One night in early June of 2014, a wave of bad news broke over a meeting of people assembled at Vito's Restaurant and Lounge. Vito's is a renovated old lounge, the kind of place where Frank Sinatra would have hung out, minus the smoke. Red leather booths. Gold-flecked mirrors. Lighting the color of beer.
This meeting was a shoptalk session for the heads of midsize Seattle arts groups who sometimes get together under the silly nickname Administroni. They represent different art forms, from dance and literature to photography and film, but what they have in common is that they're all go-to venues for culture in the city, and all beneficiaries of the steady philanthropy of the billionaire Paul Allen.
"We got some bad news today," one of the administrators said to the group.
To everyone's surprise, they quickly realized they'd all gotten the same bad news.
The news had come in a letter dated June 9, 2014, which read:
We will not be funding your grant request this cycle. The [Paul G. Allen Family] Foundation... priorities will include helping to make a difference in kids' lives by providing arts, education and childhood literacy opportunities, helping those in need with emergency financial services, helping emerging artists and creating opportunities for breakthrough science.
We look forward to sharing more information this fall about the exciting initiatives ahead...
And it wasn't just the groups at Vito's that got the letter. The entire arts sector across Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Alaska was hit.
For every group, a grant typically between $50,000 and $75,000 was gone. There hadn't been any warning—the Allen Foundation had invited all of them to submit the usual proposals just months before—and there wasn't any explanation.
And what came next surprised them all even more.
Allen began announcing huge new arts initiatives of his own.
Five months after the foundation sent out its letter, Allen announced he would host a brand-new art fair. Held on July 30 to August 2 of this year, the event attracted an estimated 12,000 people to the booths of more than 60 commercial art galleries inside the vast space next to the Seahawks stadium.
Earlier this month, Vulcan—Allen's many-tentacled company with interests in real estate, investment banking, aerospace, telecommunications, technology and science, media, and museums and culture—released the news that the Seattle Art Fair will be returning to CenturyLink Field Events Center from August 4 to 7 in 2016.
Also earlier this month, Allen sent an exhibition of 39 paintings he owns, spanning five centuries of art, on a national tour with stops at Portland Art Museum in Oregon, the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, Minneapolis Institute of Art, New Orleans Museum of Art, and Seattle Art Museum. The show is called Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection.
Finally, on December 5, Allen will unveil his newest art venture, Pivot Art + Culture. Pivot is a roughly 3,000-square-foot art and culture showplace on the ground floor of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, in the heart of Seattle.
Last week, I toured Pivot. It was the first day the staff was in there, and the lights were still out.
Boxes sat next to the staff desks. I was taken into a room about the size of a tennis court, with white walls, 16-foot ceilings, and a concrete floor so polished, it was reflective.
"This is philanthropy at its most exciting level," said Benedict Heywood, who began work in July as the director of Pivot Art + Culture.
Later, I asked Heywood about the groups facing the loss of Allen's philanthropy. He didn't try to give a canned reply. After pausing to reflect, he explained that the foundation and Pivot are separate, and said, "I haven't spent enough time in Seattle to know what effect that had or is having."
The first exhibition at Pivot will be full of blue-chip art, and it will be curated by an expert in American abstract expressionism. Monet, Turner, Brueghel, O'Keeffe, Rodin, Calder, Hockney, de Kooning, Hirst, Bacon, Freud, Giacometti—those are the names of artists that any other museum in the Northwest might have to beg to borrow from elsewhere. But they could theoretically all be seen in a single exhibition at Pivot someday, because Allen owns works by all of them. The Microsoft co-mogul's estimated $17.9 billion net worth means he doesn't have to beg anybody for anything.
How might Allen's power materialize at Pivot? Take an example, Heywood said. Before Heywood become Pivot's director, he ran an alternative space in Minneapolis called the Soap Factory, which once commissioned an artist who wanted to do a project on professional football. When Heywood called up the Minnesota Vikings, he didn't even get a call back.
Heywood's new boss owns the Seattle Seahawks, the team that played in the last two Super Bowls and won in 2014. Allen also owns the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers and part-owns the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer.
Allen owns the land that Amazon stands on. He sent the first private aircraft to outer space.
At 62 years old, Allen sits at the head of an empire of investments that generate the money he gives to causes ranging from saving the oceans to fighting Ebola. He even has a Costa Rican fly named after him.
I asked Allen for an interview, but he declined from New York. He was there to receive the 2015 Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy, which was established in 2001 "to mark the centennial of Andrew Carnegie's retirement from business and the start of his career as a philanthropist, with the stated goal of doing 'real and permanent good in this world.'"
Allen has won many awards for his staggering philanthropy, which in recent years has skyrocketed, especially in the sciences and environmental causes. In 2012, Americans for the Arts gave Allen its philanthropy prize specifically for generosity in the arts, and Robert Lynch, the president of Americans for the Arts, told Blake Gopnik of Newsweek that Allen is the kind of leader "who can inspire others to do more."
Perhaps no one has done more for Northwest arts than Allen. A look at the tax records of his foundation is a tour of the greatest hits of Northwest art and culture of the last 20 years. In Washington alone, the foundation has provided regular funding to Seattle Art Museum, On the Boards, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Velocity Dance, Northwest Film Forum, Wing Luke Museum, the Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas, Seattle Arts & Lectures, Hugo House—you name it.
For a man worth $17.9 billion, the arts philanthropy that has meant so much to the ecology of the region has added up to only between $1.1 million and $2.5 million annually between 2009 and 2013. He's made other donations sporadically. Over the last 15 years, he's given the Henry Art Gallery a total of about $885,000 for exhibitions, but he also kicked in $5 million in 1997 to name the new Henry building the Faye G. Allen Center for the Visual Arts, after his mother.
Gopnik in Newsweek wrote of Allen, "The secretive collector has started to circulate his treasures to the public—a philanthropic morsel that is part of a larger program of kindness to the arts that so far has stretched to more than $100 million."
But just as the morsels have become flashier—Pivot, the swanky fair, the touring Masterworks—Allen's "larger program of kindness to the arts" is in limbo.
Almost a year and a half since the June 9, 2014, letter, and a full year after that letter promised the foundation would "shar[e] more information," all those dozens of groups across the Northwest are waiting to hear whether they'll ever get funding from the Allen Foundation again.
"We've been trying to catch up ever since they did it," said Donald Byrd, artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater, which slashed its regular season last year from four or five recitals to "two and a quarter," he said.
Spectrum is in a better position than most. It has a school, so if the Allen Foundation redirected the same level of support into youth arts, "that would be great, too," Byrd said.
A few other directors spoke out about their struggles to The Stranger, and then begged to withdraw their comments for fear of jeopardizing any chance at future funding.
The foundation was "one of the strongest supporters of the arts in Seattle, and one of the largest funders of public programming. I mean steadfast," said Ruth Dickey of Seattle Arts & Lectures.
"Art AIDS America would not have been possible without the support of the [Allen] Foundation," said Tacoma Art Museum curator Rock Hushka. Art AIDS America is the first exhibition ever to demonstrate how AIDS changed American art, and its 127 works will tour the nation this year and next.
It wasn't just the reliability of money for ambitious projects that made Allen's contributions so life-sustaining. National pocketbooks opened when they saw the big regional donor's support. "That local support helped us get Warhol [Foundation] money, and it was absolutely crucial," Hushka said.
What about the next 20 years?
"We are still undergoing a review of our grants and giving strategy," wrote Alexa Rudin, the head of communications at Vulcan.
Rudin's e-mail continued, "I don't have a specific timeline as to when we will announce new criteria but I can share that our approach will be based on a belief that through the thoughtful application of data, technology, and innovation, we can conquer our community's greatest challenges. New partnerships and grant opportunities will be developed as the Foundation refocuses its energy on specific areas of opportunity and support within Seattle and the Pacific Northwest."
Lynch of Americans for the Arts, who freely praised Allen three years ago, declined to comment for this story.
Like Carnegie, Allen practices world- and life-changing philanthropy. Unlike Carnegie, Allen is not retired from business. And his new projects in the arts are engineered not to cost him much, and potentially to lead to profit.
Seattle Art Fair is a business, to be canceled if it's a loss.
Pivot is a nonprofit, just like the nonprofits that received the Allen Foundation letter on June 9, 2014. It's unclear how much money Allen is putting into Pivot. When I asked, Rudin responded, "As a policy, we don't share financials for Paul's projects." It is not unusual for private collectors to open their own galleries. Just last month, the billionaire Eli Broad opened his own museum in Los Angeles. Broad, who has an estimated net worth of $7.4 billion, gave his museum a $200 million endowment to secure ongoing funding for its future operations, and made general admission free. In Seattle in the 1990s and 2000s, two pairs of private collectors, the Wrights and the Trues, bankrolled their own exhibition venues and charged no admission for shows.
Behind Pivot are six stories of glass and metal. Although they're basically unrelated, Pivot is in the brand-new, relocated Allen Institute for Brain Science. Inside the institute, researchers are working to fully map the brain and build an artificial one from scratch. Allen has poured $500 million into the project, which was profiled in the Washington Post last month.
At the institute, researchers don't shroud their findings in secrecy. They work open-source, making their data publicly accessible.
"Accessible" is Vulcan's buzzword for Pivot. People might be tempted to think that Pivot is an art-and-science center because of its location, but Pivot's only thematic connection with the institute is the concept of open-source.
"It just underscores Paul's commitment to accessibility, like all his work in the arts," Rudin said during my tour.
We were standing in the theater adjoining Pivot, where even if all 230 of the red seats are filled on any given night, curious passersby looking through the windows from the street may be able to use an app on their cell phones to tune in to art or science talks inside. That's the kind of innovation in accessibility that Allen could bring to his art space.
A more old-fashioned accessibility question remains. One of Allen's museums, the Living Computer Museum, charges $6 to get in. The other, EMP, is the city's most expensive cultural museum, costing $25.
Will Pivot charge admission?
"No decisions have been made, but we are looking at all possible sources that any nonprofit would look at to raise money—admissions, donations, fundraisers," said Mary Ann Prior, who oversees Vulcan's art operations.
Wait—donations, fundraisers? Will Pivot compete for money with groups the foundation once funded?
"We are very conscious of other nonprofits in the region," Prior said. "We're not setting out to compete. That's why we're examining the question of finances very closely. It's not our desire to take money away from the other nonprofits in the region, so we will proceed cautiously and respectfully."
Even without art inside, Pivot is beautiful. It occupies shiny real estate in South Lake Union, yet also embodies a rich architectural history.
Its facade is original to 1923, when William O. McKay established his Ford and Lincoln dealerships here with their white sculpted terra-cotta entrances and doors with gleaming oversize brass knobs and hinges. It's all been restored.
To make it happen, Vulcan carefully dismantled the two facades—Lincoln's was flashier, with color added to the white—and preserved them for the duration of construction. They then reassembled every tile and buffed every surface.
Today, the office where Heywood and his staff of three sit is enclosed by the barn doors that used to be flung open for you to drive your Model T from the showroom right out into the street.
You can imagine why this majestic edifice, to a 62-year-old billionaire, could feel more like a proud arts legacy than a quiet program of comparatively small grants. In art of the last at least 50 years, edifice is destiny. And Pivot Art + Culture is just the latest in Allen's growing portfolio of museums and destinations: EMP Museum at Seattle Center, designed by Frank Gehry and opened in 2000; the Flying Heritage Collection located at Paine Field in Everett; the Living Computer Museum in Sodo; and STARTUP, a gallery at Albuquerque's New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.
Spectrum Dance director Byrd said, "Private foundations are run by families and their interests, and what they want to do with their money changes. You have to accept that as part of the deal. They're not obligated to give me anything. It's their money, and they can do what they want."
What does Paul Allen want?
And what happened in 2014? Why did he pivot toward Pivot and the fair and the tour? Will Allen end up, ironically, with a higher art profile but spending far less of his money on arts?
Vulcan maintains there is "no relationship at all" between Allen potentially orphaning regional arts groups on one side and fathering his own personal prominent arts projects on the other.
"Paul instinctively wants to share aspects of his collection with the public," Vulcan's Prior told me.
Why was he so private before?
"That predates me, really," Prior explained. "Because I wasn't here when he was in that mode. I've always been here when he's been wishing to share the collection. I don't know whether it was a gradual impetus or a sudden thing—I couldn't say. But he's not an extrovert, and I think that is a kind of indication of who he is."
Prior joined in April 2014.
Vulcan had a turbulent behind-the-scenes changing of the art guard that spring, the season that culminated in the infamous form letter of June 9. The two arts leaders at the Allen Foundation abruptly left. One was Allen Foundation vice president Sue Coliton, a career arts administrator who's on the board of Americans for the Arts and had been in her role with the Allen Foundation for 15 years. Jim McDonald, the foundation’s arts grants officer, left then too, and took a job as deputy director of Grantmakers in the Arts.
Neither McDonald nor anyone from Grantmakers, the Seattle-based national arts funding organization, responded by e-mail or phone for this story. Grantmakers in the Arts got Allen Foundation grants, too, like everyone else.
The closest a regular person might get to a live stream of what's on Allen's mind is his Twitter feed. Here's a sampling of the subjects of recent tweets: water on Mars, endangered sharks, World Elephant Day, the Seahawks, his collection of landscape paintings, the search for alien life, Alzheimer's, Ebola, B.B. King, an underwater battleship being explored from his yacht the Octopus, greenhouse gases in China, Oliver Sacks, the Foo Fighters, Chewbacca, Leonard Nimoy, his film about extinction opening at Sundance.
"Who is Paul Allen this week?" Roger Downey, former arts writer for Seattle Weekly, said to me.
Back in 1998, Downey interviewed the star architect Frank Gehry. Gehry was designing Allen's Experience Music Project museum, a home for Allen's rock 'n' roll memorabilia, which was notorious for its bright, blobby architecture even before it opened in 2000 at Seattle Center. Gehry described Allen as a client who dictated from above, yet barely seemed to be paying attention.
After a few years, EMP expanded to encompass Allen's interests in science fiction and popular culture. Today its name is EMP Museum – Music + Sci-fi + Pop Culture. If Allen decided to add "+ Costa Rican Flies," it probably wouldn't surprise the people who track Allen's passions.
"Just look back over his career," Downey said. "He seems to have entrepreneurial ADD, and he's got all the money in the world, so he can make all the mistakes he wants. But what does it mean for the development of the city when the gorilla comes out of its cage in something like the field of art? What does it mean for the rest of us when he gets a whim? We all have to go with the whim and probably pay for part of it. It just doesn't seem that most of the whims are all that well-conceived."
It's too early to tell whether Pivot is well-conceived.
But this week, Vulcan is releasing the plans that are set so far.
Pivot will mount five to six exhibitions each year—some solo, some group. The first exhibition, opening December 5 and running through February 28, is called The Figure in Process: de Kooning to Kapoor, 1955–2015.
It "look[s] at the exciting ways in which modern and contemporary artists around the globe have conceived our presence in the world—ranging from the ideal to the grotesque," wrote curator David Anfam.
Of the 20 pieces in The Figure in Process, four are from Allen's collection. They're pieces (Vulcan isn't saying which) by Italian Swiss modernist sculptor Alberto Giacometti, contemporary Iranian-born New York painter Y.Z. Kami, and 20th-century British figurative painters Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.
The other recognizable names on the show's checklist are painter David Hockney and sculptors Anish Kapoor and Barry X Ball.
One entire wall of the 2,600-square-foot gallery will bear a 26-foot-long canvas by a German contemporary painter named Jonas Burgert.
Anfam, the guest curator, is a renowned British-born 20th-century-art expert who specializes in American abstract expressionism, and whose next project is a large-scale survey of abstract expressionism at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 2016.
Heywood said Pivot will regularly work with guest curators, "but the majority of the 'curating,' including the selection of guest curators, will be in-house." Just recently, Sarah Margolis-Pineo joined Pivot as Heywood's assistant curator. (Margolis-Pineo is a curator, writer, and educator who has worked in Portland, Detroit, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and New York.)
Will Allen's collection be the through-line in Pivot's exhibitions?
Unknown, Heywood and Prior said. But "the very early discussions of this space were to put Paul's personal collection out there, and that grew to perhaps it should be about art and culture in general and not one person's collection," Heywood said.
Is there a budget for commissions?
"Not able to discuss this yet."
Are Seattle artists part of the plan?
They're not in the first show, but will be included in related programming.
Heywood said he wants to "actualize" art.
"This place is about the passion for art, not sort of chin-stroking contemplation," he said.
What he likes about Allen's other museums is that their artifacts are not "passive." You play video games on Allen's old computers at the Living Computer Museum, you play instruments and sing in a studio at EMP, and the antique planes in his Flying Heritage Collection still fly.
Dreaming forward, Heywood said Pivot could include dance, theater, spoken word, even food events. He added the caveat that Pivot doesn't want to repeat the offerings of other organizations, like On the Boards, which he recently visited and called "superb." (On the Boards is one of the groups waiting to hear whether it will ever get another grant from the Allen Foundation.)
Two works of art Heywood could imagine at Pivot: Martin Creed's Half the air in a given space, the simple but extraordinary experience of wandering through a room full of balloons that was recently at the Henry Art Gallery, and Christian Marclay's landmark 2010 installation that loops a monumental montage of 24 hours of film clips referencing every minute of every hour.
The Clock has never been to Seattle, but if Allen's clout could bring it, that would be "awesome," said contemporary art historian Kenneth Allan, a professor at Seattle University. But, he added, "I would also love to see some great Van Goghs that only [Allen] has, and only he can show."
Sure, Heywood said Allen doesn't want Pivot to be a vanity museum, just "one person's collection." But in the case of this particular man, his personal collection may be his most extraordinary possible gift to "Art + Culture" in his city.
That, and a few million dollars in steadfast arts grants.
As a younger man, collaboration was not Paul Allen's strong suit. He famously tried to shape the city by throwing his weight, and his land, behind an idea called Seattle Commons.
The Commons would have transformed Seattle. Allen wanted to turn 61 acres between downtown and Lake Union—in the area that's now Amazon HQ—into a public park. The effort failed narrowly at the ballot, twice, in 1995 and 1996.
Allen didn't give up entirely on creating public space in the area. Vulcan has commissioned 17 pieces of public art in South Lake Union, including one by Buster Simpson, an outdoor room with a functioning ping-pong table.
Simpson is a radical through and through; he did his earliest installation art at Woodstock, as an alternative to the scene at the concert. Yet Simpson has important things in common with Allen. They're both Seattle icons who seem to be trying to make the city better with their work.
Simpson loved the idea of the Commons. But "I think [Allen] realized that he lost that whole thing because it was... not collaborative enough," Simpson said.
Asked about Allen's latest arts decisions, Simpson said, "Is what he's doing sustainable?... It's his money, let him be. But I think he should collaborate on this new stuff. Simple."
Collaborate, as in work with the rest of the arts ecology. Allen's new high-profile projects risk becoming the equivalent of the easy-to-love creatures environmentalists call "charismatic megafauna," draining attention and funding from the problems that affect the greater ecology. (Coincidentally, Allen has donated $3 million to an initiative on this November's ballot that would crack down on people in Washington State who traffic in the dead body parts of elephants, rhinoceroses, tigers, lions, leopards, cheetahs, marine turtles, sharks, rays, and pangolins.)
Allen's legacy has a lot to gain and nothing to lose if he realizes that the arts across the Northwest need him.
Downey, the writer who asked "Who is Paul Allen this week?" said, "The biggest downer in our little valley is usually the puniness of the dream... Anybody can daydream; when a billionaire daydreams, things can happen. Go for it, Paul!"
He said this before I told him about the defunding that's the biggest downer for culture in our little valley right now. Then Downey got mad at himself for being caught up, and excited, and forgetting about the entrepreneurial ADD. "That's the Paul Allen I know and love," he sighed.