Billionaire Paul Allen's "city within a city, where lively workplaces, shops, restaurants, schools, parks, entertainment, and recreation are located in a dynamic, emerging neighbor-hood" is once again forcing out the arts. Allen's plan for South Lake Union, once touted as a developing arts and technology hub, is instead turning into a designer playground for the rich. 911 Media Arts Center, like independent arts groups Consolidated Works and Center on Contemporary Art before it, can no longer afford the rent it pays to Allen's company Vulcan. At the end of the month, 911 is moving out of the spacious old industrial building on Ninth Avenue North that it's occupied for five years, and into an upstairs office space a fifth of the size—with no theater or gallery—in the University District.
At the same time, the precarious little nonprofit—you could say fragile, you could say agile—is celebrating its 25th anniversary on August 14 by throwing a big party and vowing to go forward. "The long and short of it is, we're in secure financial shape, we're changing spaces for a variety of reasons, and the organization will still be around," said Kurt Kiefer, one of eight board members overseeing the center's skeleton crew of three. But, he added, "Right now we're sort of feeling our way."
Anne Focke, who in 1974 founded and/or, the contemporary arts center that spawned 911, has for years asserted that organizations, like people, should die natural deaths. She killed and/or herself. Is 911's time up? Focke doesn't know. She's not on the board, and she hasn't been involved in the organization for decades, but she's curious. "It could be one of those great moments where you say, 'Ah, we need to shift who we are,'" she says.
911 is worth fighting for. It is a truly noncommercial arts nonprofit: an increasing rarity. This is the place where James Longley's powerful, Academy Award–nominated documentary Iraq in Fragments was edited; where internationally acclaimed experimental video artist Gary Hill shows regularly; where Lynn Shelton, recipient of the "Someone to Watch Award" at the 2009 Independent Spirit Awards and director of this year's Sundance darling Humpday, got her start in Seattle, editing alongside Sherman Alexie. It's a place of big brains and small pockets, with an annual operating budget of only $365,000 (by comparison, the Bellevue Arts Museum recently raised $600,000 from a single night's dinner and auction). The list of great minds who have staffed 911 over the years includes founder Jill Medvedow, now director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston; Fidelma McGinn, now director of Artist Trust (another spin-off—along with CoCA, 911, and Artech—of and/or); and Glenn Weiss, now director of art projects for Times Square Alliance in New York.
One afternoon last week, the place was crawling with kids making a pirate movie. 911 is pretty much one-stop shopping for the making and showing of video, film, and animation, offering not only classes and workshops at the center and at schools, but also regular free open-lab times, open-mic screenings, equipment rentals at cost, and scholarships. The center has 323 active members, five interns, 12 volunteers, and an adjunct faculty of 35. It's a regular recipient of funding from the city, county, state, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
"911 made me feel so much like Seattle was going to be a good place to be as an artist," says Shelton, who got her first grant from 911 in 1999, after moving back to her native Seattle from New York. "I recognized there was a community. It wasn't even the practical support, although that was, of course, great. It was the moral support."
"911 is different, it's a critique of all the bullshit that we have to put up with everywhere else in the media," says another notable former 911 director, artist/filmmaker Heather Dew Oaksen, who took over after Medvedow. "Richard Serra said a long time ago, we are the product delivered to the advertisers. So I think the media center, not only does it train people to think critically about media literacy, we also need artists of all stripes to begin to think about how to present information critically. Media isn't like sculpture or painting—you're not pushing materials around, you're pushing people's brains around."
911's last crisis was in 2003, when a no-count board of trustees pushed out McGinn, and the members revolted. Oaksen returned to the board for the rescue. Even then, she says, she recognized that paying rent on a physical space (at the time, 911 was located on Yale Avenue near REI) was strangling the center and, meanwhile, the virtual world was becoming more and more important.
The new, "cloudlike" configuration of 911—which will include more classes at satellite locations, where attendance has been rising—has promise, Oaksen says.
But artist Hill says 911 Media Arts Center can't do without the "center" part. "Who's that Microsoft guy? Paul Allen? Here you have these technology places, and they can't even support the most minimal multimedia art in Seattle," Hill says. "Everything can't be online. For me, it was always interesting to see people's work at 911 and talk to them. You get inspired, you want to go home and make something. Maybe they can make the place more nomadic, or do something like projecting on buildings—really turn the thing on its head, like, 'Okay, if you're not going to come here, we're going to go out there.' You know, have events that are really events—be more event-structured and project-based."
911's new home has virtually no public presence, but it's not just any office, either: The building is owned by Jack Straw Productions, the 47-year-old nonprofit multidisciplinary audio arts center, where director Joan Rabinowitz dreams of creating an arts center. Jack Straw supports itself in part by renting its spaces, and it happened to have an opening when 911 was looking. 911 and Jack Straw don't have any specific plans together yet, but Jack Straw updated the electrical capacity of the space for 911 (with a county grant). While the future is unclear, 911 is doing more than crashing on a couch.
Any organization that finds itself in a crucible moment like this one would do well to consider the wisdom of and/or founder Focke, arguably the most artful arts administrator in the history of Seattle. Of the ideal arts organization (and, by extension, life), she writes:
It moves lightly. It can change and will change. It avoids codifying or homogenizing its programs. It observes a few rules of thumb from James C. Scott in Seeing Like a State: Take small steps, favor reversibility, plan on surprises and on human inventiveness.