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Protestors at Boeing, Seattle, 1970, photo by Timothy Eagan. Seattle P–I Collection, Museum of History & Industry, Seattle.

Protestors at Boeing, Seattle, 1970, photo by Timothy Eagan. Seattle P–I Collection, Museum of History & Industry, Seattle.


Forty Years And Counting

Marcie Sillman

Later this month Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is set to announce his pick to run the city's Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs. It used to be called the Seattle Arts Commission. The office oversees Seattle's cultural community. Whoever the Mayor taps for the job will have to lead at a time when public money has been cut — cut for the arts and everything else. Oddly enough, the financial situation is a lot like it was 40 years ago when the Seattle Arts Commission was established. Today, in the first story in our series "Culture Shock," KUOW's Marcie Sillman looks at the history and evolution of the Arts Commission.


The year 1971 was not a happy time in Seattle.

News reader: "The Boeing Company today received notice of termination of the firm's supersonic transport program and is proceeding to take the necessary layoff actions. Seattle's hard–pressed economy will lose 7,000 more jobs."

On March 25, 1971, The Seattle Times reported that by the end of the year, Boeing would lay off about 15,000 Seattle–area workers. All told, between 1970 and 1973, more than 50,000 Puget Sound–area Boeing employees lost their jobs.

Uhlman: "Seattle was really down at its heels."

Wes Uhlman was elected Seattle mayor in 1970. He governed during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. An infamous billboard commemorated the dire situation.

Uhlman: "Ah, 'Will the last person to leave Seattle turn out the lights?' All of us remember that. But those of us in public office remember it particularly well, because we had to do less with less. So, we were laying off police, laying off firefighters, doing things nobody's doing yet here in Seattle."

At its nadir, regional unemployment hit 17 percent, almost twice as high as it was in late 2010. Suicide hotlines counseled the hopeless. Newspapers published recipes for horsemeat and other Depression–era dishes. With public dollars stretched to their limits, it wasn't an ideal time for city government to launch an arts program. But that's exactly what happened.

Uhlman: "I felt very strongly we should be doing something to add some life and vitality, make us all feel better and maybe divert attention from some of the sad things that were going on economically."

On June 1, 1971, the Seattle City Council passed the ordinance that established the Seattle Arts Commission. Its mission: to conduct public programs that would further awareness of, and interest in the arts. Actually, city involvement in the arts had its roots 15 years earlier, with the Municipal Arts Commission. In 1956, this group laid out its comprehensive vision of a world–class city that included arts, culture and an international fair.

The 1962 World's Fair was a catalyst for Seattle's cultural community.

Donnelly: "At the end of the World's Fair, the city was left with 84 acres of renovated property, left with a legacy of buildings, including a civic auditorium that was the Opera House, the Space Needle, the Playhouse at Seattle Center."

The late Peter Donnelly came to Seattle not long after the fair to be a management intern at the new Seattle Repertory Theatre. Donnelly went on to run the Rep. Later, he headed the Corporate Council for the Arts, now called ArtsFund. In a 2006 interview, Donnelly traced the development of Seattle's arts community after 1962.

Donnelly: "The town was ambitious after the World's Fair. It finally started to feel its own muscle. All of a sudden it wanted to put in place the things cities with big aspirations had in place. The arts were an important component of all that."

A slew of professional arts organizations developed and grew in the decade after the fair and that brings us to 1971, the year the Seattle Arts Commission was established. A young attorney named Paul Schell lobbied hard for the commission.

Schell: "It was a chance, not unlike the period we're in now, we got a chance to sit down and think about what place do we want to be."

Schell and his allies envisioned a government department that would be the leading voice for arts and urban design.

Schell: "It's not a bunch of people sitting around spending taxpayer money on cute projects. The main job is to be leaders, to inspire people, to engage people, to ask people to help."

Good thing, because there wasn't much taxpayer money to spend. The commission's first annual budget was only $35,000. By the turn of the 21st century, Paul Schell had become mayor and the Arts Commission budget had swelled into the millions. It funded public artwork, new homes for theaters, the opera, symphony and ballet. Over the years, the commission has awarded $18 million to hundreds of artists and arts organizations in the city. Despite these funding activities, Susan Trapnell, who directed the commission in 2000, says the agency didn't have a clear mission.

Trapnell: "We've not had the time to sit down and say, What do we believe public funding for the arts should do? What can it do? What is the role?"

Given the current economic crisis, Trapnell believes that conversation is more important than ever. Like every city department, the Seattle Arts Commission, now called the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, has had to downsize. In 2009 the City Council cut all general operating fund support for the office. They replaced that funding with a percentage of a tax on ticket sales to commercial entertainment. But the lingering recession has left Seattle with a huge budget shortfall. In late 2010 Mayor Mike McGinn recommended that part of the admissions tax revenue be redirected from the arts to the city's parks department.

McGinn: "The question is, is art frivolous or fluff, is raised. The answer is, no, it's not. By the same token, it can't be separated out from the rest of the budget and be held harmless. We need to be smart about our dollars across the board."

The mayor's decision raised red flags. Artist Dan Corson is a member of the volunteer citizen's commission that advises the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs. Corson says he understands that every city department took a budget hit. But he's not happy about the admission tax reallocation.

Corson: "A couple of years ago we went off the public fund altogether and the reason was so we'd be politically isolated from these things, and that if there were going to be economic hardships that were going to come, we could actually go through unscathed."

Former Arts Commission director Susan Trapnell says she's not happy to see dedicated arts funding diverted for other purposes. But she says the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs can't be exempt from City Hall budget cuts.

Trapnell: "I think the notion of trying to separate the arts from political decisions, to take the politics out of arts — I think that it's fooling ourselves."

The new head of Seattle's Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs will have to figure out how to do more with less, at least temporarily. The city's near term economic prognosis is grim. Former Mayor Wes Uhlman says in times like these it's tempting to make more budget cuts. But even with the economy almost as bad as it was 40 years ago during the Boeing Bust, Uhlman believes that arts and culture should be a basic city service.

Uhlman: "If you don't have sources of funds for culture and arts activities, your city is not a total city — not fully a city."

In other words, it's not fill the potholes or fund the art, it's both.

I'm Marcie Sillman, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2011, KUOW

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