Seattle Survives Economy, Earthquake

Seattle Survives Economy, Earthquake – Seattle, Washington’s art industry

Jennifer Wong

The Emerald City was shaken but not stirred after recent earthquake and economic crises

Seattle, a.k.a. The Emerald City, sparkled in the news during the 1990s and has enjoyed 19 straight years of economic expansion fueled in part by powerhouses like Microsoft and Starbucks. Seattle became the cradle for the dot.com community and the unofficial capital of young, brash hip-ness.

Recently, however, Seattle’s image has begun to tarnish, beginning with the WTO riots in 1999, the recent Mardi Gras ruckus in which one man died and a 6.8-Richter-level earthquake which caused $2 billion in damage. Microsoft is under litigation fire, the dot.com industry’s bubble has burst, and finally, Boeing, the largest employer in the state, has announced it is seeking suitors for a new headquarters.

What effect do these natural and economic disasters have on a relatively young arts community? Less than you might imagine. Seattle has worked diligently over the last 35 years to bring about the birth of a thriving cultural life. In fact, the growth of cultural organizations and galleries in Seattle has been matched by few parts of the country.

“The population has expanded, and the city has become more sophisticated” said Dwight Gee, vice president of the Corporate Council for the Arts. “The demand for art is very high, and there is a very strong base of facilities here.” Indeed, in the last decade, the area has invested more than $900 million in cultural facilities. This bodes well for the burgeoning population of the Puget Sound region which grew by more than half a million people in the last decade to more than 3.3 million people. Seattle itself has a population of 540,000, and nearly one million more people are expected to move to the region in the next 25 years or so.

“People are using the arts heavily” said Gee. “Our last annual impact study showed an annual audience of 6 million for cultural institutions in the King County metropolitan area. The Corporate Council for the Arts’ 1997 annual impact study found these patrons spent more than $222 million with tickets and admissions accounting for $90 million of these expenditures. “The arts community here is strong, and it has become an important center nationally for the arts,” said Gee.

With more people in the area demanding a lively cultural life, Seattle only has room to grow. Its local art galleries are set against an increasingly renowned arts community that is home to the Pacific Northwest Ballet and the Seattle Symphony. And the Seattle Art Museum gained national recognition in May for its most ambitious show ever, “Treasures From A Lost Civilization: Ancient Chinese Art from Sichuan.”

“There is a great reputation in Seattle for the arts,” said Ashley Fosberg, director of marketing for the Seattle Art Museum. “I think we have the reputation that we’ve all worked hard to get out there. Now it’s real.”

“I’ve been telling my friends from out of town for years that this is one of the best places to buy art,” said Hannah Durasoff, gallery manager of the Bryan Ohno Gallery, which specializes in contemporary sculpture, painting and photography. “You can find the caliber of art in Seattle that you find in any of the major metropolitan centers of the world. But you have more personal dealings with the dealers here rather than trying to hash your way through someplace like New York which can be rather overwhelming.”

Despite the disappearing dot.com’s, lay-offs and a stock market shakedown, Gee isn’t sure that the arts community will be affected greatly. “Dot.com’s were never in a profitable situation,” said Gee. “It was a bubble in certain ways. Those companies weren’t making corporate gifts and hadn’t been around enough to get rooted in the community.”

“The general feeling of prosperity has been tempered,” said Sam Davidson, owner of the 28-year-old Davidson Galleries which specializes in antique and contemporary prints, sculpture and painting. “The dot.com’s were never a big part of our business, but they helped generate a prosperous atmosphere.”

Davidson noted that while there is still a lot of new money in Seattle, most galleries and the art scene in general haven’t seen much of it yet. “Many of them are young and have no background or exposure to art. They’ve been so focused and driven with what they are doing. Now they are spending money on more immediate things like houses, cars and vacations.”

Davidson continued, “I think we’ll see it another four or five years down the line, once they’ve been in their homes for a while and finished getting cars and whatever else.”

Davidson reported slow sales since the beginning of the year, however, due to bad press generated by the earthquake and Mardi Gras riots centered around the city’s historic Pioneer Square District which houses the heart of the city’s art gallery scene. He thinks it’s only a temporary downturn, “but then only fools and optimists get into the art business,” he said.

A rebound in foot traffic for the galleries in Pioneer Square and an increase in sales and support for openings of primary shows in the area are already occurring. Seattle-ites are putting the earthquake images of rubble and devastation behind them. It turns out that most galleries were unaffected by the quake and endured a closure of a day or two in order for engineers to check the safety of their buildings’ structures.

“Our sales aren’t reliant on our Seattle clients,” said Beth Cullom, manager and assistant director of Carolyn Staley Fine Japanese Prints. “We recognize that we’ve got to be in touch with the rest of the country so that when something like an earthquake and a Mardi Gras riot happens in one month, we are still selling to the rest of the country.”

Seattle’s local galleries have been reaching out to national and international markets for some time. It started in the 1970s when Dale Chihuly, one of the founders of the Pilchuk Glass School, turned Seattle into a magnet for glass artists from around the world. There is an urban legend which remains unconfirmed that Seattle has more hot shops within its city limits than any other city in the world, including Murano in Venice, Italy. Today, the Pilchuk Glass School lists more than 500 artists in its database in the Seattle area and estimates there are probably 1,200 in the greater western Washington area.

“Glass was once considered a craft, and now it’s considered a fine art form. For people who are interested in contemporary glass, Seattle has become the destination,” said Jim Mattei of the 28-year-old Foster/White Gallery, which represents Dale Chihuly, Northwest masters like Graves, Tobey and Callahan and other Northwest painters and sculptors.

Seattle is also home to galleries that represent native art unique to the Pacific Northwest coast. “People are very excited about native art,” said Jewelia Rosenbaum of Stonington Gallery, which represents master native artists. “It has evolved into a wonderful kind of contemporary art that combines traditional elements with contemporary vision” Rosenbaum sells to buyers from all over the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia.

In addition to Seattle’s individual galleries, several art expositions are establishing themselves here for the first time. The Art Furnishings Show held in southern California is launching a Seattle show early next year while the Asia Pacific Show launched a show in January. The International Vintage Poster Fair, which shows in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Houston, also opened a successful show in Seattle in February.

The International Fine Print Dealers Association held its first Seattle show in January which pleased its national dealers so much they said they all would be back next year.

Cullom noted the success of the International Fine Print Dealers Show and said, “Historically, people have tended to look to the East coast for their art, but there is a general sense that it is time to turn some of the focus to the West coast. People are moving out here and there is a lot of high-tech money along the West coast.”

Support from its ever-growing local population is important to the local galleries, as well. They have banded together to create a first Thursday gallery walk which has occurred at the beginning of every month for roughly 20 years. The galleries have also joined forces to produce a mailer called the Seattle Gallery Exhibitions, which is mailed to their combined mailing lists. Gallery owners have cited it as an enormous help to all of them. “It gives the impression that there is a more cohesive and extensive art scene,” said Davidson.

Seattle, with its stunning natural beauty, unique blend of hipsters and visionary business owners, is growing in sophistication and offering to the world all the attractions of a world-class city. And though the Seattle art community in the last few months has been shaken, it has definitely not been stirred.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Pfingsten Publishing, LLC

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group