The paradoxical outcome is that Seattle arts are too big, or at least grew too fast. In my experience working in the arts while running Town Hall, 1998-2006, I came to believe that the key determinant of quality in the arts is the knowledgeability, the passion, and the willingness to take risks, of the audience. Outgrow that natural core audience too much, as Seattle has done with its enormously outsized audiences per capita, and you have a lot of unknowledgeable, fickle folks sitting in those seats and wanting reliable, easily digestible entertainment before heading back out to the suburbs to get to bed by 11. For those audiences, art is not part of life; it’s the occasional big night out, so it better be certifiably “good.”

In such a setting, the programming gets conservative — and Seattle is something of an extreme case in this regard. An organization like the Seattle Symphony has to do lots of pops programs, and always have a name composer or a name soloist in the show. Seattle Opera can rarely afford to do a contemporary work. The Rep, now in a tailspin, has to fill up a large hall of 800 seats for weeks’ running; that greatly reduces its ability to take chances. On the other hand, a smallish, hugely knowledgeable audience for something like On the Boards or the Early Music Guild produces some of the leading work in the country.

Another thing that happens when you put the major arts organizations on steroids is that the mid-sized organizations falter and die. Seattle used to have chamber dance groups, chamber orchestras, contemporary music groups, ethnic theater — now mostly gone. (By contrast, they are flourishing in Portland.) Fully mature artistic capitals have a vibrant mid-sized sector (budgets ranging from $3 to $8 million). That’s where budgets are manageable, audiences are risk-takers, board training takes place, and tickets are affordable. It’s where the next artistic breakthroughs can take place. And the artistic experience is more intimate and enthralling for close-up audiences.

There’s one more mismatch in our rush to the big time. The creative economy, of which Seattle is one of the leaders, attracts a young, experimental, eclectic population — yet we have put nearly all our chips on a very middle class, older, and respectable set of institutions. Think for instance of are few arts venues carved out warehouses, breweries, railroad roundhouses, armories, or massive concrete grain silos, quite common in other cities. Instead, EMP aside, we have quite conventional, even corporate architecture housing our major arts groups. The main venue, Seattle Center, is a suburbanized zone for the arts, blocks away from real urban streets or lively ethnic neighborhoods.

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David Brewster
Crosscut

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