Photos by Kelly O
Performs at Julia's every Friday and in Homo for the Holidays Dec 14–24 at Odd Fellows West Hall.
You're a full-time artist now, but what day jobs have you had?
I worked for years as an independent apartment cleaner. I put myself through Cornish College of the Arts by working as the janitor. I'd wake up at around 4:30, go clean the school, go to all my classes, go to rehearsal, go home, and then do it all again. But anyone who had to work for their education will tell you it's rewarding because you take nothing for granted. Every year I got to stay in school felt like a privilege. I was a straight-A student.
Is being a full-time performer glamorous?
It's like they say about the economy—1 percent of performers get to have that glamorous lifestyle, and the rest of us are biting and scratching and clawing our way through. You can be at the 5th Avenue one week, and the next week singing at a charity event at a crab shack in West Seattle. Every time you think you've made your big break, it's just one step forward. But every step forward is a step worth taking.
What projects should philanthropists donate to?
If you invest in a project that has a social or political message you really agree with, you're not only investing in art and those people's careers, you're investing in social outreach and social work.
What's one of the big misconceptions about your line of work?
That it's easy. Maybe because of karaoke or whatever. And being a gender illusionist is more than putting on a wig and makeup. When it looks like I'm just wearing underwear, I'm actually wearing six layers of clothes!
You're on the next season of RuPaul's Drag Race. What's the grand prize if you win?
The winner of the race receives $100,000, a lifetime supply of makeup, and the headlining spot on the Absolut Vodka Drag Race Tour. But Drag Race queens benefit the most from the national exposure.
Town Hall's artist in residence, performs music and comedy in Now I'm Fine Dec 9.
How many hours a week do you work on art stuff—performing, rehearsing, finding gigs?
On average, maybe 75 hours. I spend all of my time doing that in hopes of a future where maybe I don't have to. But I know that's a lie! It's 90 percent administrative work: sending e-mails, the stuff every job entails. It's like you're a company and trying to run that company.
Does that pay the bills?
No! It gets figured out, but I make very small amounts.
So much work for so little money—why do you keep doing it?
I've wanted to be a multidisciplinary artist since I was 6 years old. But I didn't have any direction—my family didn't have the luxury of "direction." We were super-poor, lived in a car for brief periods. I just knew I wanted to be onstage for the rest of my life. Performing and creating things are so tied in to my self-esteem that if I ever stopped, I don't know what would happen.
Is there anything you'd like to say, as a working artist, to arts philanthropists?
There's a serious lack of communication between the people who make the art and the people who fund the art. I've been doing this all my life, and I don't know anyone who works on that aspect. I don't even know anyone's name who works on that aspect. If you get a different answer from someone, would you call me up and let me know how they're doing that? Because I would like to know!
You've used Kickstarter to fund projects, right?
I just used it for the first time to help pay for the huge show I'm doing at Town Hall on December 9. It was a bizarre experience, because I don't want my day-to-day to be about money—part of my admittedly smug idea of artistic integrity. But the moment it hit its goal, I felt this amazing feeling that my peers wanted to see this project come to life.
Directed Waxie Moon in Fallen Jewel, which premiered at SLGFF in October.
Is the life of a working artist glamorous?
No. It is exciting in a sense—I grew up in a part of the Soviet Union that was abandoned by everybody, in the far east, and there was no art-making. The artistic community seemed as exotic and far-fetched as astronauts or people who go to the jungle to hunt things. So I still catch myself thinking, I'm hanging out with a circus performer and an amazing singer and a painter, and I get excited.
How do the artists you know get by?
Everybody's different, supporting themselves differently—teaching, working as a real-estate agent. You have to find ways to fundraise, to get your work out there. It's rough because you still need a lot of energy to actually create. Everybody's just trying to figure out their own way to survive and continue to make art. And hopefully save some for retirement.
Are you saving for retirement?
Not at all! I still have credit-card debt from my last movie, and I have to spend more money on submission fees for festivals or whatever.
How do you fund film projects?
I'm really bad at asking for money. There's a part of me that feels guilty for asking. There are people starving, so why would you give a hundred grand to make a movie? Other artists would hate, hate, hate me for saying it, but artists are not the most important people on the planet. I would make movies no matter what, even if I were homeless, even if I'm on my deathbed, but I don't expect the world to revolve around me.
Philanthropist, geneticist, director of four biotech companies.
How did you get started as an arts philanthropist?
Kent [Stowell] and Francia [Russell] were my friends for 10 years before I discovered they ran Pacific Northwest Ballet. I would talk with them on my morning walks with my Welsh corgi. Kent and Francia asked me to join the PNB board, and I entered the looking glass of professional dance in Seattle. Dancers are remarkable athletes and quick learners. I continue to be in awe of and inspired by dance.
You and your foundation give to so many organizations: PNB, Velocity, On the Boards, Zoe | Juniper, science foundations. How do you decide?
The most important factor is how much money is needed for a specific purpose. Experienced arts organizations will usually ask to meet to discuss a project or a program. These asks are very specific. My decisions are also influenced by personal interactions with officers and artists, audience size, and my like/dislike of the performances. Being Asian has swayed me a little toward supporting Asian-related events. My girlfriend also encourages me to contribute to causes of her liking. No real rules.
How much do you think you've given?
Overall, including donations to the foundation, I have gifted $8 million since 2000. Parenthetically, I had only $4,000 in savings and not much else in 1988. I have been extremely lucky.
What are some misconceptions about art donors?
Most people believe other causes have higher priorities. Saving lives is probably the best reason to contribute. I don't have the resources to make a significant difference in a large matter such as education. My businesses are involved with health, so I feel I am making (or at least trying to make) a positive difference in medicine. My level of gifts, however, can make a significant difference to local arts organizations.
How did you get started in philanthropy?
I moved here in 2009 with my family, but in New York I helped start the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, a music and mentoring program. The thing that gets me fired up is social change through art.
Part of it was personal, playing out at a time when there were very few women onstage compared to men, especially as a drummer. What got me hooked on Willie Mae was teaching girls to play drums and seeing how transformative that experience can be. They'd come into it shy and reserved, just kinda tapping on the drum. By the end of the week, they're loud! They're screaming on the stage, and they carry that with them into their schools and families. I found Reel Grrls and started working there, and I joined the board of On the Boards last fall. Reel Grrls also has a rock 'n' roll vibe—you don't know everything about this camera, but we're giving you support and telling you to make a movie. [Young people] get sold a lot of stuff by adult marketers, but their view is underrepresented.
How do you feel about the word "philanthropist"?
Words like "philanthropy" and "empowerment" have gotten a bad rap for the way they're used, but the concept behind them is still powerful. It's empowering to give your time and your expertise. It can be a powerful experience for people of any income level. When you talk about philanthropy, it's easy to get into this rarefied air of Oh, I sit on the board of the opera and I contribute all this money, but it's really about the experience of sitting in a room and having this transformative, shared experience together. To me, it's nothing short of miraculous.
You've just started the New Foundation Seattle.
We are acquiring work for national museums from artists living and working here now. We're also giving money to the UW School of Art. When you have a strong school of art, you have a good working community of artists.
You're selling some of your collection to fund it?
I had bought, 10 years ago, a Louise Bourgeois sculpture, and it went up in value quite a bit, so we sold it to Christie's in New York. It was a small-edition piece called Spider Home. It sold for more than $500,000. That was seed money.
Is it a fraught decision to part with an artwork?
Age has something to do with it. I turned 60, my son had a son, my mom died—all of those things have made me more aware of mortality and moving on. So yes, but also no. Because the reality of ending life might be more in my forefront than in yours.
The term "philanthropist" can be loaded.
It's taken me a while to accept that word. There's this idea of This person is giving a million, but they have 10 billion—so what? But I also know a lot of people who have money and don't give any. It's better to help the community than not.
Is the life of an arts philanthropist glamorous?
Glamour? It's an overblown fantasy. It's very, very difficult to give money away because you always question: Is this the right way? Is this the right person? Will this make a difference? And saying no is always hard. The other side is that everybody who calls you wants something. Knowing that when the phone rings, it's somebody who wants money... that's not glamorous.
You just had a wedding anniversary with your husband, John Behnke—did you celebrate?
We went to First Thursday and debated about whether to buy a piece of art.