It would be easy, and distracting, to be demoralized right now. You can take the recent news about the impending closures of contemporary galleries Open Satellite and Ambach & Rice as proof of everything you've always hated about Seattle art—pick your poison. On the flip side, you can recruit yourself to cheerlead, assuming the ostrich position. Or you can adopt the mantra that local young curator Whitney Ford-Terry posted to her Facebook page last week: "I am going to start doing less. I am going to start doing it better."
But Open Satellite and Ambach & Rice aren't isolated cases. Leading the list of depressing recent announcements is that stellar contemporary exhibition space Western Bridge will close in 2012. Howard House, Crawl Space, OHGE Ltd, and Grey Gallery have shut down, Garde Rail moved to Austin, and 911 Media Arts Center lost its exhibition space. Lawrimore Project downsized from 5,000 square feet to 150.
Every contraction has its own story, and what look like unhappy endings are not always so. Lawrimore Project, for instance, is using the size of its space to advantage. And money is involved in each story—even, say, Garde Rail's decision to relocate to a folk-art capital—but some more than others.
Ambach & Rice has been isolated in Ballard, where the audience is "elusive," owner Charlie Kitchings says. Then, while mounting a temporary show in LA in January, he experienced two eureka moments: One, the show drew more people on a single Saturday than the Seattle location did in a show's entire run. Two, he heard about a spot on Wilshire Boulevard where the rent is the same as in Ballard. Instead of moving to Pioneer Square, which Kitchings was considering, Ambach & Rice couldn't resist LA, a major center for contemporary art. In Seattle, 75 percent of sales came from outside the Northwest. The artists of Ambach & Rice—including Seattle's Grant Barnhart, Jeffry Mitchell, and Roy McMakin—survived on art fairs.
Open Satellite was a Cinderella story that ended after the ball—no slipper scene. The prince was Bellevue high-rise developer John Su, who bankrolled the residency/gallery for more than three years, spending nearly $1 million of his own money to support the creation of new works. Each quarter, an artist came to stay for two months in an apartment above the first-floor glassed-in gallery, spending that time imagining and creating a temporary installation for the soaring 2,000-square-foot exhibition space.
For the most part, the art that materialized was magical. Artists came from Seattle, Japan, England, Brazil, Brooklyn, Portland, Philadelphia, and California, covering the walls with paintings and spreading 50-foot-long objects across the concrete floor, turning the room into a small new world each time. But Su is a businessman who admitted to knowing very little about contemporary art from the beginning, and he approached its nonbusinesslike economic conditions warily. What he did know was that he wanted the best. After reading in Architectural Record about Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo—the Seattle artist-architects and Stranger Genius Award winners who work under the name Lead Pencil Studio—he contacted them, and together they set the gallery in motion.
From the beginning, there was disagreement about how to wean Open Satellite off Su's financial support. Attempts at renting out the space for events and selling limited-edition works didn't do much. In January, Open Satellite incorporated as a nonprofit to start raising money from outside sources, but even with a dose of optimism, it would have needed years to become self-sustaining, and Su decided he was done.
"Let's do the right thing first, and then see where that is leading us," Su said, prophetically, back in summer 2007, when Open Satellite began.
And Open Satellite did do the right thing. It brought people together. It invited every one of the best curators in the city to work with an artist in a free zone outside their home institutions—Seattle Art Museum, Henry Art Gallery, Frye Art Museum, University of Washington, Western Bridge. Audiences were the beneficiaries, and plenty of the people in those audiences were other artists, hungrily absorbing the influences of people working from relatable but new perspectives, drawing on shared histories—of art, of Bellevue and Seattle, of the Americas, of Europe, of Asia—but making contributions that Seattle would never otherwise have seen. Fundamental questions about how to live better and care more were raised, questions having to do with global consumerism, labor, waste and the environment, cities and suburbs, belonging and being kicked out.
Meiro Koizumi linked the Japanese strawberry farmers erased from Bellevue during World War II with undocumented Mexican immigrants who stand at the Home Depot down the street from Open Satellite in his 2009 video, sculpture, and living strawberries installation. Heather and Ivan Morison twisted the well-established tradition of wood sculpture and wood carving in this timber country into a sci-fi craft landing—a postapocalyptic, earthbound kite, 40 feet long and charred all across its surface. Olga Koumoundouros unearthed squatters living in squalor in the shadows of Bellevue's high-rise towers. She dragged the actual roof of a condemned old ranch home a block away from Open Satellite into the gallery to be propped up by cans of food and posters parodying marketing slogans. One read "Beyond Living Just," adapted from "Beyond Just Living," Su Development's catchphrase for the building that housed Open Satellite. Another tagline for the building: "For Artful Living." The tricky business of what constitutes "artful living" was always being worked over and worked out at Open Satellite.
The five or so years of Ambach & Rice in Ballard were steadier and less intensive, but by showing some of the best local artists, regardless of medium or bent, as well as artists from up and down the West Coast and Western Europe, Ambach & Rice also strived to make the whole city more educated and more connective, both internally and externally. The gallery built both the trust and the independence to make room for the unexpected.
In thinking about how to do less better, recognizing that extinction is not necessarily failure is a place to start. What rots in the Northwest always leads to new growth. If you need inspiration, go see Mark Dion's Neukom Vivarium at the Olympic Sculpture Park, where a decomposing nurse log removed from a local forest is housed in an artificial environment supporting little shoots and generations of bugs, and Alex Schweder La's mold spots that get bigger with time on one wall of Western Bridge. Schweder La's work is a nod to his early days as an artist, working a day job as a mold eradicator in Seattle buildings. Here, in the "green gothic" city that painter/writer Matthew Offenbacher has described, something is always growing.