The State of the Arts: Farewells and Pitfalls In Pioneer Square

Posted on May 18, 2016, 4:00 pm
24 mins


South of the downtown core, Pioneer Square has been the center of the Seattle’s visual art scene for decades. In the ’70s, a handful of galleries opened there. The two remaining in operation from that era in Pioneer Square are Davidson Galleries and Foster/White Gallery. (The latter began as the Richard White Gallery in 1969 before being purchased by Donald Foster in ’73.) Galleries closed, moved, changed hands, but the incipient scene in Pioneer Square gave some unity to a city nearly bereft of galleries as a whole, and where what existed felt inaccessible to potential collectors in the middle class. When First Thursday Art Walk began in 1984, a social life around art became more available at street level.

Seattle is a boomtown, and no stranger to economic bubbles. A degree of re-invention comes with each burst, and the arts have been deeply effected by the austerity that follows. Artists who are already accustomed to working other jobs to pay bills while making art may be able to pivot, but gallerists are more severely stuck. We saw a wave of closures following the last recession in 2009, but fortunately many weathered the downturn and others opened in its wake.

Alas, we still seem to have too few commercial galleries city-wide for the number of artists here, and so there is a particular sting to learning that we will be losing three spaces in Pioneer Square this August: Platform Gallery, Punch Gallery and Roq La Rue. But talking to the gallerists, one can be a little more sanguine about their departures, as each have their own reasons for moving on.

Stephen Lyons of Platform Gallery Goes Fully Online

In recent years, Platform Gallery’s founder and director Stephen Lyons noticed that visitors to the gallery website were not just viewing it as an archive, but a sort of catalog. By revamping the site to emphasize work available, he saw an uptick in online sales.

“Roughly half of gallery sales in the last 3 years have been to people who never set foot in the gallery,” Lyons says. This mode of buying online is new to many, and many gallerists are using e-commerce to conduct the transactions, sites like Artsy and Amazon Art. Lyons notes that dealer colleagues working on such platforms have seen frequent inquiries, but the wider audience these platforms provide come with a fee, and have not resulted in many sales. Lyons is going a different route.

“I am taking the opportunity to completely revamp the gallery site going forward. I will not be providing e-commerce as I do still want to have some sort of conversation with people even if only by email, if not by telephone conversation. I think the biggest disadvantage to not having a physical space is losing the opportunity for conversation about the work: the context, the artist’s intention, the reason why I think the work is important. Somehow I need to inject that into the online experience.”

Of course some work just can’t be properly experienced online, so Lyons will still show in pop-up exhibitions in non-traditional spaces.

This month, the gallery is celebrating a decade of work by Patte Loper. The adjectives I might use to describe Loper’s art describe a lot of the work shown at Platform: enigmatic, ambiguous, tense, playful.

Platform’s stable includes local and national artists, many of whom use their skills to subvert audiences’ expectations: masterfully doctored landscape photos by Stephen Hilyard; giant busts made of scrap cardboard by Scott Fife; and the crayon on mylar works of Stephen Andrews, which mimic visually degraded video stills.

I think in particular how hard it will be for viewers to appreciate the work of Andrews online (which places his meticulously crafted response to the digital image back in its native form), let alone three-dimensional work, particularly the exquisite carved sculpture of Matt Sellars.

But Lyons has taste and smarts, and I trust his efforts will continue to reach audiences…perhaps in ways that, like his artists, will subvert expectations.

Installation view of Scott Fife's exhibition American Beauty at Platform Gallery

Installation view of Scott Fife’s exhibition American Beauty at Platform Gallery. Image courtesy of Platform Gallery.

Justin Gibbens of PUNCH Gallery Is Still Town and Country

In March, PUNCH celebrated its tenth anniversary. It was founded by a group of artists from central Washington, who still live and work in across the Cascades but who enjoy the cultural exchange that occurs between the two environments and among artist-run spaces. To date, the group has mounted 110 exhibitions of enormous variety. The juried show last year curated by Julia Fryett (of Black Box Festival) was international in scope and a thought-provoking meditation on virtuality and emerging technology. Dylan Neuwirth‘s Absolute Zero started 2015 on a meditative note by turning the entire gallery into an impenetrable black box, lightless but for a circular glyph at the far end.

Because they are collective efforts and don’t require an emphasis on dealing, artist-run spaces can take more risks than commercial galleries, and this makes them especially important for emerging artists. Many emerging artists that PUNCH has shown have been picked up by commercial galleries, while others have simply been able to realize projects that couldn’t have happened anywhere else.

Among the founders of PUNCH is Justin Gibbens, who corresponded with me about the decision to close the space. Gibbens says the team will still be pursuing curatorial projects, mounting pop-up exhibitions and bridging “the urban-rural divide.”

“We believe it is no small feat to keep an artist-run gallery afloat in a big city, and perhaps it’s all the more impressive considering that PUNCH has done so, and notably by a bunch of scrappy kids from the sticks with a crazy dream,” he wrote.

“We’ve taken our gallery to major art fairs and we have mounted group exhibitions at museums and galleries throughout the region and beyond. In owning up to our original mission, not only have we been an active and vital part of the NW art scene for a decade, but dare we say we have had no small part in shaping it.”

Gibbens says the final exhibition will be a group installation by the five founding members (Justin Beckman, Howard Barlow, Renee Adams, Joanna Thomas and Gibbens) and will serve as a “gateway to a more project-focused approach” for the team, “shifting our mission toward building bridges between the urban cultural centers of the NW and the smaller rural communities among the fertile landscape from which PUNCH originated.”

Kirsten Anderson of Roq La Rue Looks to Africa

The oldest gallery leaving Pioneer Square is Roq La Rue, which was founded in 1998 by Kirsten Anderson and which has occupied several spaces in Seattle, growing in scale each time as its international roster gathered more clout. Anderson made a name for herself and for the Pop Surrealism genre, publishing the book that coined the term and serving seven years as the editor-at-large and writer for art glossy Hi Fructose.

“I held shows for over 18 years with the most prominent established and up-and-coming talent in the Pop Surrealism/New Contemporary scene, which frankly is all just contemporary art now,” Anderson says.

But all the while, she has also been devoted to conservation efforts, especially regarding African wildlife. Her gallery has donated portions of its sales to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and Big Life Foundation, founded by L.A.-based photographer Nick Brandt. In her public announcement of the plans to close, Anderson stated her intention to devote herself more fully to conservation, as “the world is in a state of emergency, and I’d like to be part of humanity that battles for the life and beauty that still exists.”

Anderson is still devoted to making the last few months of running the gallery a continued success while also developing plans for the future. As things are still in the works, she couldn’t be specific about the role she envisions in wildlife protection and conservation, but it would seem that through her the ideas of art patronage and environmental stewardship will intersect in more than superficial ways.

The Vibe of The Square at Present

As each of these gallerists stand at a crossroads, it is worth taking stock of how Pioneer Square itself is changing and what it means for the arts there long term.

For a city of its size, Seattle is already strapped for art spaces that connect working artists with audiences, especially collectors. It’s not easy to get a gallery started and it doesn’t exactly get easier to keep one going. A gallery isn’t like other businesses in that it is a sort of extended artwork in its own right, and artworks generally have a beginning and an end, as was the case with PUNCH.

Still, viability is the key factor, first in terms of the social scene that develops around and promotes the arts, and ultimately the need for patrons to actually buy works. Having a cluster of galleries builds the social element, and Anderson and Gibbens both noted that the First Thursday crowds create a buzz on opening nights that is rewarding, if not essential. The hard part (the actual marketing and placing of work with collectors and institutions) is less contingent on opening night, but foot traffic through an arts district does make a difference in sales.

Lyons and others galleries noticed a decline in visits when Elliot Bay Books moved from the Square to Capitol Hill. That move was also a matter of survival for the bookseller, who could not get even two devoted parking places from the city and was struggling in the square during the recession. Fortunately it has thrived on Capitol Hill, but galleries in the Square are still waiting for a more stable influx of visitors. Lyons believes that the opening of the Weyerhaeuser offices and the completion of the Stadium Place building will make a difference. How that will change the neighborhood or how it will improve foot traffic into galleries in the Square remains to be seen.

“One of the reasons galleries are located in and around the Square is that the neighborhood has been considered less desirable,” says Lyons, “or depending on your optimism, ‘quirky,’ which allows for lower rents than those commercial spaces in mid-town. I suspect that landlords in the Square will want to push for more ‘market rate’ rents as more transformation occurs. I don’t think that will have a positive impact on art galleries whose margins are thin to begin with. I think that is why we are seeing a wave of young, vibrant art presenters cropping up in Georgetown with its low rents and available space.”

Gallerist and artist Tariqa Waters and her family are among those already being displaced. Waters ran a gallery in the street-facing stairwell of her residence for over a year before having to move out suddenly this spring. Fortunately, the gallery will have a new home in the former Bud’s Jazz Records space, but it doesn’t bode well for the many other artists and residents of the square. When I reached out to her for comment, Waters was diplomatic, but said that, in spite of all the complexity the ideas of gentrification and development can entail, in many cases it really just boils down to dollars and cents.

“Pioneer Square will always have vibe,” she said. “Plenty of provisions are in place to preserve the architecture and history. For the vibe of the people and businesses that inhabit the neighborhood, however, not much is in place to protect us. If you read the land-use and development codes for Pioneer Square, there’s plenty of language to suggest that art and culture are of value, and I think there are some well-intentioned cats out there fighting the good fight. But at the end of the day money wins.”

And as for the shiny new Weyerhaeuser development?

“Weyerhauser attaches all kinds of altruism in describing their intentions for the Square, but no matter how they sell it, they gonna kill the vibe.”

In so many words, Waters sees a tendency among corporate workers to seek an insular elite lifestyle and a sense of tight security, which is stifling to both the individual and the culture at large.

“I still love it here and I’ll fight to stay, but there’s only room for me in the margins…and my style is beginning to feel really cramped.”

Even Anderson, who does not live in the Square and was not based here for as long as others, has noted a change.

I don’t see Pioneer Square developing in any way to be particularly nurturing to the arts. It’s more geared to sports and restaurants, but I do love it there,” she says. “The vibe is pretty great.”

Creating New Spaces Within the Old

Lyons remarked that Pioneer Square has been a neighborhood “always on the verge of ‘becoming.'” At this point, what it will become is more squarely in the hands of property owners and the city, but artists are not powerless, and there is proof of that all around.

One of the most lamented losses in past years was that of the 619 Western Building, a creative hive that was emptied in advance of Bertha’s deep-boring, disastrous debut (for legitimate safety concerns). Painter Jane Richlovsky was among the artists evicted, but founded the ’57 Biscayne artist studios in the historic Scheuermann Building on First Avenue and Cherry Street. Through an all-too rare collaboration between creatives and developers, Richlovsky, Greg Smith of Urban Visions Real Estate, Steve Coulter of ACT Theatre and Cherry Good Arts LLC (headed by Cherry Street Coffee House founder Ali Ghambari) have partnered to create the Good Arts LLC, which will renovate the building into a mixed use space: retail, studios and a gallery.

This is the exception, not the rule, and in most cases it’s less about seeing partnerships develop with landowners and more about the gallerists changing models and the expectations of the space. Gallery 110 has recently renovated its interior in a way that allows it to show two distinct shows simultaneously, and I feel it has already improved how the work presents in the space. Nearby, METHOD gallery has decided to shift entirely to large-scale installations specific to the space itself. And relative newcomers such as Treason Gallery are tapping younger audiences through an emphasis on art that feels decidedly urban, with a roster of local and national artists, many of whom have already made names for themselves outside of galleries.

Anderson also notes that through the internet, individual art scenes that were previously isolated have become more visible to each other. Meanwhile, local collectors seem to have been motivated by the Seattle Art Fair and the simultaneous, independent show of local artists, Out of Sight, but there is still the question everyone, everywhere seems to be asking: How do you develop new patrons?

PUNCH gallery during First Thursday Art Walk in Pioneer Square

PUNCH gallery during First Thursday Art Walk in Pioneer Square. Image courtesy of PUNCH Gallery.

It’s a questions that gallerists will always be asking, and is especially important to those who are just starting out. No one has easy answers, but I asked Gibbens if he had advice for artists thinking of establishing an artist-run space of their own.

“As a budding artist, a lot of stars have to align in order to get your work noticed. A big component of that has to do with familiarity and building relationships. We were confident that PUNCH would be a great way to build some of these necessary relationships and expose Seattle to the work that we were producing. It takes a ton of work to operate a gallery, but if you can find some motivated and like-minded artists, you can share in the responsibilities that come with making a good gallery great.”

“The model that worked for us was operating by way of a five-member Board of Directors. All of the gallery operations and decisions are done through our original five founding members. We have a rotating roster of artist members that contribute to gallery sitting and mounting solo exhibition, but the BOD takes care of the rest of the gallery business. My advice is that the core founding members of an artist-run space should be first and foremost good friends, because you’re more than likely going to be spending a lot of time together!”

One final question remains in my mind regarding the future of Pioneer Square: its official designation as an arts district. Which is to say, it does not have that distinction. It is an historic district, but when the City of Seattle launched its Arts & Cultural District designation program, Capitol Hill was the first to acquire it, and now the Central Area. Based on other developments, I’m guessing 2017 will be Pioneer Square’s year. No other Seattle neighborhood has such a density of galleries and creative spaces as Pioneer Square, so it seems the most natural candidate.

The Arts District designation is meant to help preserve and sustain spaces where art is made and presented, including non-profit spaces and commercial galleries. But in the case of Capitol Hill and Central Area, both were in the late stages of gentrification when the designation was applied, and as Pioneer Square is headed for the same fate, one wonders if this designation is only applied to such neighborhoods and what it will really do for the people living and working there.

As the Office of Arts & Culture looks to occupy the second floor of King Street station starting next year (the site of Out of Sight and other independent curatorial projects by local art collectives), it will probably be seen as just the right time for the city to make Pioneer Square official as an arts district. Who will still be here at that time…well, that remains to be seen.

Update 1:oopm, May 19: The article originally stated that artist Patte Loper was local. She is based in Brooklyn.

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.