The two sides were basically sizing each other up. Are you an arts mayor? A guy for whom culture is just part of everyday everything, rather than an add-on? Are you an effective and relevant commission? Flexible and dynamic? Worth listening to?
"The arts are very important to this city," the mayor said, and everybody around the table hungrily scribbled it down. But when it came to specifics—the Wallace Foundation is waiting to hear whether the city will continue its arts education program, for instance (and will make funding decisions accordingly)—the mayor was noncommittal. He talked about his four areas of concentration: the economy/jobs, youth and families, sustainable communities, and something he's calling walk/bike/ride.
Sandra Jackson-Dumont, head of education at Seattle Art Museum and a commissioner working on the arts education project (whose goal is to restore arts education for every student in Seattle Public Schools), described attending two of the mayor's recent caucuses on youth and family. "The arts felt central—Youth in Focus was there, the huge Seattle band was playing, as if the arts were a show-and-tell—but the arts were never mentioned in the discussions from the upper level," she said. "The arts are central, and they need to be a central part of the discussion."
Will the mayor's administration try to help in getting state legislation passed to fund 4Culture in the future? The legislation did not pass again this year—the sixth year in a row—and the agency has one more chance next year to get the funding passed before suffering an 80-percent cut across the board, which would be disastrous for local arts groups of all sizes and types.
The mayor did not know the specifics of the situation—it's clear no arts-passionate person really has his ear. But he responded strongly when it was explained to him. "We'll be happy to go to bat," he said. "We'll work for it."
After the mayor left, Michael Killoren, head of city's office of arts and cultural affairs, announced that the office has been asked to take a 3-percent midyear cut ($115,000) in order to help close the $15 million hole in this year's city budget. "It's enough to put one in a foul mood," he said, "but we've been here before." Staffers are taking furlough days, and everyone is pitching in, he said.
The reviews were mixed—both of the mayor's performance, and of the commission's own responses (they're a self-critical bunch). Many commissioners felt a central disconnect between the mayor's view that the arts are competing for funding, and their view that, as Randy Engstrom of Youngstown Cultural Arts Center put it, "we're suggesting arts as a potential strategy for getting through this difficult time."
"It feels like we're at an impasse with many of these issues, and we've been very polite, which has not been all that effective," said Michael Seiwerath. "It's time to be strategic."
The commission adjourned with its work cut out for it—to rename and rethink its committees along the lines of the mayor's priorities in order to demonstrate the role of the arts in developing neighborhoods, making kids' lives better, and jumpstarting local economies.
"We're still trying to figure out a way of being at the table without seeming like effete snobs," said commission chair Dorothy Mann. "Art's not about statues, it's about a way of seeing the world."