This happened last night.
This happened last night.Emily Pothast

Last night, around 220 people (according to Artist Trust, who handled ticketing) gathered at Greg Kucera Gallery for an event called In Support of Artists: The Evolution of Seattle Exhibition Space. Billed as a panel discussion about the changing ecosystem of local exhibition spaces, the discussion was assembled, in part, to address questions raised during a Town Hall conversation in January where Gage Academy of Art founder Gary Faigin asked, “Are today’s art galleries going the way of video rental stores?”

The short answer, of course, is no. As Greg Kucera pointed out early in the evening, a crowdsourced list of every gallery that has ever opened and closed in Seattle is only slightly longer than a list of all the galleries and alternative exhibition spaces currently operating. On paper, at least, Seattle’s art scene is as healthy as ever.

But this is where things start to get complicated.

“I used to focus a lot on emerging and mid-career artists,” says James Harris of James Harris Gallery. “I’ve kind of moved away from emerging artists right now, and that has to do with real estate. It’s sometimes so much easier to sell something for 10 to 15 thousand dollars than it is to sell something for a thousand dollars, and I feel terrible about that.”

This gap is where many of the other panelists come in. Dawna Holloway, co-owner of studio e, shows emerging and established artists in her Georgetown gallery while running another business four days a week, while Season’s Robert Yoder sells art out of his Ravenna living room—and on the international art fair circuit. On the non-profit side of things, Julia Greenway is the curatorial director of Interstitial, a Georgetown gallery that relies on fundraising and donations to give cutting edge installation and new media artists a place to show in Seattle.

And then there’s The Alice. As S. Surface, co-curator of the Georgetown artist-run gallery, explained, “We have some gallerists here working in a commercial for-profit capacity; we have Julia [of Interstitial], who is running a non-profit organization. The Alice is, for comparison, what we have called a for-loss model.” Surface goes on to describe how the artist-curators who run the space work other jobs to pay the rent, making it possible to show work by emerging artists whether or not it’s marketable. Meanwhile, artist and educator Tariqa Waters runs Martyr Sauce: a ‘renegade’ gallery and platform for generating press and attention for marginalized perspectives operating out of a Pioneer Square work/studio basement space and open by appointment only. “It’s an interesting thing to be invited to this panel discussion,” laughs Waters, “because I am an artist first, and I don’t like to follow any of the rules.”

As an ecosystem, these smaller spaces can feed into the larger galleries by giving artists exhibition opportunities to develop their work without the pressure of paying the gallery’s rent. But in order for this ecosystem to function as such, all of these spaces have to pay attention to each other.

“I don’t see a lot of curiosity among the local population of the art community,” says Yoder. “Artists aren’t curious of other artists, curators aren’t curious of local talent, collectors aren’t curious to find new artists, writers aren’t curious to discover new spaces and artists. Everyone is quote ‘TOO BUSY’ and ‘TOO TIRED’ and this leads me to wonder if there is a general expectation that someone else will do it.”

(Either that, or they’re running around trying to make ends meet financially.)

To its credit, the panel represented an interesting cross-section of alternative gallery models thriving (or at the very least, surviving) in a city where not just artists but galleries are increasingly finding themselves priced out of the neighborhoods they helped create.

But for me, there was something of a disconnect between the repeated admonishments from the stage that would-be art audiences were to blame for their own absence from gallery spaces—”The basic problem we all share is the lack of art education in the general community,” moderator Beth Sellars said during the program’s lengthy introductions—and the fact that there were enough people who would (and did) pay to spend their Thursday night listening to this conversation to completely fill one of the largest galleries in town.

Also conspicuously absent was any mention whatsoever of the impact of Seattle’s growing tech sector on changes in local economies. One thing I would have loved to hear more about, frankly, is money. “When I show artists at the space I also try to make sure that I get them paid,” Tariqa Waters announced, at one point, to a roomful of applause. My curiosity was piqued. How does this alternative gallerist—who has only lived here for five years and literally started Martyr Sauce in the stairwell of her loft apartment—find funding for a space that specializes in highlighting marginalized voices? It was the perfect opportunity for a follow-up question, but the way the event was structured—making audience members turn in our questions on cards to be read by the moderator beforehand—prevented the kind of back-and-forth that might have maximized the potential mind meld of a gathering of this size. (Today I asked Waters this question over email and she quickly replied, “I’m always juggling three or more freelance gigs at a time in order to make it happen. [...] As a fun way to supplement income and get folks to the gallery between exhibits and events, I opened up a Beauty Supply store/gift shop in the gallery.” Ah yes. Another labor of love.)

Even Bridge Productions’ Sharon Arnold, who helped organize the event, saw room for improvement. “I would have liked to have emphasized the collaborative nature of exhibition spaces, the way artists move through them in their career, the transparency exhibition spaces need to begin having, the ways we’re struggling financially, the way we need to work together in the future,” she told me this morning over Facebook chat. “We also should have more directly addressed the exclusion and tokenization of marginalized voices.”

Lots more to talk about, indeed. Here’s hoping these conversations keep happening. There’s certainly an audience for them.