Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Tale of two cities: companies boost arts in Seattle

It all started at the fair -- the World's Fair of 1962, which not only gave Seattle its Space Neddle, monorail, and fairgrounds, but an opera house, an art museum, a home for a theater company, and a resolve to become the cultural capital of the Northwest.

Nearly 20 years later the city is a virtual arts mecca. some people wonder whether it can continue given cutbacks in public funding. Others insist that the arts have become an essential part of Seattle's elusive but all-important "livability."

About these ads

Fueled by a love-hate fascination, Seattle's business and arts communities have forged a strange, delicate, mutually beneficial partnership. Today, both communities are juggling books, space, visions, and plans to maintain the quality in an arts-rich, money-poor enveironment.

"After the World's Fair we began to see ourselves as a city in the European sense," says Karen Gates, director of the Seattle Arts Commission. That civic pride has helped spur a $30-million-a-year arts industry, four equity theaters, an opera that mounts one of the world's few complete cycles of Wagner's Ring,m and a range of professional dance companies and orchestras.

Noontime performances (supported by 24 businesses) spice up downtown lunch hours. A number of corporations buy Northwest artists' works to hang in offices. Cement trucks carry the message "get Mixed Up with the Seattle Opera." Colorful posters advertising arts events grace many windows. One percent of public construction budgets is earmarked for artwork; even the city's manhole covers are cast under artists' directions.

Ironically, an economic depression helped improve the climate for the arts. When the Boeing Company laid off tens of thousands in the early 1970s, the economy suffered. The city realized that if it was to grow the way it wanted, it had to attract a diverse group of non-polluting industries -- the sort whose managers are attracted by and support the arts.

At the same time, a typically atypical coalition of neighborhood, business, and arts advocates created Allied Arts, which one of its creators dubbed an "urban Sierra Club." After successfully saving the city's 1907-vintage farmers market from being leveled, the group lobbied for a city arts commission that would support both established and experimental arts agencies. The idea worked. County and statelevel commissions were also established, and Seattle becamce the US city with the largest per capita public support for the arts -- about $3 today.

Because the public funds require matching private dollars, arts organizations were forced to beat the local bushes for support. Some businesses are glad to have arts commissions to consult for advice on which agencies deserve funding. But according to Robert Gustavson, challenge grants are a "turnoff to the corporate sector. They'd rather sit down with hard economic statistics. Businessmen don't like to be nudged into support. They like to lead."

Seattle's business community is leading through the organization Mr. Gustavson directs -- the Corporate Council for the Arts (CCA), a foundation run, managed, and financed by businesses for the purpose of providing operating funds for arts organizations. "We spend a lot of time with economic analysis, to determine which organizations are pulling their own weight," says Mr. Gustavson from behind his corporatefunded minicomputer, which spills out financial information on local arts organizations.

About these ads

This year the CCA collected $875,000 from 236 companies. About 85 percent of that goes to the six big established arts institutions -- the Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera, Seattle Art Museum, Seattle Repertory Theater, A contemporary Theater, and the Pacific northwest Ballet. The rest is for other, newer visul and performing arts groups with at least two years' experience.

The CCA has also helped apply businesslike efficiency to arts organizations. The symphony, opera, ballet, and repertory theater now share conference rooms as they work out of adjacent offices. They pool mailing lists. And the opera, symphony, and ballet write joint contracts with musicians. "This guarantees that we get the best orchestra in the pit for the opera and ballet, and it guarantees year-round employment for musicians," explains Llloyd Yunker, director of finance and development for the Seattle Opera Association.

But despite savings inspired by the CCA, Mr. Gustavson and his computer stir controversy in the Seattle arts world. Many feel the CCA should be able to raise three or four times as much money (the 1982 goal: $1 million). Some complain that the very facts-and-figures efficiency that corporate members like about the CCA robs arts partronage of the human touch that has been its historical hallmark.

Seattle Trust & Savings Bank pulled out its $3,000 annual contribution two years ago to start a $50,000-a-year guest artist program. The "big six" arts institutions can tap this fund to bring big-name artists to town to prform -- and to conduct seminars or master classes in the community.

The boeing Company, while staying a major supporter of the corporate council has begun a program to put its money where its employees' tastes are. Last year it offered to match employee gifts to arts groups raning from$25 to $250. Several other local firms also match employee gifts to the arts.

Pacific Northwest Bell, in addition a $35,000 CCA contribution, donates vans, printing, and other services to arts organizations. Cornish Institute, a private art school, rns a program out of donated office space at the Seattle Chamber of Commerce that matches 100 volunteers with Seattle arts organizations to help with everything from legal services to grant writing and bookkeeping. Nancy Meier, who directs the program, estimates that Business Volunteers for the Arts contributed $250,000 worth of "business know-how" to 45 arts groups in the past year.

"It's taken all these years to get where we are today. In a sense all that youthful energy has spent itself. We're taking a hard look at what's next," comments Karen Gates of the Seattle Arts Commission. Improved arts quality and performance space are two main issues she foresees. And money.

While the city arts commission is only affected by a 5 percent across-the-board funding cut this year, the county arts commission is threatened with cuts of 50 percent or more. Local arts organizations stand to lose at least $500,000 if proposed federal cutback occur. Some residents worry the cuts will eliminate some of the most innovative or pioneering work. Others say the arts flourish more in adversity.

Seattle Opera's Lloyd Yunker observes: "What corporations are saying is, "Don't come to us to replace government funding.' But what's going on in the boardrooms is an new look at the needs of the arts, and the responsibility of corporations to help keep them alive. I'm hopeful in the long run."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.