Western Bridge Melts into the Air
Bill and Ruth True just closed their temple to melancholy, meditative fantasy. Why? And what will they do next?
A thick bunch of question marks hung over the warehouse of Western Bridge when it closed last month after eight years. Number one being: Why? But also: Really? And then: What will become of the building? The Sodo warehouse that housed this uncommon contemporary art venue is itself art. It has a custom-made, residential-style double-hung window as its front face (this feature is seriously funny if you happen to notice it, and there may not be another one like it in the world). The wood of the interior walls has dozens of eyes left embedded in it—like the walls are looking back at the art. Like when the lights go out, there's still somebody in there. A proliferation of wry details left the feeling that one would never see them all. One more: I noticed for the first time the very last night that on the door right behind the reception desk, one-third of the door had been left unframed, that third side naked like a whispered joke.
It is crushingly sad to learn that all this is probably going to be office space by 2013, possibly for a high-tech company. No contracts have been signed, but that's the basic plan.
The architect of Western Bridge, Roy McMakin, also an artist who lives in Seattle, semi-moaned—but stoically.
"If you want something to last forever, make a little drawing and put it in a drawer," he said. "Chances are nobody's going to go to the bother of throwing a little drawing away."
Which brings us back to the first question: Why did this place have to close? Yes, it's harder to sell art and raise money in the post-W economy, which has led to the collapse of vital art spaces like Howard House and Lawrimore Project, along with widespread cuts and furloughs at museums. But Western Bridge did not sell art or raise money. There were no grants or donations to dry up. Western Bridge was designed according to the simplest possible model. Admission was free. No transaction whatsoever took place at the reception desk. There was no board of governing trustees. There were only three employees paid by two owners, Bill and Ruth True, and the art the Trues showed at Western Bridge was their own (as in, they owned it), or the art was borrowed, or commissioned, on their dime.
This uncommonly DIY system unleashed a wild and deep freedom. If you didn't like their art, they didn't need to convince you. This cut away the bullshit. No marketing, no sales, no conversion therapy or reeducation of the unwashed masses, no sucking up to donors or legislators who otherwise couldn't care less about art with promises of smarter children and lower crime rates and infinite horizons of reelections. No "art is an economic engine." No justification, period. Just art. And bringing people together around it.
There was no read-this-statement-and-get-educated attitude. As far-out as the art could be—one installation comprised a small dog and a large dog wandering the galleries; another involved a blizzard of fake snow pouring down until it covered a Porsche with the headlights on as a broadcast of Lenny Bruce played on the radio inside—the Trues heartily intended for people to feel welcome, and beyond that didn't try to manage anyone's responses.
"I always felt comfortable here, not like sometimes at an art gallery," Didi Anstett said, part of the melancholy traffic on the last day, October 20. "I could stay as long as I wanted, talk to whoever I wanted. It was one place I could always bring young people—nieces and nephews—and they could always find something, or we'd just leave."
To mark the closing in its signature casual style, Western Bridge published a free yearbook, the back pages lined with rows of mug shots of regulars. Markers and crayons were furnished in a room turned over to graffiti to commemorate the end. A couple of 8-year-olds near Anstett had just drawn their silhouettes on the gallery wall. A 2-year-old and his parents wandered the main gallery. "There's nothing like it in Seattle," his mom, Carrie Barnes, said. The dad, Pete Graham, added, "There's nothing like it in many cities I've been in. It's like a community place, like art for the people, even though it was down here in this weird area. It made me feel happy and proud about this city."
Before their son Silas was born, they'd come more often. "We were here for the bouncy castle; we have photos of us being idiots in there," she said, referring to an actual bouncy house made in 2007 by the young LA artist Mungo Thomson—an inflatable sculpture you jumped on. (It was modeled after the austere light-meditation rooms of one of the lions of the previous generation of American artists, James Turrell.) "Silas would have gone bananas in the bouncy castle. We were secretly hoping it would be here today." Everybody had something they wanted to see one more time. Me, I wanted the resurrection of Anthony McCall's tunnels you walked inside but that were made of nothing but light and fog.
Total attendance at Western Bridge was tiny compared to mainstream museums, and Western Bridge never did do marketing or advertising. Instead, there was an e-mail list—open to anyone who wanted to join. The rest was word of mouth. Only 800 to 1,300 people came through each show, including openings and special events, adding up to around 27,000 visits over the eight years. Nobody from any tourism machines was interested in the place.
But fans tended to be die-hard. The art was mostly installations, photographs, videos, sculptures, and performances, locally made art blending in with works by artists defining what was contemporary internationally, from epic film remixes to semiotically sexy abstractions to pieces that ate away at the walls with simulated mold, or hacked the walls apart, played with the materials, and sealed the walls together again with new mystery contents inside. The choices of the Trues, and director Eric Fredericksen, were sharp yet emotionally connected and often witty. No expense was spared in the process of an installation—the huge back room was painted black, then white, then black again repeatedly to create the most ideal environment for the art to do its thing. Likewise, the entirety of the central gallery was painted over by artists at least twice, and then painted back into a white cube again.
The Trues are regular and outspoken supporters of and donors to Democratic candidates and progressive causes, from marriage equality to eco-sustainability to tax-the-rich initiatives, but the art they showed was rarely overtly political. The closest they got may have been a piece performed in the back room, choreographed by Crispin Spaeth, involving dancers dancing together in total darkness, blind to one another, with only the audience outfitted in military-style night-vision goggles. It premiered at the start of 2006, at the height of the distant, dimly glimpsed, dangerous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"Western Bridge's effects were monumental," said Regina Hackett, art critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for more than 30 years. "It was always about artists thinking."
If things got rough with a work of art, there was a cushiony couch and a coffee table upstairs where you could flop down and talk or read. There was a bathroom with all lavender fixtures. There was even a bedroom where artists stayed, with a balcony that overlooked the concrete-floored warehouse; it was Romeo and Juliet meets industrial South Seattle.
"I have a romantic relationship with this place," said Sandra Jackson-Dumont, a Seattle Art Museum curator who's visited private collections with public components in various cities around the country. "Artists are in love with it here—in lust with it, even if they haven't shown here. These are normally places you can only go if you know how to behave in a certain way, but this is not like that. This was open to people in ways other places like this just aren't."
Director Eric Fredericksen didn't wax rhapsodic about the closing, he just said that "if it's important to me, it's because even if not many people participated directly in the making of shows, it was part of so many people's lives." Evidence: One tag in the room of marker-and-crayon graffiti read "WB + Claire + Leo = Tabitha." Claire Cowie and Leo Saul Berk are longtime Seattle artists, and their daughter's name is Tabitha. Apparently, one night in 2005, the day before they closed on their first house and before a Western Bridge opening, Ruth pestered Leo about why he hadn't asked Claire to marry him yet. "What are you waiting for? You're an artist. Just make her a ring tomorrow," Ruth said. "Come by the house tomorrow, and I'll have flowers, candles, champagne, caviar ready for you to pick up." Leo proposed to Claire the next day, they married a year later, and Tabitha was born a year after that.
Claire Cowie described the way many people in Seattle had never heard of Western Bridge, while meanwhile nobody outside of Seattle had ever heard of any Seattle art venues besides Western Bridge. "It meant something to show here," Cowie said. In 2008, near the lights in the stairwell, she amassed clusters of tiny ceramic moth sculptures with beautiful, improbable patterns painted on the wings of each one. You could miss them. There were dozens of moths, but they did not call any attention to themselves, except to try to huddle up to the light. "It was the same with the old Lawrimore Project," Cowie continued. "Those were the only two places people outside Seattle had heard of. But now there's all this independent stuff, and all the blogs. In a way, if you have to choose, that's better, because it's grassroots. It's more people getting together to do more things. But only if you have to choose."
Two days later, on Western Bridge's final day, Seattle video editor Chris Holland said, "I'm here for the first time and it's the last hour—wow. I wish I had come sooner. It's kind of depressing. That's so Seattle, right?"
It turns out that money is one of the reasons Western Bridge ended. The building is owned by Gull Industries, which is Bill's family's company. His father, Cecil, founded his petroleum-distribution company after moving west from Spokane in 1960. At that same time, the warehouse at 3412 Fourth Avenue South—Western Bridge's address—was occupied by a contracting company that had been operating in Seattle since 1902. The company had helped to build the city itself and would eventually build parts of the viaduct, the ship canal, I-5, 520, and 405. That company was called Western Bridge (it still exists, nearby, under the name Mobile Crane). Western Bridge 2.0 was the art version of the industrial past. It often referred to its surroundings. The very first installation, which opened May 27, 2004, was rows of vintage dolls standing on the floor. But each prototype of outdated femininity felt creepier and more decrepit than the last. Artist Zoe Leonard's implicit feminism played perfectly against the patent butchness of the building's past.
Gull Industries has an industrial past, too. About 15 years ago, the company sold 200 million gallons of gas every year. Then the company divested itself of gas. It sold off dozens of gas stations, moved into real estate, and provided venture capital for high-tech start-ups. Today, Ruth True runs another 2.0 of the oil culture that Gull once represented: Nube Green, her eco-conscious retailer on Capitol Hill.
To make way for eight years of art, Bill has essentially borrowed the warehouse from Gull, and these haven't been easy years for business. Now Gull will get the building back as a resource; Gull will be the new tenant's landlord, too, except the new tenant will actually pay to be there.
Which raises the issues of money and power, central to Western Bridge in an interesting way. In a shy city where wealth is often hidden away—Paul Allen has an art collection, too, but he makes people who've seen it sign away their right to even talk about it—Western Bridge was an example of transparent, not conspicuous, wealth. It was a reminder that there's wealth and there's wealth. Ruth and Bill True aren't that kind of wealthy art-collector couple, the kind that's gossiped about because hearsay is as close as you get. They aren't eccentrics or trophy hunters, publicity-hungry or investors. Art is not a way for them to preserve, shore up, or multiply money. Art is only what it is, whatever it is. Almost all the art they buy is by alive people. There's a semipermanent sculpture outside the building that's nothing more than a concrete platform and the metal bones of a building structure. It's called Use It for What It's Used For (by Indianola natives Oscar Tuazon and Eli Hansen). Whatever happens there is what the art's about. Homeless folks, dressed-up partyers, Sunday barbecuers all use it for what it's used for. Western Bridge as a whole was like that.
Which is what set it apart.
"The rich people of this city don't really step up to the plate in terms of supporting raw creativity and its role in the development of the city," artist-architect McMakin said, emphasis mine.
"The first unsung heroes I'd like to toast are the befuddled," Bill True said at the farewell dinner for 200 people. "There are a whole bunch of people who have come here over the last eight years who didn't get it or didn't buy it. I so appreciated them coming back—they kept coming back." The other two groups of unsung heroes were the party crashers—openings were total destinations and always overpacked, with food trucks and buffet spreads and drinks flowing—and finally, Bill said, the people who never got past the bar by the door. "Mom," he scolded.
Western Bridge's final exhibition, I'm thinking how happy I am, was a meditation on loss and performance and history, with sound pieces of characters from films and TV reciting lines from The Tempest and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, plus a sea of old baseballs spread across the floor to slow and focus your walking through, their flying careers over. At the farewell dinner, a banner of giant helium balloons read "OUR REVELS NOW ARE ENDED," also from The Tempest. Several Western Bridge shows have alluded to Shakespeare's melancholy, meditative fantasy—those three words might make as good a description as any of the True aesthetic, if you needed one—and at the dinner, Bill revealed that he'd played Prospero in high school. He continued his remarks by delivering the famous speech beautifully, off-book, stealing the show with sheer, sincere substance (another three words that might do).
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Partly for sentimental reasons—it's more romantic that way—the Trues never intended Western Bridge to last more than a decade, and they were always forthright about that. They just didn't want it to go stale.
Which leads to the question: What's Western Bridge's legacy? What part of what was good about Western Bridge is transferable or already resonating elsewhere?
There's a sprinkling of Western Bridge–ish magic dust in much of the grassroots art that Cowie was describing earlier. A few examples: NEPO 5K (annual Beacon Hill procession of art installed on the streets); The Long Walk (group performance/public artwork of 50 people walking 50 miles of King County each summer); new art commissioned by the Frye museum this fall (some made inside its galleries for audiences to see unfolding); Detour (the micro-geography/history project on South Lake Union's transformation at the recent, new Seattle Design Festival); Onn/Of (independent winter "light" art festival at an old Ballard sweater factory).
What will the Trues contribute in the future? They say they don't know. When Ruth announced at the dinner that maybe they'll do "art parades," it was the first anyone had heard of it. "Who knows," she said later when asked if she was serious. Bill did hint that the two might be thinking about buying a great big balloon that could anchor the first parade. It's Mungo Thomson's balloon version of the huge rock sculpture Michael Heizer installed recently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—which arrived with insane fanfare, including its own pre-installation rock-star tour on its way to the museum, now followed by endlessly tweeted, Facebooked, and Instagrammed photos of people posing with the rock.
Thomson is the one who made the bouncy castle. He lives in LA but he flew to Seattle for Western Bridge's closing dinner. He'd love for the Trues to end up with his rock-star balloon because he sees them as thoughtful collectors. What he makes is "not all about art, or art about art, or art as spectacle, but the Trues know how to activate those things while also knowing it's personal and poetic." Western Bridge, he said, "was not about vanity—and that's not always the case. It was about enthusiasm and affection for artworks."
But you build yourself a frame and you start to resent it, he said. "So you build a bigger one. They'll just build a bigger and more ephemeral frame." I just hope it's still visible to the naked eye.