Monday night at Town Hall most of the candidates running for city council laid out their district-specific arts policies, such as they were, to a crowd of about 100 to 150 people. Not a strong showing from a city that trades on its art scene, and for a state whose "arts and cultural sector" is growing at the fastest rate in the country even as it sees some of the lowest funding levels. Absence ended up being a bit of a theme. Two candidates skipped the forum—Seattle Council Member Debora Juarez and District 2 candidate Mark Solomon—and the youth poet laureate, who was scheduled to close the event, was nowhere to be found at the end of the night.
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Nevertheless, the forum, which was organized by Inspire Washington (an arm of Cultural Access Washington) did address important issues in the art world, which, as speakers repeatedly pointed out, isn't JUST an insular scene of fainting poets (unfortunately) but the very lifeblood of the city, and one of the strongest engines of its economy. Plus, the forum forced District 4 candidate Alex Pedersen to bust out his art tie, which was amazing to behold. Let's go over the highlights:
They all want to keep funding arts using 100% of the admission tax funds. Since 2018 the city has used 100% of the admission tax to fund the Office of Arts and Culture. In case you've been missing your budget meetings (guilty), the admissions tax is a 5% charge on all tickets to "entertainment venues or events in Seattle." Several beloved events are exempt (lol Bumbershoot and Folklife), as are certain music venues and nonprofits, but basically the idea is for certain sports and the movies to pay for the arts. Anyhow, Inspire Washington executive director Manuel Cawaling said all present candidates agreed in a survey distributed before the forum to continue that practice, which is good. Now they're all on the record for preserving arts funding.
Sattler got a gasp. The biggest gasp of the evening came when Ann Davison Sattler, the Safe Seattle candidate who's running against Juarez in District 5, criticized the council for waiving the admission tax for hockey events at the newly renovated KeyArena. "They did what?!" said a concerned arts fan behind me. That's correct. According to the Seattle Times, "The city will...pay ArenaCo any admissions taxes collected on tickets for events at the new arena beyond the amount the city currently collects from admissions taxes on events at KeyArena." So the company who owns the arena will still have to pay whatever admission tax they were paying for events, but they'll get a break on any new events, i.e. hockey.
Herbold knows what she's talking about. In District 1, Phil Tavel and incumbent Lisa Herbold fielded questions on the best places to build affordable housing for artists. They were also asked to list what sorts of financial resources they'd be willing to commit to the arts beyond funding the Office of Arts and Culture. Tavel said he'd put housing near Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, Westwood, and South Park. He'd like to see more arts programming in South Park and Highland Park, and he'd ask the businesses who already give money to local institutions to pay for it. (Good luck!) After mentioning she was the council member who successfully pushed to fund arts through the admission tax and that she's also helped secure funding for a number of important institutions, Herbold said she'd put the housing in urban villages. She also pushed her community preferences policy, which gives displaced people the first crack at the housing that displaced them.
The biggest applause line didn't have much to do with art. The biggest applause of the evening came from Tammy Morales, who said she wanted to use the recently passed Families, Education, Preschool and Promise Levy funds to replace resource officers in schools with "restorative justice officers," and also provide college coaching in high schools. Not exactly an arts policy, but okay.
I vote for Sharon Williams. The best line of the evening came from Sharon Williams, who runs the Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas, and who introduced the District 3 candidates Monday night. "I want this city to love art in the way that it loves announcing that another corporation is coming to the city," she said. "I want this city to be committed to not giving us housing we can afford, but housing we can own."
Orion thinks big business will be happy to pay for art, you just gotta ask nicely! City Council Member Kshama Sawant focused on her effort to save the Showbox (which isn't looking very saved) and her early support for the Artist Workers Union (which is looking pretty strong!). Orion argued that businesses have a "key role in helping us fund housing" to keep artists in town and that "big business and small business have a real key stake in making sure that our art institutions thrive." He promised to work with businesses of all sizes "collaboratively." Sawant said the problem with giving big business a seat at the table is that "big business actually owns the table, and has shown itself capable of flipping the table over," and will only work to maintain Seattle's status as a "corporate tax haven.” She championed passing progressive taxes to build housing to keep artists here.
The candidate who runs a festival is worried about the city making festivals pay for cops to staff those events. Orion also brought up the specter of the city requiring "full cost recovery" on events, which he said is putting "downward pressure" on people who run events—such as, oh, PrideFest—and "threatening to erase them." If the city implemented "full cost recovery"—the city appears only to be studying the issue at the moment, not acting on any legislation—groups who host permitted events in town would have to repay the city for the cost of staffing it with cops. Two years ago the City Auditor put out a report showing how much the city pays cops in "special event wages," which has hovered in the $10 million range since 2013. SPD decides which events to staff with how many officers, and the report found they "generally follows federal best practice guidance for determining event staffing levels." Council Members Lorena Gonzalez and Teresa Mosqueda asked the Mayor to do a book report—due July of this year—to increase cost recovery. I'll see if I can't check that out from the library soon, but it doesn't seem like anything the council is prioritizing.
Fiscal responsibility all around. In District 4, Alex Pedersen said he wanted to use his "talents and skills for fiscal responsibility to get more funding for the arts," and demonstrated that a bit by arguing that money generated from athletic events in Magnuson Park should go back to residents there instead of getting dumped into the general fund. Shaun Scott also displayed some fiscal responsibility by advocating for a land bank and for building artist housing on public land.
Whomst amongst us hasn't described the arts this way? Sattler referred to art as “the cultural side of our humanity," which is one way to put it.
Wills gotta shill. District 6 candidate Heidi Wills used her time to plug her own small business, "a gift products company" that employs, she said, 65 people, many of whom are "creatives." To increase funds for the arts, she said she'll "engage diverse stakeholders," which includes patrons and members of the "business community" who have funds. Dan Strauss charmed the audience when he talked about attending theater camp and going to the Seattle Rep, and besides Scott he seemed like the candidate who could speak most powerfully about the arts on their own terms, but he made vague claims about how he'd support the arts as a council member.
The guys who want to run the arts district seem to know the least about arts admin. Either Jim Pugel and Andrew Lewis will oversee the arts in District 7, which covers a lot of the big institutions and the Seattle Center. Pugel said he didn't want to “over-commercialize" the Seattle Center, and added that he'd replace eight police officers and two sergeants who were cut from the grounds during the recession. Lewis, who stressed the second syllable in the word "affluent," as only an affluent person would know to do, announced his broad support for the arts and said he would support the next Access for All initiative.