Seattle is in the middle of a bitchin' mayoral race. Nickels bit the dust in the primary, leaving two greenhorns on the field and saving us from interminable debates about the past eight years. The campaigns will concern the future—and offer a rare opportunity to restructure the city's political priorities.
The fact that culture isn't a campaign platform—like transportation and housing—is insane. Seattle is packed with artists and institutions that have palpable public benefits. It's time for them to stop apologizing and start demanding. Rocco Landesman, the new NEA chief, is marching into D.C. wielding a torch and a sword against myopic conservatives and the mealymouthed capitulators who've been "advocating" for the arts for the past eight years. We should do the same here and now. Culture has a constituency, but it doesn't have candidates—yet.
Let's leave aside the sanctimonious, art-is-good-for-you arguments and talk money. A few numbers from an exhaustive 2005 report by Americans for the Arts: Nonprofit cultural organizations generated $330 million in economic activity in Seattle. (An ArtsFund study puts the figure at $1 billion in King and Pierce counties.) Almost five million people attended those events—more than the 4.2 million people who attended professional sports. Thirty-seven percent of them came from out of town, spending their money here instead of there. In 2005, the city's Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs got $2.57 million for operations and allocations (minus money for public art) and helped turn that into $12.3 million in local government revenue. Culture is a smart investment. And that's just the nonprofits—it doesn't count rock shows, clubs, etc. Serious studies about how culture raises property values, attracts business, and feeds a city of ideas (that become profits) haven't been done.
What are the mayoral hopefuls saying about this? So far, Mike McGinn looks more attractive than Joe Mallahan. In an interview with local blog Publicola, Mallahan proposed cutting the city's Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs—the one that nearly quintuples its budget in return revenue—as a cost-saving measure. (He also suggested subordinating it to the Office of Economic Development.)
Last weekend at the Rendezvous, McGinn met with club owners, theater directors, and other cultural industrialists. At a party afterward, among the celery sticks and glasses of bourbon, McGinn called Mallahan's proposal "foolhardy." "If anything," he said, "that office is not being leveraged to its full potential." That's what I'd hoped to hear.
Mallahan will meet with arts leaders later this month and might make a stronger case for himself. Either way, this election is a chance to shove culture to the center of the debate, where it belongs. Culture is a constituency, one with clout and money and public interests—and sexy actors who'd make persuasive door-to-door canvassers.
Note: After this column was published, the Mallahan campaign backed away from his statement about the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, saying Publicola misrepresented their position. Josh Feit, who was present at the Publicola interview denies this, saying Mallahan "definitely told us" he would likely cut some smaller departments like the arts department and merge it with the Office of Economic Development. "He's accused us of 'misquoting' him before, Feit adds, "but then he apologized to us when he realized he was wrong about that."