I know you don't have a lot of time; let's get right to it. What's the first artistic experience you can remember that made an impression?
Oh, that's hard. I don't know that I can pick things out like that. [Brief harrumphing while thinking.] I remember a program called "Dungaree Daubers." It was one of the programs my mom ran, with big tubs of paint and big rolls of white paper out on the lawn outside the recreation center my dad ran. My mom was a fine-arts major at the College of New Rochelle, and she was a colorist for Mighty Mouse cartoons; it was one of her first jobs. She also played guitar and was into folk music, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Joan Baez. My dad grew up in New York City and he was really into jazz from that era, so there was always music in my house growing up.
I'm one of six kids. You know how kids kind of sort themselves out—well, my brother Johnny, actually we call him John now, and my sister Bridget both were into the arts. John went to Parsons School of Design, where he was involved in lighting design, and Bridget went to Pratt. I was the guy that studied economics in college and became a lawyer, so [art] wasn't my path, but I would say art had a pretty significant role. I grew up in a home that was rich in arts.
I'm kind of like my dad in that there's always music on when I'm home. No, I guess if I had to pick something out, it would probably be just really being a student of American music. Maybe listening to the Smithsonian recordings or Folkways recordings of early musical artists like Lead Belly, Cisco Houston, different compilation albums of early field recordings. The reason I'm picking on those is that having listened to older brothers listening to the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead, I went looking for the roots of those. In music I like to usually buy older stuff, connect things, join them.
For the sense of history?
It's more than the history, it's the sound: You get a sense of where it comes from. It's like braided channels in a river—all these different pathways, you can hear them. Like Alan Lomax called it, a "Deep River of Song."
Both mom and my brother John were also into collectible pottery, various collectibles, and Depression glass. We always had a lot of different things, and in our house it was used, not just collected. That was a big decision: What plates should we use tonight? Setting the table was an artistic expression. We actually had some really interesting stuff.
What's on your walls at home now?
One of the things on my wall is a landscape etching. What is that artist's name? She's a 19th-century landscape artist. It's fields. There's a quilted baby carrier from China; my mom was also a quilter. I commissioned a portrait of my wife some time ago in oil paint from a guy who worked in the copy room. My wife doesn't like it—
What's it look like?
It's a gigantic picture of her in wild colors. Oh, the artist's name who did the landscape etching is Mary Nimmo Moran. It hung in my parents' house. I remember the night we got it. My brother Johnny—we were at an auction one night, I was probably 13 or 14—he really wanted us to get it. I went to a lot of auctions. I actually found them kind of boring, estate auctions and the like. But I think I might have a little bit of an eye from those auctions. I'm cheap, that's my problem.
What's the art at your office? [The city has a big collection of portable works, and workers get to choose what they want.] Rumor had it that Mayor Nickels was hoarding a great Jacob Lawrence in his office for longer than the year term the pieces are supposed to be loaned for.
Oh! Well, don't necessarily blame him for that. The city curator [Deborah Paine] likes the mayor's office for its security—not that I know any specifics about this, but it might not have been Greg at all.
Let's see—the nicest thing in my office now is the desk from 1928: It's beautiful and it has a story behind it. I have two walls of glass, a wall of metal, and two whiteboards on the wall, so it's pretty minimalist—there's no art in my office. But the office as a whole has awesome art.
If I have to pick out an art thing, when I lived in Washington, D.C., for three years, probably my favorite museum was the Freer. I remember one day having spent an hour or two at the Freer—which has this very fine, detailed Asian art, primarily Persian and south Asian, which is very meticulous, small paintings—and then walking through the National Gallery on the way back and being in front of some Rothkos. The contrast was... Rothko made a lot more sense to me after seeing all that other art. The intensity of it there was interesting. The Moghul and Persian art, you kind of get your face right up to it, and then you're at the Rothko where you have to stand back and it's just these waves of color, and that was an interesting contrast.
When the Obama administration recently rehung the art in the White House, it was an opportunity for him to send a message to people who care about art—and his choices were, in fact, pretty interesting and broad and sometimes even challenging contemporary works. Art people were impressed. Now I don't necessarily pretend Obama made all those choices himself. But he has some damn good advisers in art, as in other things. Who has your ear when it comes to the arts?
I tend to be very broad in my outreach when I don't know, if that makes sense. I mean, we were talking a little bit about this yesterday [at the arts-commission meeting], but the role of arts in communities is significant. What role does it play? I don't feel I need to ask anybody on that: It's important, and we need to be supportive. Now how are we supportive? Michael Killoren, the head of the Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, he's gonna actually have a leadership role—we're kind of leaning on him. Steve Johnson at the Office of Economic Development.
What about vision? Who "curates" your artistic world? In other words, whose advice do you trust and love when it comes to creative life?
Wow, I don't know. I don't really know if it works that way with me. The inaugural party we threw with the artists, that was my script. I said this is really important that we demonstrate that art is something that's integrated into our experience of community. One of the things that comes through when you did the campaign is, when you meet a group of people in town, very often one of the first things they want to include is their art, whether it's music or dance or visual arts. We want to reflect that back to the public. Something like Velocity Dance Center—we helped them move—there was something fun about the act of everybody moving. We at the city helped facilitate the community vision. I think that's our role.
I'm not terribly embedded in that community—not at all. I'm just being honest; I'm not going to BS you on this stuff. Look, if you came to me and said, "Describe to me the landscape and the players in the environmental movement," I could be a pretty good guy for you. I couldn't do that for you in the art world. One of the people who helped me on the campaign and who worked with me at Great City was Cheryl dos Remédios.
Where do you stand on the Chihuly museum proposal?
We're gonna listen to people. The statement I've made is we're not going to do anything in Seattle Center that the public doesn't like. So we'll let that public discussion continue and we'll listen.
What about the fact that the public has already spoken on that issue, through the process of developing the master plan that the city worked on for two years and in dozens of public meetings?
Well, with this, there's a commercial aspect, so... it's sticky.
You're a white guy. Do you dance?
Uhh... [Laughs.] With my daughter. When I can get her to do so in my living room.
Is that the only time?
So we're not going to see you on Ellen, shaking it?
Yeah, I'll stop right there. There's no place here that isn't a hole for me. [Laughs.]
There's something I want to return to: What makes Seattle a great place to live and prosper and grow old is that we're a city. We have a port, we get people from all over the world, we're bringing in the diversity of ideas and expression. We have natural beauty, a relatively inexpensive electricity source from clean energy, and a landscape built to transit scale and walking scale for the most part, which gives us potential for richness at the street level. So how do I feel about art, well, how do I feel about urban places?
Who has the ear of the mayor is a question I get a lot, but that's not actually how it works. This issue of what comes out of the community is a bigger driver, not just for me, even for other people. FDR—one time somebody came in and told him an idea, and FDR said, "Okay, you've convinced me, now go out there and make me do it." But that's real. It wasn't just a dodge. You can convince me it's a good idea, but you have to convince the public it's a good idea, and if you've convinced the public, I can go there, and I will go there. There's a lot of things that work that way in Seattle, too. Building broader support around something is ultimately the way to move the agenda, and we will take input through the formal mechanisms and the informal mechanisms. But lots of times people come to me and tell me an idea, and it's like, well, good idea but this is actually going to take some lifting. What I am saying is, get engaged, make the case for it, because I support it. I support arts education not just in the school but after school, projects like the Vera Project, for instance.
When I was working for Congressman [Jim] Weaver [D-Oregon], he made the claim to me, "Well, politics is an art." I sort of looked at him funny, and he said, "Well it's not science." [Laughs.] You criticized me when I spoke at the Seattle Art Museum and said—what did I say?
You said, "Most people don't really confuse me with a fine-arts patron," which I thought was a totally weird thing to say!
Come on, can't I be a little self-deprecating? That's my style! [Laughs.] Whatever characterization you want to make of my exterior, there's a little art under there.