Onward and upward

After a decade of decline, the arts community is newly galvanized.

AUTUMN: SEASON OF mists and mellow fruitfulness! Bumbershoot! The first Husky game!

Autumn: time of beginnings! That new fall wardrobe! Back to school! The start of a new arts season!

Yes, I said "!" and I meant "!". For the first time in years, I'm actually looking forward to the opening of the grand cultural round. Not because the art on offer is unusually exciting—on average and across the board, not much gets the pulse pounding—but because of a change in the atmosphere. I keep seeing signs that on the arts front Seattle may be awakening from a near-decade of drowsy complacent decline, thanks to Seattle-based artists realizing that ultimately the only people who care enough about art to keep art alive are artists, and getting off their dead collective ass to do something about that.

Collective artistic effort isn't new to Seattle: The Empty Space never did better work than during its mid-70s experiment in democracy, and more recently Annex Theater and D-9 Dance Collective have shown the power of the concept. But in the main, interartist and interdiscipline collective effort has been in slow decline for 20 years. In exchange for a chance to turn over the scut work of administration, fundraising, lobbying, and marketing to someone else, artists were willing to accept the role of jobbed-in employees: indentured servants of the very institutions created, in theory, to serve them.

It took the April dismissal of Mark Murphy as artistic director of On the Boards to shatter that passivity like a crystal goblet assaulted by a diva's high C. Maybe it was because OTB serves such a broad spectrum of artists—musicians, actors, visual artists, dancers—or maybe because the dismissal was so crudely handled and ineptly justified. Whatever the reason, literally hundreds of local creative types suddenly realized that access to an audience, to the tools of their trade, to their very livelihood, could be shut down by the whim of a set of ill-informed amateurs "serving" the organization as its (state-mandated) board of directors.

It took a month for the OTB board to reverse its catastrophic mistake (albeit as ungraciously as possible). Still, the whole ugly business was almost worth it for the sense of community generated among the artists who wrote letters, leafleted, lobbied, and demonstrated to bring about the irreplaceable Murphy's reinstatement. For the first time in local memory, artists had fought for a purely artistic goal and won. Three months later, the fizz continues.

In the context of the continuing reverberations from OTB, other recent events take on more weight than they would in isolation. It still remains to be seen, for instance, whether the venerable art advocacy group Allied Arts can reinvent itself for a cultural ecology very different from the suaver, stuffier time of its founding more than a generation ago. But its issuance this spring of a 10-point "bill of rights" for the arts indicates at least the will to adapt.

Allied Arts reacted with barely tepid approval to Mayor Schell's long-acoming response to the report of the task force he appointed last winter to help shape city arts policy. The response, consisting in the main of cautious, small-scale tweaks to the status quo, is easy to be tepid about. But if Schell is serious about putting the muscle of the executive department behind its recommendations, the report may turn out to be the blueprint for the first real injection of energy into municipal cultural policy since the Seattle Arts Commission was founded nearly 30 years ago.

THE SINGLE MOST important thing the city can do for the arts—to throw its weight behind the repeal or radical rewriting of the teen dance ordinance—isn't part of the main task force report, but it looks like the Mayor's staff has persuaded him that Seattle's most vital art form deserves the same encouragement that the traditional genres do (see "All ages rebirth?" on page 39)—especially when nobody's asking the city to subsidize it, just give it a fair chance to make it on its own.

Another modest but worthy aspect of the Mayor's arts plan is an initiative to make sure vacant city facilities are made available to arts groups in intermittent need of space (see "Watch this space," p. 31). But access to auditoria at Langston Hughes and the Bathhouse won't resolve a space crunch driven as much by prosperity and consequent development as any artistic imperative. That's why the opening this fall of Consolidated Works' Artificial Life is important out of all proportion to its limited temporal extent. It took cooperation from a visionary producer (Matt Richter), an imaginative property developer (Vulcan Northwest), and an amenable city to turn a huge due-for-demolition warehouse space into a two-month multimedia extravaganza.

Artificial Life is the first course in what Richter and his backers hope will be an ongoing movable feast, cooked up by independent artists eager to work on a scale forbidden by traditional arts venues and served to audiences eager to meet new work directly and in the raw, without the institutional swaddling that softens and smooths out the most savage imaginings.

Cross-genre collaboration is of the essence for Richter, not merely for novelty's sake but because in an age saturated with commercial media, serious artists need the range and depth and intensity of multimedia collaboration merely to compete for attention. Wagner didn't invent the Gesamtkunstwerk: as far back in history as we can peer, we see artists collaborating to make music and movement and images and words express more than each can alone. And the farther back we peer, the clearer it is that such efforts were more than expressions of individuals, however gifted; they were driven by the needs and visions of a community.

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