Some of that better be for the arts!
Some of that better be for the arts! Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images

Well here's some good news for Seattle's rapidly collapsing cultural sector: After a process that began about a year before she came into office, on Tuesday Mayor Jenny Durkan signed a charter establishing the Cultural Space Agency (CSA).

Seattle cultural space liaison Matt Richter said the new, independent, mission-driven public development authority will operate as "a developer with a conscience."

Along with fulfilling other possible property acquisition and management roles, the CSA will lease spaces, buy buildings or shares in buildings, and partner with members of Seattle's cultural community to control those spaces. The agency essentially aims to slow displacement and prevent big corporations from filling every available square inch of real estate in this town with a fucking Verizon store.

The City will initially spend $1 million for the department's startup costs, and a new board chosen by the current interim board will continue to grow that pot through philanthropy and social impact investing.

Richter said the Build Art Space Equitably cohort, composed entirely of people of color from the worlds of art and real estate, will also guide and run the agency. The CSA is "specifically charted to be driven by and to support communities of color," where displacement has been the most disproportionate, he added.

If you really want to dig into some background, Crosscut's Margo Vansynghel spoke with Tim Lennon, executive director at LANGSTON and interim board member for the CSA, about the five-year process organizers endured to create the agency and also about its goals and aspirations.

This effort to secure and expand the city's cultural legacy comes as the economic fallout from COVID-19 lays waste to venues and studios. Theatre Puget Sound went into full hibernation back in March and furloughed its staff. Last month Arcadia aerial studio in Ballard announced its permanent closure. Earlier this month Velocity Dance Center announced its intentions to vacate its spot on 12th Ave due to “financial hardship brought on by the pandemic and government-mandated closures," according to Capitol Hill Seattle Blog.

A recent statewide survey conducted by 4Culture found that 75% of 483 arts and culture organizations said they will have "depleted their operating budget by the end of November 2020," which was two weeks ago.

Given the general suffering across the sector, Richter said he expects more closures, especially with such uncertainty surrounding reopening schedule. There may be a pretty substantial gap between the date when the state allows venues to open their doors again and the date when a lot of people want to cram indoors to watch a show, so it's hard to say how many spaces will be able to weather the storm.

Richter said he's written "probably a hundred letters" to private landlords on behalf of arts and culture organizations struggling to pay rent but desperate to hold their space. The "vast majority" of these landlords more or less offer the same reply: "It's just not my call. I've got obligations upstream," i.e. to the banks or investors who own the building.

Nevertheless, Richter sees a lot of opportunity in the post-COVID environment. "I think there will be a lot of literal space available, and a lot of capital and passion and innovation and desire," he said. "The question is, can we stave off rapacious, exploitative capitalism long enough for interesting-Seattle to take it back."

The CSA should serve as a useful tool to do just that.

This Slog post is part of State of the Arts, a new series that looks at the creative ways Seattle's arts communities are overcoming our darkest winter. Check Slog daily for fresh updates.