The Case for Mike McGinn: Part 3
He's the Culture Candidate
To be honest, I'm slightly chagrined to find myself writing the third installment of this Perpetual Adoration of Saint Michael. The Stranger has thrown so much unqualified weight behind the man, it's starting to get a little boring. The contrarian in me had hoped to come out swinging for Joe Mallahan just to break the tedium.
Nevertheless, here I am, endorsing Captain Beardo's culture platform, because—it cannot be denied—it beats Captain Cell Phone's.
Neither candidate had shown a deep interest in arts and culture prior to the election, but there's no shame in that. As writer Jonathan Raban pointed out in an e-mail: "Given their lack of experience on more conventional mayoral issues, that's probably a good thing. One wouldn't want to see either of them ducking early out of city hall for a night at the opera, or whiling away a weekend over Anna Karenina."
We don't need an art critic for mayor. We need a mayor who understands two foundational facts: (1) Culture—music, theater, film, literature, art—is a constituency that generates billions of dollars in sales, tens of thousands of jobs, and over a billion dollars in tax revenue; and (2) culture is not an add-on—it is fundamental to the city's intellectual, aesthetic, and financial health.
Arts funding isn't a handout that disappears into a black hole of elitist erudition. It's a practical investment with high returns. In 2005, Seattle's Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs had a budget of $2.57 million—minus money for public art, which would bring the figure closer to $4 million—and local arts organizations, with the help of OACA, returned $12.3 million in local government revenue. That's not counting state revenue or dollars that went to private businesses (lumber for sets, bar and restaurant revenue, hotel rooms for the people who came to see Der Ring, etc.). At worst, the city tripled its investment; at best, it quintupled it.
And that's definitely not counting the ways in which Seattle's reputation as a city of music, theater, literature, and visual art attracts expansive thinkers and innovative businesses that want to be where the action is.
Both of the candidates seem to recognize these two facts, more or less. (McGinn more, Mallahan less—see a breakdown of their culture platforms in the sidebar.) But the candidates' relationship to the culture constituency isn't just white papers. It's attitude, willingness to meet and listen to the experts, openness to learning about issues we don't expect them to have already mastered.
How's that going? "McGinn immediately reached out to the music community," said nightlife entrepreneur Dave Meinert. "Mallahan took longer. And McGinn has far more specific meat in his cultural policy."
Carlo Scandiuzzi, the innovative executive director for ACT Theatre, agrees: "McGinn saw culture was important and came out with a white paper first. Then Mallahan followed up. McGinn has indicated he's wanting art to be a bigger part of the dialogue, and that's more important than getting money. To get $65,000 from the city is 1 percent of our budget. But it's the sense of energy, of civic pride—that's what counts."
Mallahan has been generally unresponsive to the city's culture constituency. Last week, he bailed at the last minute on a music and nightlife debate at the Experience Music Project. His campaign offered no reason other than a vague "scheduling conflict," leaving McGinn to turn the event into an impromptu town hall. (Mallahan is the candidate spending money on a fancy campaign staff, and they can't even keep his schedule straight? That bodes ill for his running the city.)
And after multiple calls and e-mails to his campaign, Mallahan couldn't be reached for a phone interview regarding his culture platform. The best I could do was an interview with Mallahan's most prestigious arts-and-culture supporter, Jane Zalutsky, the chair of the board at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Her assessment: "Joe has a culture platform, but first and foremost, it's a question of a strong economy—if our economy is thriving, our arts economy will thrive, too." So let me get this straight: Mallahan's culture plan is trickle-down Reaganomics? "The first and foremost thing on everyone's mind is the economy," Zalutsky repeated.
That is a patently dumb-ass way to think about promoting a city's culture. Any economic recovery program should include arts and culture in its kaleidoscope of initiatives, not push it offstage. What precedes (and promotes) spiking property values in run-down neighborhoods? Art and culture. What coaxes people into a vacant downtown at night? Theaters, music, museums, restaurants. Culture isn't an afterthought to stimulating a city—it's a prime mover.
When I called McGinn, he was bubbling over with ideas. He proposed appointing artists to zoning and other committees to watch for opportunities other people might not see. He proposed bringing in artists to enliven neglected public parks and other moribund public spaces (we discussed SuttonBeresCuller's Mini Mart City Park). He talked about public- art initiatives in New York and Portland. He discussed ways of bringing culture into conversations about public transportation and neighborhood renewal. He talked about the specifics of his culture and nightlife platforms as opposed to Mallahan's generalities: "We wanted to be specific and not just Oh, art and nightlife is good so let's take care of it. It's how we create policy: We were very intentional in inviting a broad-based group and listening to them and responding specifically to what we heard."
In short, McGinn has specific, compelling plans about further integrating art and culture into the fabric of the city and its economic recovery—not shoving it to the back of the line to wait for its bowl of gruel.