When I moved here in 1985 to be managing director of Seattle Repertory Theatre, Charley Royer was mayor and I took note that the executive director of the Seattle Arts Commission served in the mayor’s cabinet. This unique position for arts and culture in city government may have resulted from a strong personal connection between Royer and Carl Petrick, who ran the city’s arts agency, or the mayor came to value the role of arts and culture on his own. In any case, that proximity was not preserved in subsequent administrations. In much of the 1990s and into the new century, the cultural sector in our city and region remained fractious — not sufficiently unified or organized to withstand the forces that diminished its position and profile in the wake of repeating waves of change driven by technology, altered consumer behavior, quakes in the economy and the like, not to mention removal of the arts from basic education.
Notwithstanding these forces and the acute constraints rising from the Great Recession, cultural sector organizations have been resourceful in conserving resources and agile in adapting business systems and optimizing productivity. However, all of us in this sector are operating on the margins by one degree or another. It is a scrappy bunch, but as a group we are oddly incapable of effective communication about our challenges, our value proposition and how to capitalize our missions. This situation correlates with the behavior of a sector that remains in its infancy as a source of political engagement and advocacy, in spite of being vested in this region for more than half a century. This may account in part for the fact that Washington state ranks near last in per capita funding for arts and culture.
Now that’s all changing. We may have some distance to go to be recognized as an economic driver, as a player at the table, as a resource for solving problems, as a partner in education. But we have worked to strengthen ties between ourselves across the sector through a chain of collective enterprises with collaborations between two organizations, then five of us, and nine, and now all the way up to 35 and 40, with a reach that will soon extend across the state. To fuel each of these ventures, we sought support from local funders with some success early on, but lately, our colleagues in culture have dedicated their own resources to advance these collective endeavors. These collaborations have made us more conscious of our capacity to be of influence, of our potential muscle as a political player and the critical value of thinking and working together, in spite of our difference. It is the diversity of size and discipline that makes our region’s cultural sector a strong partner in building healthy and sustainable communities.
This newfound influence was manifest in the recent legislative session and the efforts of the Cultural Access Washington coalition to pass legislation that will enable any county government across the state to establish a local fund dedicated to increased public access to arts, science, heritage and other cultural programs, especially for youth and underserved communities. The legislation did not pass, but a broader coalition with defined governance carried this effort further than in the seven years we’ve been trying to get traction in Olympia. Conversations and connections with legislators were truly bipartisan as government officials began connecting the dots between a strong cultural sector, greater economic vitality and basic education. There is new confidence that we can achieve our objective to secure the necessary legislative authority in 2015.
The growing cohesion in the cultural sector may be at risk today because of a sea change in leadership, with several positions in the region’s cultural institutions changing hands. On the other hand, there are strong indications of a sustainable future, with smart choices at Pacific Northwest Ballet (Ellen Walker) and the EMP Museum (Patty Isacson Sabee) that suggest a steady path forward with capable internal leaders, as well as the appointment of highly qualified successors at Seattle Opera (Aidan Lang) and Seattle Rep (Jeffrey Herrmann).
This signals a distinct shift to the next generation of leadership with the promise of fresh energy to fuel the sector’s new capacity as agents of change. It is all the more evident with the recent passing of Jerry Manning, Seattle Rep’s artistic director. Jerry always looked to the future generation with his repeating refrain, “Give the keys to the kids!” His unexpected departure will prove the truth and value of this impulse and add energy to the proposition that a stronger cultural community will add vitality across all sectors of society.