An Artistic Gleam in the Emerald City : Its frontier image fading, Seattle has become one of the hottest cultural centers in the country

The morning after last month's Tony ceremonies, the artistic director of the Seattle Repertory Theatre headed home from New York with a Tony award for Outstanding Regional Theatre. But that wasn't all Daniel Sullivan brought back to Seattle. He also brought a couple of well-known Seattle Rep fans with him.

Playwrights Wendy Wasserstein and Herb Gardner--whose Tony-winning plays "The Heidi Chronicles" and "I'm Not Rappaport," respectively, started at the Rep--were delighted to be enlisted by Sullivan. Both were perfectly willing to fly to Seattle, help Sullivan persuade his board to add another theater--a smaller, versatile hall of about 280 seats--and catch a plane home the next day.

"Every playwright and director I know wants to come here to work," Wasserstein told the Rep's annual meeting. "The best time I ever had in the theater was at Seattle Rep," echoed Gardner. "Imagine thinking of the Tony not as completion but as a starting gun for this second theater."

Why not? That's how people here think. "It's a frontier town," explains Sullivan. "There's an optimism about possibilities. We don't feel we're formed."

All you have to do is look around.

A few blocks from the waterfront, Robert Venturi's new $60-million home for the Seattle Art Museum is heading toward a 1991 completion. Security Pacific Corp. will open a 5,800-square-foot art gallery down the street later this year, while A Contemporary Theatre, one of the city's oldest theaters, is raising funds for its $10-million home nearby. The Pacific Northwest Ballet is adding new rehearsal and classroom space, and a blue-ribbon task force just concluded that the Seattle Symphony needs a new concert hall.

And that's just expansion upon Seattle's existing cultural base.

With the Goodwill Arts Festival set to start here Monday, thousands of visitors will soon learn what people here already know: Seattle has become one of the hottest arts centers in the country. The Emerald City isn't just bringing in terrific international fare for a few weeks. It is emerging as a year-round model arts community.

Start with Seattle's gorgeous setting amid lakes and mountains. Add in two awards as the nation's most livable city, and new investments and attention from Pacific Rim nations. It was only a matter of time until a well-educated, sophisticated influx of new residents both prodded and profited from the city's long-term commitment to the arts.

Art collectors Vivien and Richard Weisman moved here in February, invited 10 people for dinner and spent the next two weeks honoring invitations to cultural activities from every person at the table. John Getzelman says that immediately after his arrival here as Security Pacific Northwest chairman, "chairmen of competitor banks and other senior business people came to see me personally to get me involved in the arts." After less than two years, Getzelman is on the symphony's executive committee, and his wife, Rita, is on the opera board.

This is a city that makes arts a priority. Low-income housing and the Seattle Art Museum expansion were on the same 1986 ballot, and both passed. Murals, sculptures and other artworks grace police precincts, electrical substations, even manhole covers. And in a recent issue of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's weekly entertainment guide, there were 28 auditions listed for everything from actors and choral singers to classical guitarists.

"There are more season ticket holders to theater here than to the Seahawks," says Paul Schell, port commissioner, attorney and Goodwill Arts Festival co-chair. In the 25 years that he's been here, says Schell, "Seattle's become a city as opposed to a big town. It can hold its head up with some of the finest cities in the world. We're not the biggest, but we're certainly interesting. I think we marched to a little different drummer than the rest of the country because we've been isolated so long."

They sure aren't isolated anymore. While the numbers of Southern Californians headed here may be exaggerated--and Schell says the net gain here is very small once you subtract all the Seattlites headed south--the area's lure is clearly apparent. Former agent and film executive Mary Alice Kier, who is now selling real estate here, says she is actively looking for homes for five Hollywood colleagues.

"I lived the fast-lane life of a development executive in Hollywood," says Kier, starting her second screenplay since moving to a Seattle-area suburb last fall. "I ate out every night in wonderful restaurants and went to terrific parties. I was going to art galleries and plays, but I was just speeding through. I think the galleries and theater here are top-rate, and real basic people, not just Hollywood types, support them."

Watch theaters fill here, suggests Peter Donnelly, director of the city's Corporate Council for the Arts. "You see people in black tie, but you also see people putting backpacks under their seats. The arts are what people in Seattle do . . . . The climate is cool and overcast, and people like to go out. Sitting in a concert hall or theater is like sitting around a campfire and telling stories."

Most people trace Seattle's arts boom back to the 1962 World's Fair. Not only did the fair give people here a stronger sense of the world beyond, but it left behind an auditorium that became the opera house and a theater that first housed the Seattle Repertory Theatre. The public was so ready that when Seattle Rep opened in the fall of 1963, about 9,000 season tickets were sold to performances by a theater company that had not yet presented a play.

For decades now, the city's arts administrators have worked together to develop audiences and funding. "In the early days, we felt if we didn't hang together, we'd hang alone," says Donnelly, who landed here in 1964 as a Ford Foundation management intern, then helped lead Seattle Rep for 20 years. The city's arts leaders started meeting every Friday back in the '70s to share information, and a dozen of them--running everything from the opera to the children's theater--are still meeting regularly.

People here believe in cooperation--the words consensus and process punctuate nearly every conversation. In the early '70s, they worked together to push through a government-sponsored program allocating funds for public art that continues to be a model for cities and states around the country and even to help defeat a recall of pro-arts Mayor Wes Uhlman. More recently, arts people worked with other community activists to save the Pike Place Market near the waterfront, to keep billboards off the intrastate and to hold down the heights of downtown buildings.

"There are more (private) art collections between 59th and 72nd on Park Avenue than in all the Northwest," says Patterson Sims, Seattle Art Museum associate director and curator of modern art, who arrived here in late 1987 from New York's Whitney Museum of American Art. "But these (in Seattle) are collectors who feel very commited to this part of the country. They realize that the impact their holdings can have within public institutions is absolutely enormous."

Many of the major patrons 25 years ago are still the arts' biggest backers today. But cultural founding father Bagley Wright, whose name graces the Seattle Rep's current home, says the newest financial players here are corporations. Even at the Center on Contemporary Art, a downtown avant-garde institution, executive director Katherine Marczuk reports that corporate contributions quadrupled last year and have doubled again this year.

Everyone points to a strong, well-educated middle class, which provides patronage as well as audiences. The Seattle Opera had 5,000 donors last year, but only 615 of them gave more than $250. And for the 1,800 donors to the state's Artist Trust, an organization that gives away fellowships to artists, most gifts are in the $25-to-$35 range.

The "typical" Seattlite, Donnelly says, "goes to Monday night symphony, stays home Tuesday, goes to theater on Wednesday and a restaurant on Thursday. On Friday, there's dance or opera and Saturday, the Pike Place Market. Sunday they sail or ski, and on Monday they start all over again."

The rain doesn't hurt, of course. It stays light here until after 9 p.m. these days, and sunshine can apparently affect theater attendance. "We've had Sundays where it's cloudy in the morning, and the phone keeps ringing with people making reservations for that night," says Mark Murphy, program director of On the Boards performance space. "But if the sun comes out at 2 p.m., those same people call back around 5 p.m. canceling their reservations."

It's obviously more than the weather, however. Seattle Arts and Lectures, which presents talks and interviews with authors, opened here two years ago and sold out 82% of its 1,200 seats its very first season.

"There must be 300 software companies over in Bellevue," says Norman Langill, executive producer of the Goodwill Arts Festival, "and that's a lot of brain power. After 20 years here, I also think people just expect creative things to come out of the Northwest."

These people are insatiable. Half the seats for an eight-hour seminar scheduled this weekend for the Seattle Opera's new production of "War and Peace" were gone by early June--at $20 apiece. Donnelly says when he was in the dentist's chair recently, his dentist critiqued plays at the six theaters where he was a subscriber. "When I asked how come he didn't have subscriptions to (the other two major theaters)," Donnelly says with a laugh, "he said he had to leave time for music."

As might be expected, audiences and patrons like that are very attractive to artists, writers, dancers and others. This is, after all, the region that spawned dancers Robert Joffrey and Mark Morris, artists Mark Tobey and Morris Graves.

At Artist Trust, which has been handing out money to individual artists here since 1986, executive director David Mendoza says the greater Seattle area has the seventh-largest concentration of artists in a major metropolitan area, and the state of Washington has the 12th-largest concentration.

While the picturesque Puget Sound area has always been attractive to visual artists, Mendoza says the region's pioneer public arts programs also "send a message that there is interest and support for artists in this part of the country." Seattle's Art in Public Places program manager Diane Shamash reports 2,000 annual requests for information, and she shepherds tours for 50 groups of visitors each year (including, in May, a group from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art).

Consider the fate of a prominent Henry Moore sculpture here. A few years ago, new owners of a downtown office building sold the Moore sculpture out front to a collector in Japan. Word got out, and hundreds of people called both the Seattle Arts Commission and the mayor's office to lobby against the private sale. There was so much pressure on the U.S. companies involved that that they bought back the sculpture for considerably more than they sold it for.

While housing has started to become more expensive here as elsewhere, the area is still economically hospitable to artists. "It isn't a center like Los Angeles or New York, but the life style and beauty are the trade-off," says Seattle-based ceramic artist and teacher Patti Warashina, a well-known sculptor who has shown work in Europe and Japan. "You can have a house and a yard and you don't have to be rich."

Actors reflect similar sentiments. Glenn Mazen, featured in Kevin Kling's play "Lloyd's Prayer," closing today at A Contemporary Theatre, says that over the past 23 years he has raised five children here. "I couldn't raise a family and live and work in New York," says Mazen. "I have to supplement my income with commercials, voice-overs and film work, but we have a very good market here and it's beginning to expand."

Episodes of ABC's "Twin Peaks" were shot in Snoqualmie, about half an hour out of town, and "The Fabulous Baker Boys" made the most of downtown Seattle as well as of Michele Pfeiffer. There are 322 Actor's Equity members here, and Sullivan says film and other work "is healthy--it keeps them here." Adds Contemporary Theatre literary manager Steven Alter: "There's so much good talent here that actors think the street is paved with Equity contracts. I lived in Minneapolis, I lived in L.A., and it's happening here."

Playwrights agree. Pulitzer Prize-winner Wasserstein came here, for instance, to nurture her play "The Heidi Chronicles" "in a safe environment for its beginning." And colleague Gardner says people coming to his play "I'm Not Rappaport" here "really looked like they wanted to be there. At the first two previews, I said, 'I remember these people. They're the people you write plays for.' "

Funders ask how many theaters are enough, says Donnelly, "and I tell them it takes at least seven or eight theaters to keep (our professional actors) working. It takes the symphony, opera and ballet to keep 170 or 180 professional musicians living here. And the benefit (of all that) just begins with their contributions to the symphony or theaters. They also live in neighborhoods and give music lessons, form chamber groups and otherwise influence people."

Artists are good for Washington state, explains Artist Trust's Mendoza, who headed back home to Seattle after eight years in New York: "Their production doesn't pollute, and tourists seem to like them."

About a year ago, recalls Seattle Symphony music director Gerard Schwarz, he and his counterparts at this city's other big cultural institutions were all participating in a panel discussion on the local arts scene. And one of the things they discovered is that every one of them had come from New York City.

"We all came here for the cultural environment," says conductor Schwarz, formerly music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and still music director of the New York Chamber Symphony and Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival. Acknowledging the incredible views of Puget Sound out his living room window, the maestro says, "We're all lucky to be in such a beautiful place. But quite frankly, I stay here because of the cultural environment."

Seattle's strong arts profile isn't entirely new, of course. The Seattle Opera, for instance, ranks as the nation's seventh-largest opera company and has long been well-known internationally as well as nationally. Its "Ring" cycle is reviewed regularly in London and Frankfurt, and the rest of its season has begun to get similar recognition.

But snaring nationally recognized artists such as Schwarz can't hurt. Under Schwarz, for instance, the Seattle Symphony is turning out about 10 recordings a year, and in 1989 it received three Grammy nominations.

The arrival of Seattle Art Museum curator Sims and big-league art collectors like the Weismans have also widened the sights here in the visual arts. While emphasis continues on regional art, and particularly glass art produced by students and teachers at the nearby Pilchuck Glass School, Seattle Art Museum President Virginia Wright expects more attention to international contemporary art once the new museum is complete.

Leaders such as Schwarz or Sims also "provide a connection to a larger community," says veteran Seattle art dealer Linda Farris. "When you bring in world-class (leaders), it raises everybody's perceptions of an art form."

Emigration isn't all at the top either. When On the Boards, a cutting-edge arts group, held its yearly artists meeting, half the artists, playwrights and choreographers in the room had been there less than six months. And at the similarly untraditional Center on Contemporary Art, 10 times as many artists came in looking for a place to show their work this past year as in the prior year.

"The people who moved here in the '60s would have been counterculture, and in the '70s and '80s, environmentalists and people wanting a more livable city," says Sims. "In the '90s, it's all that plus a thirst for a sophistication about culture."

Already the newcomers are having an impact. Unlike many other cities, where half or more of an art dealer's sales may be to out-of-town collectors, Farris says that most galleries here make 80% of their sales to local or regional collectors. "While there are still just four or five major contemporary collections here, the big change is in the tier just below them, which was lacking before."

The same is true at the opera. For the last "Ring" cycle, in '87, says Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins, 50% of the audience was from out of town. "But I expect that when we do it again in 1991, the audience will be 60/40 from here because of all the new people. We are not now, nor will we ever be, the Seahawks, but if you bring in 100 newcomers, maybe 15 will have a passing interest in opera and five will be fanatics."

Seattle is no New York or Los Angeles clone, however. Much patronage is done privately, and new residents point out the lack of "scene" restaurants, social coverage and indeed social-climbing. Sims says when he found out that Barney's in New York opened a store here, "I wondered where people would wear all those hyper-elegant clothes." And describing the hoped-for new concert hall, maestro Schwarz says quickly that "it won't be ostentatious. We want a beautiful hall that services the music brilliantly but we don't need a glitzy one."

Will success spoil Seattle?

The state's film and video office gets at least one call every single day from people across the country who are looking for jobs here, and increased Hollywood interest is expected to result in the opening of a city film office within a year or so. There is also discussion of a new performing arts center for the "East Side"--the upscale communities of Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond on the other side of Lake Washington--as well as ongoing development of a theater district in nearby Tacoma.

Opera impresario Jenkins, for one, says three times in less than an hour that he readily welcomes new audiences and money from California and elsewhere. Opera board members even held a fund-raiser in February in Palm Springs where Jenkins spoke and gave 80 people a preview of "War and Peace," their big-budget entry in the Goodwill Arts Festival.

But not everybody is pleased with all the change. Judy Malmgren, an epidemiologist who was born and raised here, questions whether A Contemporary Theatre's future downtown home amid skyscrapers could rival its current suburban setting where "in the summer you walk out to green trees and good-smelling warm air. They're going to a corporate setting and I don't like that."

She also doesn't much like all the crowds at the monthly open houses at the art galleries. Looking around her at the people pouring into a Pioneer Square gallery on a recent Thursday evening, she complained that "it used to take me 15 minutes to get here, but tonight it took 45 minutes to get here and find a parking place, and these people are all strangers. I liked it the way it was."

At Seattle Rep, Sullivan says the Rep's success in sending plays to New York means he spends "a lot of time deflecting the interest of producers wanting to start plays here. Our workshops are also a little more tense--now it's sort of make-or-break with playwrights and that's kind of a shame. "

Some organizations have also expanded too fast. Pioneer Square Theatre went out of business last year not long after expanding from one to three theaters. Empty Space Theatre took over one of the Pioneer spots after being similarly undercapitalized and over-extended in its big, new home. And other mid-sized and smaller houses reportedly also sometimes encounter trouble meeting Equity payrolls.

"We tend to do things a little slower," says Melissa Hines, managing director of the Empty Space. "We are being jostled by people with new money into accelerated growth and expansion that we would otherwise be more cautious about and scrutinize more."

All the success is also putting incredible demands on existing institutions. At the opera house, for instance, conductor Schwarz says that despite subscriber preferences, there are not enough Saturday nights available for a subscription series. The orchestra can only do one of its rehearsals onstage rather than in a rehearsal hall, and it has to turn down major visiting orchestras because no opera house dates are available.

Schwarz' new concert hall, budgeted at $54 million if built today, may profit from new monies offered by the National Arts Stabilization Fund. Seattle is one of five areas in which the nonprofit fund is operating a long-range financial program to stabilize 10 of the city's core arts organizations. The fund has already made million-dollar grants to the Pacific Northwest Ballet and Seattle Art Museum and will distribute $5.5 million more over the next few years.

While the 10 organizations that may qualify for the fund have budgets ranging from $634,000 at the Group Theatre to $8.7 million at the opera, most are fairly large organizations. Large organizations also get a big chunk of Seattle Arts Commission money, and here, as elsewhere, Seattle's large and small arts organizations don't always exist in perfect harmony.

This is particularly true when funds are finite. Money may be coming in here from corporations and foundations, says Richard Andrews, director of the University of Washington's Henry Art Gallery, but the number of corporate headquarters and major foundations in Seattle is limited. "There's not an enormous well of money in Seattle that we can tap endlessly, and we have to confront that."

One possibility, of course, is increased efforts to tap Pacific Rim corporations already fueling other segments of the Seattle economy. At the Seattle Art Museum, for instance, both president Wright and curator Sims say they plan to approach Japanese and Hong Kong collectors and others for support of their new Asian art museum. The museum's current home in Volunteer Park will be renovated as an Asian art center once the much-larger museum facility opens downtown.

Seattle's favorable position in terms of Pacific Rim trading also counters the city's long-felt feelings of isolation. Arts people here readily acknowledge the problems of not being conveniently on the way to anywhere, nor in the artistic mainstream for artists needing to keep abreast of exhibitions or performances in their field. Although, says Andrews, "one of the strengths of the arts here has been that you're thrown on your own devices, and that challenge attracts a certain kind of person."

Museum administrator Andrews, for instance, was raised in Los Angeles, later came here and ran the Seattle Arts Commission's public arts program, then left for Washington, D.C. to head the National Endowment for the Arts' visual arts program. But he came back again, he says, because "the assets in this community far outweigh the problems and challenges. I was offered a job I wanted in a city that is still in the process of defining itself, and where I could be part of a very active and progressive arts community.

"The historic feeling here has been that a rising artistic tide will float all the ships," says Andrews. "In less than 30 years, we have developed the basic audience, the basic levels of support and the artistic staffs to achieve a high level of artistic quality. The Goodwill Arts Festival has us all stretching ourselves artistically, and our continued challenge is to sustain that stretch into the future."

Times librarian Doug Conner contributed to the research for this article.

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