On the 40th floor of the Municipal Tower last week, Mayor Mike McGinn met for the first time with the full Seattle Arts Commission—a body that both serves to enact and advocate for his administration's policy, and also advises it. The 16 commissioners asked prewritten, polite questions; McGinn gave unspecific, uncanned answers. Nobody made any sudden moves. Instead, the two sides were circling and eyeing, sizing each other up. Inquiring minds who love the arts want to know: Will McGinn be an arts mayor? Is he a culture guy in the first place? What does he know, and what does he like, and what does he believe when it comes to the arts?
"The arts are very important to this city," he said, and the smart-eyeglasses wearers ringing the table hungrily scribbled it down. But when it came to specifics—the Wallace Foundation, a private charitable entity, is waiting to hear whether the city will continue its arts-education program, for instance (and will make funding decisions accordingly)—the mayor was noncommittal. He talked about his four areas of concentration: the economy/jobs, youth and families, sustainable communities, and something he's calling walk/bike/ride.
Sandra Jackson-Dumont, head of education at Seattle Art Museum and a commissioner working on the arts-education project (whose goal is to restore arts education for every student in Seattle Public Schools), described attending two of the mayor's recent caucuses on youth and family. "The arts felt central—Youth in Focus was there, the huge Seattle band was playing, as if the arts were a show-and-tell—but the arts were never mentioned in the discussions from the upper level," Jackson-Dumont said. "The arts are central, and they need to be a central part of the discussion."
Will the mayor's administration try to help in getting state legislation passed to fund 4Culture into the future? The legislation did not pass again this year—the sixth year in a row—and the agency has one more chance next year to get the funding passed before suffering an 80 percent cut across the board, which would be disastrous for local arts groups of all sizes and types.
The mayor did not know the specifics of the situation. But he seemed to grasp the significance when it was explained. "We'll be happy to go to bat," he said. "We'll work for it."
After the mayor left, Michael Killoren, head of the city's Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, announced that the office has been asked to take a 3 percent midyear cut ($115,000) in order to help close the $15 million hole in this year's city budget. Staffers are taking furlough days, and everyone is pitching in, he said.
The reviews were mixed—both of the mayor's performance and of the commission's own responses (they're a self-critical bunch). Many commissioners felt a disconnect between the mayor's view that the arts are competing for funding and their view that, as Randy Engstrom of Youngstown Cultural Arts Center put it, "We need to think of the arts as a strategy and an opportunity, not as a charity. We need to change the conversation."
The commission adjourned with work to do—to rename and rethink its committees along the lines of the mayor's priorities in order to demonstrate the role of the arts in developing neighborhoods, making kids' lives better, and jump-starting local economies.
The mayor's refrain when he's asked whether he values the arts is that his campaign and inauguration parties, and even his recent live events, have included local bands such as the Maldives, Hey Marseilles, and Blue Scholars. But that doesn't necessarily make Seattle a better place for those musicians to live—or for the rest of us to see them. On the policy level, what does the arts commission want to see the mayor support?
Commitment to the arts-education program that's already begun (and which now has the chance to leverage Wallace Foundation money—the foundation will decide whether to fund Seattle in June) is vital, Jackson-Dumont and Killoren said. (In a later phone conversation, the mayor insisted he wanted to support it. "This budget thing is weighing so heavily; that's why it might have sounded like a mixed message on arts education," he said.) Since it began in 2007, the Arts Education Partnership Initiative—a collaboration between the district and the office of cultural affairs—has, for the first time, researched which classes are available and absent in which schools. The fact is, there is no comprehensive arts curriculum district-wide; it varies widely according to school, and often starkly along lines of socioeconomic class. The project has hired district managers of visual and performing arts and music. City funding has been $100,000 per year, and the Wallace Foundation holds the promise of $750,000 for more planning, then possibly several million dollars for implementation. All the city has to do is continue its contribution. So far, the project has escaped the cuts.
The other pressing issue, Youngstown director Engstrom says, is a need for affordable space. To that end, the city should implement incentives (of the type developers qualify for when they include a portion of affordable housing downtown, for instance) for cultural projects. "It's not an autocratic idea," he says. "Nobody has to build a cultural facility. But if that's what a neighborhood wants, and you can self-organize, private developers will want to build projects they know are already desired, and the community is happy and the developer is happy. If they'd tried this in Beacon Hill—if the neighborhood had been able to meaningfully ask for what they wanted—Beacon Hill might not be in a lawsuit right now." (Citizens there are protesting taller buildings.)
Asked what the differences are between former mayor Greg Nickels and McGinn on the arts, Killoren demurred. But it's clear McGinn wants to respond rather than initiate. "FDR one time, somebody came in and told him an idea," McGinn said by phone after the meeting. "And FDR said, 'Okay, you've convinced me—now go out there and make me do it.' 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."
McGinn is not embedded in the arts community, he admits. It's not his native turf (the environmental world? Now you're talking). He was broadly exposed to art growing up: His mother was a fine-arts major (one of her first jobs was as a colorist for Mighty Mouse cartoons), one of his sisters went to Pratt in New York, and a brother went to the Parsons School of Design. Meanwhile, he became a lawyer. 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." (For details about McGinn's tastes, including what he listens to and what's on his walls in the office and at home, visit thestranger.com for the full Q&A.)
Darryl Smith, McGinn's deputy mayor of community, says, "Music is really his thing." Smith's name was passed around the arts commission meeting after McGinn left, as a possible ally: He was a jazz drummer, studied theater, worked as an Equity actor for years, produces spoken-word festivals, and still coaches drama at his daughter's school.
"We are certainly not the crew that's interested in arts as a little bit of icing if you can kinda sorta afford it, especially in arts education, and especially coming from this deputy mayor," Smith said. "Arts education made me what I am."
You may be getting some calls soon, Mr. Smith.
"I would welcome that. I really would."