By Maryam Noor
After a mayoral candidate forum about the arts at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute last month, members of the local arts community said many of the candidates’ responses lacked concrete policy solutions that could help artists and institutions recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tim Lennon—the Executive Director of Langston, an independent nonprofit arts organization affiliated with the Langston Hughes Institute—said he was “constantly disappointed at a general lack of awareness that candidates have of the size and scope of not only our sector but particularly, this year, of the impact of the pandemic on our sector.”
Moderators Vivian Phillips and Marcie Sillman, co-hosts of the DoubleXposure podcast, asked mayoral candidates about housing affordability for artists, COVID-19 recovery for the sector, and strategies to increase funding for the arts in Seattle.
“A big thing that gets lost in these conversations about the arts is that the arts are not external to any other conversation around civic dialogue. It’s as large a sector as some of the other industries we lionize.”—Langston Seattle director Tim Lennon
“There were quite a few people who spoke to asking philanthropy to donate more or to match public investment, but no clear policies on how they were going to make that actually happen,” Lennon said.
Five of the mayoral candidates––Andrew Grant Houston, Bruce Harrell, Colleen Echohawk, Jessyn Farrell, and James Donaldson—agreed with the statement that a living wage for an artist in Seattle is $80,000 a year. But Lennon said they didn’t offer strategies for boosting artists’ wages.
According to a 2019 study published by the city’s Office of Arts and Culture, nearly 80 percent of “creative economy” jobs pay less than King County’s median wage, and almost a third of survey respondents whose primary occupation is creative earned less than $25,000 a year from that job. (The study’s definition of “creative economy” was broad, and included waitstaff and computer programmers in addition to traditional creative jobs such as visual artists and writers).
“The number is fine, but it’s about how you get to that number. That is what I’m really concerned about,” Lennon said.
Sillman and Phillips asked the candidates if they’d support a universal basic income pilot program for artists in Seattle, similar to a program San Francisco launched earlier this year. While all of the candidates said they’d support a program like this in theory, only Houston suggested a specific plan to fund a basic income for artists, and suggested defunding the Seattle Police Department to increase the city’s funding for arts spaces by $10 million.
Phillips, who has worked in theater and radio for many years and served on the Seattle Arts Commission, expressed frustration that the city keeps funding research to demonstrate the importance of the arts, which she called “mistaking a study for action.” Last year, for example, Phillips co-authored a study produced by the city’s Office of Film and Music that laid out set of nine recommendations for creating “an equitable and inclusive creative economy.”
“That is… an agenda: Implement those nine recommendations,” Phillips said.
Phillips’ time in Seattle’s arts community has made her wary of elected officials who say their plan for addressing the concerns of artists will start with “listening to the community”—something every candidate said, in some form, during the forum. “There’s no community you’re going to listen to if you don’t listen to the existing one” that has already outlined the policies they want to see, Phillips said. “Who are they? Where are you going to find them?”
Both Phillips and Lennon said the mayoral candidates displayed a lack of understanding of the creative community in Seattle and its importance to the city’s overall economy.
“I think a big thing that gets lost in these conversations about the arts is that the arts are not external to any other conversation around civic dialogue. It’s as large a sector as some of the other industries we lionize,” Lennon said. “In essence, the arts and culture sector broadly is a microcosm of the entire city economy. We have labor, we have landlords, we have individual contractors. We have everybody from the busker at Pike Place Market up through multinational corporations.”
“There are a lot of things that are not traditionally thought of as arts issues like affordable housing, single-family zoning, and portable benefits for workers,” Lennon said. “All these issues that are not really thought of as arts issues are arts issues.”
Jessyn Farrell, a former nonprofit director and state legislator, was the only candidate to directly link the arts to other issues, including both climate policy and gun violence.
“As we are transitioning to a green economy, we need to think about art as part of that economy,” because the creation of art is inherently low-carbon,” Farrell said. “So as we are taxing carbon” under the state’s new cap and trade program, “we need to be looking at funding arts spaces and arts programming as a part of those things.”