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Making Space for the Arts in a Changing City

Sophie Solomon

On June 16th Artist Trust partnered with the Henry Art Gallery to present A Space of One’s Own: A Conversation on Affordable Housing and Workspace for Artists. This panel conversation was presented in conjunction with Gift City: A Project by Keller Easterling, currently on view at the Henry.

The panel was moderated by Shannon Halberstadt (Executive Director at Artist Trust), who was joined by Sam Farrazaino (founder of Equinox Studios), Allison Eltrich (co-founder of Practice Space Seattle), Vivian Phillips (chair of the Seattle Arts Commission), Michael Seiwerath (Executive Director of Capitol Hill Housing Foundation), and Cathryn Vandenbrink (former Regional Director of Artspace Project).

Speaking to a room of artists, community members, and housing advocates, the panel highlighed the pressing reality of advocating for affordable housing, and emphasized the role that artists can and should play in responding to this moment in Seattle history. The panelists also touched on resources that artists can use right now to find space in Seattle, including their organizations, Spacefinder Seattle and SEEDArts.

It is a reality that Seattle is changing rapidly. The fluxes of economic growth is bringing 1,000 new individuals to the city each month, causing high rates of new development and of displacement. In the face of these strong, swift changes, it is hard to push back, especially at the individual level, and especially for communities of color in the face of histories of exclusionary housing policy, histories of a segregated housing system, and exclusion of voices at the policy making level. It is often hard for artists to find the capacity to create space for themselves and to get involved in the policy process, all while trying to support and to find time for their artistic practice. It is even harder to feel like change is possible.

Advocating for artist involvement in all aspects of housing concerns, the panelists offered suggestions for getting out there, demanding that voices be heard, creating coalitions, and working from the ground up to create art space, and to ensure that art space is made a priority in future development. Vivian Phillips stressed this point, saying, “Artists should be involved in every level of policy… until artists show up at things that are not artist specific, policy makers are not going to show up for artists.” She pushed for artists showing up at open discussions, at Seattle Arts Commission meetings, and at town hall conversations.

The conversation also highlighted the need to look for intersections within this advocacy, for artists to align themselves with other low-income folks, and with other communities that are fighting for space within the city of Seattle. How can artists leverage their positions to create meaningful change and align themselves with marginalized communities? How can artists use their voice to create larger, systemic, inclusive change? How can they dismantle housing frameworks based on histories of oppression?

The panelists echoed a need to push back against the label of the artists as victims or as ‘bad business people’, and to recognize the key role that artists play in the Seattle landscape. The projects that artists represent are all examples of advocacy efforts to ensure arts space for Seattle artists. We see this with Equinox Studios, with the Artspace project, with 12th Avenue Arts, and with spaces like the new V2 art space in Capitol Hill. All are examples of artists recognizing a need, and working tirelessly to ensure that this need is met. Panelists recognized that this work is hard, that this work is taxing, and that this work often means a departure, at least temporarily, from a complete focus on one’s own practice. Their projects, though, make clear that change is possible, and little by little one’s own advocacy, when paired with the efforts of others, can create meaningful progress. They pushed for artists to create coalitions, to come together and utilize each individual’s own skills to create stronger, broader, and deeper efforts to ensure the presence of art space in Seattle.

The discussion concluded with a conversation about the role that artists can play in development. Discussions around development can often create a dichotomy with ‘evil’ developers on one side, and concerned community members on the other. This is not baseless. The drive for profit from outside developers creates very real effects for community members. However, the panelists highlighted the opportunity for collaboration, for an insistence on the inclusion of art space in new development, and the creation of incentives to ensure that art space is made a priority. They advocated for a shift in protocol, for a shift in the way we develop to ensure that community engagement and response to community needs is prioritized, specifically through the lens of arts and culture.

This work needs to start today. Sam Farrazaino, highlighted this by saying, “The key is planting seeds, starting now for the future: shifting dialogue from the artist as victim, artists as bad business people, to artists as amazing, as having resources and being resources. Business people are out there every day and can be amazing resources, but we cannot sit back and wait. If we let the developers do this alone we are going to see their future, and not our future.”

Throughout the Henry auditorium sat audience members who were artists, advocates, community members, and stakeholders, all with an interest in and a tie to the fight for affordable housing. The conversations that took place within this room, and within this panel discussion, are only a starting point for a larger conversation about ensuring that art space is a strong presence within the arts ecosystem in Seattle. What comes next is just as important. By working with one another, by continuing conversations, and by not giving up and making sure that demands are voiced repeatedly, artists can begin to push back against a system that often does not include artist voices. By working together, we can begin to create a society which meets the needs of artists, instead of crushing them in the wake of rapid urbanization.