It's been a hell of a year for ConWorks. February brought the great Richter shit storm, when the board fired the founding executive director without warning or explanation, angering not only Matthew Richter's partisans, but those who poured sweat equity into ConWorks on his behalf.
Then silence (excepting the Richter-commissioned Trimpin exhibit and the hiring of Richter's replacement, out-of-towner Corey Pearlstein).
For most of the year, the building seemed abandoned—so abandoned that the doors were left unlocked at night. One night a couple of months ago I snuck in and strolled around. I poured myself a glass of wine from the bar and wandered, in part to get a sense of the mood at ConWorks (there was none), in part because trespassing in theaters is a guilty pleasure. (Like banks and prisons, they are designed to only let you see the tip of an architectural iceberg that is supported by a hidden mass of ingenious machinery and closely guarded secrets.)
ConWorks is a 35,000-square-foot tabula rasa of concrete, sheetrock, and steel. My echoing footsteps sounded like a herd of toddlers wearing tap shoes. It is "the kind of place that needs to be filled by the community," the new artistic director Pearlstein has said. He's right.
There are new signs of renewed life. Pearlstein has announced February–March theater programming, including Tim Miller (solo performer, founding member of PS 122, and one of the NEA Four); Kate Rigg, Lyris Hung, and Leah Ryan (a spoken-word/violin/comedy trio from NYC); Guillermo Gómez-Peña (a Mexico City performance artist/"techno-shaman-in-drag"); and Joe Von Appen (the Portland solo wunderkind). Pearlstein is also putting the finishing touches on music programming (Degenerate Art Ensemble, NYC's Slanty Eyed Mama) and visual art (a Gary Hill video piece, a wall devoted to tagging and murals).
Pearlstein acknowledged in an interview that it's a lineup light on Seattle talent but says when he started in September, many locals were already sewn up with projects until spring. He also says he isn't afraid to bring out-of-towners to meet and work with our sometimes artistically xenophobic locals. "I want to get interflow and collaboration between national and local artists," he said. "I'm not going to wait for permission to make art. I'm going to make bold choices and put my ass on the table for people to take shots."
There are plenty of people who want to take shots at ConWorks, if not Pearlstein. "People will say 'I'm a very close friend of Matt's and I'm wary,'" he said. "But they will talk and share their ideas. People see that ConWorks is a valuable idea whose time has not passed. Really, I'm here because Matt and Meg [Shiffler, cofounder] built a great space with an incredible vision. The proof will be in the product... then we can begin the conversation about what ConWorks is." And whether it will fully return to life or lapse into an echo chamber gone silent.