Greg Lundgren has a big, improbable idea. That's not unusual—he has big, improbable ideas all the time. What's unusual is his ability to make so many of those ideas work so well. Lundgren's mental progeny include the Hideout, an art gallery/bar/"performance installation" where you can buy a painting and a drink and talk to an actor "playing" an eccentric bar patron (the Hideout was praised in the New York Times just four months after it opened); Lundgren Monuments, whose cast-glass headstones sit in cemeteries around the world, revolutionizing how the death-care industry thinks about art and design; and Vital 5 Productions, which won a Stranger Genius Award in 2003 and launches imaginative, counterintuitive projects such as arbitrary art grants, theater events that take place outdoors while the audience sits in a storefront and watches through the windows, and disinformative guerrilla tours of major art museums.
But Lundgren's new idea, called Walden Three—next in line after Thoreau's Walden and B. F. Skinner's Walden Two—is his biggest and most ambitious yet. "Everything I've done in life has been a series of exercises to prepare for something significant," he says, sitting at his kitchen table, pouring himself a glass of rosé. "I want this project to manufacture a cultural renaissance in Seattle. We have everything we need—an incredibly talented pool of artists and thinkers, a thriving cultural community, a serious concentration of wealth. There are more millionaires in King County than in the entire state of Connecticut. We can create a golden era for Seattle art and artists. It just requires people being big dreamers, people who'll take the risk."
The dream: take over the Seven Seas building—former home of the venerable Lusty Lady peep show, just across the street from the Seattle Art Museum on First Avenue—and turn it into a six-story art center, cultural engine, and film set for a 10-year documentary that will record, according to Lundgren's preliminary business plan, "the cultural renaissance of a major American city... By all measures, it is a social experiment."
The imagined top floor of Walden Three is for noncommercial art: objects and performances not intended to make money. (This floor is designed to operate at a loss.) The next floor down is a commercial gallery for a rotating series of Northwest curators, both new and estalished. The next floor—the street entrance on First Avenue—has a lobby, coffee shop, peep-show installations, and a storefront art school with lectures and art classes for a nominal fee: businesspeople taking drawing classes on their lunch breaks, people coming for lectures in the evenings, and so on. The next floor down is an artists' bazaar (imagine I Heart Rummage or Urban Craft Uprising crossed with the Pike Place Market) with 100 booths that can be rented on a monthly basis. The next floor down is the Walden Three command center, with production offices, living quarters for visiting artists, a commercial-grade kitchen, and meeting rooms. The bottom floor is a commercial bar space, leased to someone other than Lundgren. "I want it to be really fun and trashy," he says. "The constant party place for all the things happening in the rest of the building."
If Lundgren's big idea works, Walden Three will become a six-story antenna where Seattle's culture constituency can broadcast itself not just to the city, but to the rest of the world.
That's where the cameras come in. According to Lundgren's business plan, "the art center and the film are intrinsically linked to each other like Siamese twins—partners that make each stronger and more dynamic than they could possibly be alone." Whether Walden Three is a spectacular success or a flaming failure, Walden Three has a shot at being an engaging documentary. The worst thing would be if Walden Three were boring. "And I will not," Lundgren says, "allow that to happen."
A full-time videographer and editor would record footage throughout the process, uploading trailers, lectures, art openings, performances, and interviews to YouTube and Vimeo, creating what Lundgren calls "a propaganda machine" for Seattle culture. The presence of the camera, he hopes, would instigate an observer effect, raising the stakes for everyone involved. (He also imagines having a stylist on the lobby floor, where people can get dolled up before walking onto the Walden Three "set.") "You can have a shy, retiring artist," he says, "but that shy artist will create a different show for Walden Three than they would for a coffee shop. We are going to show their art to potentially millions of people—that will step up everybody's game."
Lundgren also points out that the film would have the unusual potential to influence culture before it's even released—that simply shooting footage of Walden Three as it happens and posting snippets online could have a noticeable positive effect. "That's the social engineering part," he wrote in an e-mail. "People will dress differently, art patrons will buy differently (or people who don't have a history of buying art will start to), and artists will create differently (hopefully to a higher level). The observer effect works in the arts very well—Seattle just hasn't had enough people watching."
Another unusual feature of Walden Three is its for-profit business model. "I don't think I'd ever open a nonprofit business," Lundgren says. "By constantly soliciting the community for money, you're saying we are anemic, we are dying, we cannot sustain ourselves. We know from basic psychology that people are not attracted to things on the brink of death—people are attracted to things that are successful."
According to Lundgren's current calculations, Walden Three will need more than $6 million to finance the remodel, the start-up expenses, and the salaries for Walden Three's 12 full-time employees for the first year. (The business plan has pages and pages of things that need fixing or getting: museum track lighting, 200-amp house panels, a gang drain in the stairwell, a 4,500-pound elevator, trash cans.)
Six million dollars is a lot of money, especially for the arts. Especially now.
"Yes," Lundgren says. "It sounds improbable—but it's possible. It's dangerous to project your own poverty onto your projects. If the capacity exists, it's worth trying." He takes another sip of wine, smiles, and says: "We can manufacture a renaissance."