this infrastructure. It is an aid, but not a remedy.

Ultimately, it is up to all involved (and who want to be involved) to seek new alliances, to engage critically with the changes and forces taking place without treating newcomers as invaders, even when it proves disruptive to the way things were before. Spaces can be shared without sacrificing them altogether.

Adams is particularly sanguine in recognizing the inherent opportunity posed by the situation.

“Rather than seeing it as antagonistic, it’s a challenge. It’s something exciting, and that is what I am happy about right now.”

David Strand

David Strand is a writer and aspiring curator based in Seattle.

5 Responses to: The State of the Arts: The Capitol Hill Arts District and Why it Matters

  1. TJ

    June 10th, 2015

    The Hill is pretty dead, but we’ve known that for a while. This is just window dressing for Murray. He’s too busy banning smoking in parks and shooting down municipal broadband and all that important shit to actually do anything to solve the problems of uninhibited growth and predatory developers/landlords. So much for the guy who knew how to work with Olympia to make fairer laws for the city. Worthless.