Capitol Hill Arts District gets to work with promotion now, development incentives later

Council finance and culture chair Nick Licata at Saturday's ceremony (Images: CHS)

Council finance and culture chair Nick Licata at Saturday’s ceremony (Images: CHS)

The Capitol Hill Arts District was launched Saturday. It has plenty of work to do.

“There’s a chance that half of these artists, myself included, won’t be able to live here in five years,” says Amanda Manitach. She’s standing beside fellow artist Jesse Higman inside Hugo House, amid 11 fresh-baked artistic renditions of a day in the life of Capitol Hill: sketches, video, poems.

Manitach says she knows one artist who’s already considering homelessness in order to remain on the Hill. “It kill[s] me,” she says. “This guy has a job. In my opinion he makes some of the most thoughtfully political and aesthetically poignant art in the region.”

With property values and rents skyrocketing in the country’s fastest-growing big city, Manitach isn’t alone in her fear that development on Capitol Hill will wash away all the interesting poor people who made it desirable in the first place, transforming a countercultural gayborhood into a wasteland of luxury apartments and trite party bars.

Manitach

Manitach

But there’s some good news. The City Council is ready to vote Monday afternoon to christen Capitol Hill as Seattle’s first bona fide Arts District. The Office of Arts and Culture describes the district as “an attempt to bring cohesion” to the “constellation of arts organizations” splattered around E Pine and 12th Ave via a combination of community organizing, public advertising, and zoning incentives that will hopefully prompt developers to provision for the creation, and creators, of art.

The Arts and Cultural Districts program was formally unveiled at Hugo House on Saturday. It was an interesting choice for the district’s launch pad. The 100-year-old former mortuary is slated to be demolished in early 2016, according to executive director Tree Swenson, to make way for a new six-story mixed-use project. It’s a rare, one-of-a-kind project where an arts organization is part of the plans. “The ownership team has been so generous to us” as land prices have risen, she says, and the old building’s internal systems are faltering. “I haven’t been able to work for the first hour in the morning because my fingers are too cold.” Swenson says the owners have pledged to make room for Hugo House to return in the new building.

IMG_6321A crowd of about 80 gathered for the ceremony on Saturday. “I’ve lived here for 30 years, and this has been a home to the arts since the beginning of Seattle, basically,” said Mayor Ed Murray.

City Council finance and culture chair Nick Licata said he hopes Seattle will lead the way in the creation of arts districts. “We want to create a model here that can be duplicated across the country,” he said.

“This is a community where so many of the organizations and artists rent, and it’s a hard time to be a renter,” said Capitol Hill Housing Foundation executive director Michael Seiwerath.

The real action, though, was with the art itself. To celebrate the launch of the District, 11 local artists had spent the preceding 24 hours producing original works to document the surrounding neighborhood. Jed Dunkerley, for instance, came up with a three page comic-book montage of the Capitol Hill bar scene. “I just plopped down with my sketchbook and turned on all my recording apparatus,” he says. “My ears, my eyes.”

About an hour before the event, Jesse Higman finished editing a sped-up video loop of his previous night’s travels through the neighborhood: frothing crowds, a Hummer limo, an underground party. “I’d go out and shoot, duck in and dump [the video, then] go back out” to do some more “white water rafting”—Higman’s term for navigating the Hill’s constipated sidewalks during drunk hours. “I did a painting, smoked some pot, had some friends come over, and edited the video all night.” An hour after he finished, it was on display.

So what is the Art District, exactly?
It’s partly a rallying point for beleaguered arts organizations, partly an advertising strategy to attract more patrons, and partly an incentives program for developers who might be persuaded to build arts spaces into new buildings. The latter is still in development, says city Cultural Space Liaison Matthew Richter, but should roll out next year and could include zoning perks for buildings that provide art spaces. CHS talked in 2013 with Council member Licata about the possibilities of the district and its Capitol Hill genesis. Other “tools” in the program’s “toolbox” include special signage, crosswalks, kiosks, organized busking, and landmarks.

But performance spaces won’t keep artists themselves from being elbowed off the Hill. Richter admits that “there’s not a tool in the kit right now for artist housing.” He’s currently brainstorming with the Office of Housing to figure out solutions to the “housing puzzle,” but doesn’t expect anything concrete from that process until 2016. In the next two months, he says, he’ll concentrate on connecting poor artists with existing affordable housing resources.

One example of the kind of arts-and-affordability development Richter and others hanker for is the new 12th Ave Arts building, a six-story mixed-use building developed by Capitol Hill Housing. Its name displayed on the second floor in human-sized cheese-grater letters, the building boasts a basement full of police cruisers, two ground floor theaters, and 88 (already taken) low-income apartments.

The 12th Ave Arts grand opening is Thursday, November 20th

The 12th Ave Arts grand opening is Thursday, November 20th, 4 PM

Manitach says that this is exactly the kind of building the city and local businesses need to support if they’re serious about preserving the Hill’s cultural primacy. “The city, the neighborhood patrons, businesses, developers need to put their money where their mouth is if they want to nurture a genuine arts district — not merely a nominal one.”

“What excites me about the formation of a Capitol Hill Arts District is locking in our history,” she said. “Establishing [what] we are, and have been for decades—for instance, LGBT friendly. That we are a safe community for anyone and everyone, of every orientation and race and background. That we are a place where kids and artists and weirdos flock. And I hope that the people moving to Capitol Hill during this boom time come here, in part, for that reason—as well as for the night life and the bougie cache.”

For his part, Higman — the video-loop artist — is philosophical about the recent antagonism between new money and old hippies on the Hill. “Most of my other friends resent what’s happening,” he says. “I just look at it as friction.”

And where there’s friction, there’s energy. “I think that we’re at the top of a wave here, in a Great Gatsby kind of way,” he says. “The arts scene is really thriving… in parallel.”

Manitach is hosting a “casual” LIVE/WORK community meeting “for artists and art students living and working in the Capitol Hill Arts District.” Monday, November 17, 2014, 5 PM at 12th Ave’s Hedreen Gallery.

The Seattle City Council will vote Monday afternoon on Resolution 31555 “designating Capitol Hill’s Pike/Pine/12th Avenue neighborhood as the first officially-recognized Arts & Cultural District.”

Resolution Number 31555

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17 thoughts on “Capitol Hill Arts District gets to work with promotion now, development incentives later

  1. Considering being homeless to stay on the hill? Seriously? The artist in question will find it damn hard to do anything, let alone art if he follows through on this amazingly pompous idea. I am supportive of the art district, but nonsense statements like that make it seem like it is being run by children. Ask any of the poor souls who made it through the last few nights on the streets what they think of someone who is “considering” being homeless.

    • Can’t art be made just about anywhere? Why is it so important that artists live on Capitol Hill? They can still show their art here if they must live somewhere less expensive. I would suggest to her friend that, instead of “choosing homelessness,” he find a less expensive neighborhood to live in, or shop around on Capitol Hill to find a cheaper place to live.

  2. I just don’t get why Capitol Hill was chosen as an arts district over lower Queen Anne where art institutions and activities actually exist. Other than Hugo House, Century Ballroom, SIFF, and the Seattle Asian Art Museum what else is there? Most of the activities on the Hill are undesirable and cater to a very young crowd, therefore, I do not see the Hill with cross-over appeal to the masses. It’s dirty, and has a huge homeless, crime and drug-use problem. How will the City address these issues? Furthermore, why should artist have preferential housing?

    • Here are some additional Capitol Hill galleries & performance venues you left off your list:

      Annex Theatre
      Northwest Film Forum
      Eclectic Theatre
      Vermillion Gallery
      Ltd. Gallery
      Neumo’s/Barboza
      Ghost Gallery
      True Love Gallery
      Gilbert Photography
      The Comet
      Glasswing
      Velocity Dance Center
      Grace Gallery
      Art Primo
      Chop Suey
      CoCA
      Fred Wildlife Refuge
      Blindfold Gallery
      Broadway Performance Hall

      Not to mention the plethora of restaurants, bars, coffee shops & retail establishments with rotating gallery space.

      The point being that art – a LOT of art as a matter of fact – actually DOES exist on Capitol Hill, but one must also note there used to be even MORE art here until the pressures of development pushed many venues and individual artists out; ironic, given that these same developments emphasize the “creative, artistic” qualities of the neighborhood as a selling point to prospective tenants.

      The difference between Capitol Hill and Lower Queen Anne is that most of the artistic venues on LQA are older, well-established organizations, many of which own their own facilities and therefore are in no danger of being displaced; not so the case on Capitol Hill, where few, if any organizations can afford to own their own space. And as the rate of development increases, the likelihood of those groups being able to afford to stay on the Hill consequently diminishes, with the result being that they’ll have to pull up stakes and move to some other (or more likely multiple other) neighborhood and start all over in terms of establishing themselves and getting their audiences and patrons to follow them. This creates a huge drain on institutional resources: time, labor and money, all of which could be better spent producing art.

      As to the “why?” of subsidizing artists’ housing? When one looks at the great cities of the past and present – the ones most of us would generally consider “world class” – what exactly is it that distinguishes them? I would suggest the answer can be boiled down to a single word: “culture”. We find these cities attractive because they aspire to a balance that mixes commerce and business with art and aesthetically pleasing experiences. Almost no one goes to Tokyo or Paris or Vienna or any other great city because some multi-national corporation is headquartered there: they go for the food, the museums, the sport, the music and theatre and dance. And people move to these cities at least in part because of the availability of these kinds of aesthetic/cultural activities. So, an argument can be made that, by supporting those who directly create these amenities, we’re making our own city more appealing both to residents, as well as to those who visit, which in turn helps to support other businesses and industries.

      And as those of us who work in the arts know all too well, creating art isn’t always done as a profit-driven enterprise; most art of quality can’t be defined by a dollar sign, but rather by what sort of response it engenders in the person viewing it. How do you put a price on Shakespeare’s striking imagery, or Monet’s perception of light, or Mozart’s innovative use of key changes?

  3. Mocha Sweet,
    The reason Capitol Hill was chosen is that it has the greatest concentration of non-profit arts organizations in the Pacific Northwest and one of the greatest concentrations in the country. There are 150 such organizations on Capitol Hill. The arts organization you refer to on Lower Queen Anne are few, large, and very mainstream. You, apparently, feel that Capitol Hill is “dirty, and has huge homeless, crime, and drug use problems.” This tends to come with the territory. Where do you live? Do you live in Lower Queen Anne?

  4. Kudos to COMTE & Cap Hill Guy for getting it right! Capitol Hill is not “dirty, [with] huge homeless, crime, and drug use problems”. It has its problems, for sure, like most urban neighborhoods. what a dickish thing to say. While stating one would be homeless to stay on The Hill seems a bit extreme, for sure, anyone with zero understanding of art and artists will never get it. An artists environment is HUGE. Different artists (including MUSICIANS!) need different inspirations and different settings. Vibrant, urban neighborhoods like Capitol Hill offer (or, used to, before the rent increases) a very large community of fellow artists, musicians, actors to hobnob with, work with and exchange ideas with. They also bring conveniences critical to the artistic process for many. And, when managed properly, many of these conveniences increase affordability (no need for a car, cheap eats, competitive food selling, access to goods). Can we elevate the convo above hateful suburban paste-y ignorance, please?

  5. I spoke with Cultural Space Liaison Matthew Richter after the meeting and came away wildly unimpressed. No real vision, nothing innovative or leadership-like whatsoever. And, let’s be clear, when I brought up artist housing affordability Richter made it clear he thinks artists should be lumped in with poor folks looking for housing and that there should be no special program to get affordable housing onto the Seattle market for Seattle’s artists specifically. When I protested, he stated flatly: “I disagree” .

    Richter failed to even accept the idea that artist housing might be created through private underwriting and bonding to be paid off by benefiting artist (instead of using tax dollars).

    Lame. Another out-of-touch bureaucrat (who just happens to have arts credentials, too). And, so, thus far, we get a program -‘arts districts’- with no real, concrete tools to address the primary underlying issue (housing and rehearsal space access for non-wealthy artists) but offers feelgood, mostly pretentious window dressing.

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