A baffling art heist in Pioneer Square has left some artists wary about opening their doors to the public on First Thursdays. Eight paintings by Susan A. Lockwood were reportedly stolen from her studio at 619 Western Ave. late Christmas Day or early the day after, along with other works of art, tools, and music equipment from adjoining workspaces.
Although the building had been broken into before, Lockwood and her fellow artists were surprised by the theft of so much art. When she was notified of the break-in by police, Lockwood said, "I thought, 'I don't have anything to worry about. What would [a thief] do with my paintings?'" Though each canvas was priced between $350 and $1,000, Lockwood acknowledges that she doesn't have a big enough name to command high figures on the black market. Paintings like hers can't be pawned, and at nearly 3 feet square, they're too large to be easily hidden or transported.
Seattle Police Department spokesperson Rich Pruitt said this kind of art theft is pretty rare. Apparently, once the thief or thieves gained entry to the building, they took their time prying open and breaking down studio doors. They were choosy about what they took, rifling through stacks of canvases, taking favorites, and leaving others. They nabbed a single piece from Lockwood's studio mate, Marcia Riwney—the biggest and most valuable she had. They also paused long enough to drink a bottle of wine they found in Riwney's refrigerator. "They only liked white," Lockwood said. "We had a whole case of reds, and they didn't touch those."
The missing paintings represent months of effort by Lockwood and Riwney, and both artists say they are deeply discouraged. "When you're working on something a long time—anything, whether it's a quilt or some other project—once it's gone there's a real sense of loss," Riwney said. "We don't feel comfortable. The thought of being open again on First Thursday—we're going to be really suspicious." Said Lockwood: "I like that First Thursday makes art and artists accessible to people, but this makes me feel differently about it." Both artists plan to keep their studios closed this Thursday, Jan. 5.
Not every Pioneer Square studio and gallery is as vulnerable as those at 619 Western. Tina Bueche, a longtime neighborhood business owner and activist, said 619 is "a great building, but problematic. They're a multistory building with multiple units, and no one at the front door. The door is open during the day, and people are free to walk in." Because so many tenants come and go, "there are lots of keys, tons of keys," in circulation.
SPD's Pruitt said that once people gain entry to a building like 619, "they can go upstairs, and there are lots of places to hide" until tenants leave. Also, landlords that offer affordable rent to artists aren't usually in the habit of installing high-tech security devices—cameras and electronic alarm systems—like those at established galleries.
The owner of one gallery, James Harris, on Third Avenue South, said he doesn't have any major concerns about security in regard to First Thursdays. He noted that anybody can come in and case any gallery any day of the week. "Any business open to the public, you take that risk," he said. He called the thefts at 619 Western "a tragic sort of flattery: It's terrible they got stolen, but someone must've really loved those paintings."
That's small comfort to Lockwood, who is now kicking herself for not getting around to insuring her work. "It was on my list of things to investigate in the new year," she said. In the meantime, she's getting over the incident the best way she knows how—by returning to her studio, and painting.