Brendon Kiley wrote the latest in a historically long series of articles in both the Stranger (“ConWorks Homeless”)and the Weekly (“Tough Love for the Arts”) that could be titled “WTF is wrong with arts organizations in this town?” It’s a question I have pondered and answered myself in at least one article in the Seattle Times awhile ago. Most arts organizations have space problems and space problems mean they have a real estate problem. What’s that got to do with Chapter 23.90? Well, when non-profit organizations that are heavily dependent on space don’t comply with the land use or building code they can find themselves with compliance costs that are a death sentence. But more fundamentally, the common denominator for many defunct arts organizations is a failure to integrate space management (including complying with parts of the land use and building codes) into their plans and to figure out how to pay for it.
I can say that, like Public Health’s food health program, the Department of Planning and Development is a compliance based enforcement agency. That is, their focus is not busting violators of aspects of the land use code but to help people, businesses, and organizations that are out of compliance to come into compliance. This has helped many organizations extend their functions. But there is a point when the DPD has to act to shut down venues that are unsafe or out of compliance.
I am using this as a jumping off point because of an experience I had back in 2005 with the Union Garage space on Capitol Hill. I was manager of the Tobacco Prevention Program then, and we got news from the Union Garage that their production was in danger of going out of business. The problem: an issue with the fire code. I went out for a run the morning after I saw the e-mail and it hit me. Art Patch, the program we created to combat tobacco sponsorship of the arts, should help solve the problem. From Kiley’s story on that:
Since the Union Playhouse was shut down by the fire department, it was fitting that its displaced production was saved by an antismoking organization. The Patch Project (AKA Artpatch) swooped in last month to help Influence, giving it enough money to rent theater space for the rest of its run.
This was Artpatch’s first foray into theater, but won’t be its last. Founded last summer in response to Lucky Strike’s hefty sponsorship of Seattle arts (including grants to Consolidated Works, the Genius Awards, and CoCA), Artpatch has primarily focused on visual art and music events like TheStranger‘s Big Shot music showcase. The nonprofit, currently funded by King County Public Health’s Tobacco Prevention Program, wants to diversify and is talking to fringe theaters about sponsorship possibilities in April.
I can’t remember what the exact code compliance issue was, but a $2500 sponsorship keep the show open. And it made me realize that this is often the problem with small businesses all over town, especially arts non-profits. Does calling an arts organization “non-profit” and a “business” in the same sentence strike you as oxymoronic? Now you understand the problem. Arts organizations are businesses in the sense that their revenues–from whatever source–must meet or exceed their costs in order for them to exist and survive. This is a fact lost on most of us, art managers, funders, and patrons alike.
Too often arts organizations operate as charities. “Whoa is us,” they say. “If only we had more money we’d be fine.” But the truth is that many, many artists in town make their thing work by working multiple jobs, seeking investors, planning well, and sometimes creating stuff that they don’t really like but sells well. All of these things allow those self sufficient artists do what they really want to do, create art. When artists create an organization they can sometimes forget this principle. Let’s face it, they get lazy, relying on subsidies from local government, big donors, or a streak of successful productions.
They also forget, sometimes, to read their damn leases. I’ve seen it happen more than once and it’s a really sad experience. A big red flashing light should be going off when an organization is renting space at a property with a MUP board in front of it. That means that the building is going away, and that it is very likely that the favorable terms in the lease (like low rent, the ability to paint or bust out walls) is directly related to the fact that it is going to be demolished. When that happens the organization is out on the street, trying to find similarly priced space in a neighborhood that is selling space at market rate, which they can’t pay.
Then the hand wringing and developer bashing begins along with the cry that “Seattle doesn’t take care of it’s arts organizations!” That might be true, but arts organizations also need to take care of themselves. And that means reading their leases, figuring out what they’re getting into when they sign the agreements, and making sure they can pay the rent. I created a four questions when I advised arts organizations:
1. Mission—What do you want to do?
2. Space—Where do you need to do it?
3. Money—How much will the space to do it cost?
4. Do the answers to 1 and 2 negatively affect your mission?
I am convinced that if most organizations in trouble in the past or in trouble now or not in trouble yet just asked and answered these questions disaster might be averted. Is every arts organization crisis a space related one? I don’t know. But my theory is that the problem is significant. For the Union Garage it was a code compliance issue. For other organizations it’s having a building get sold and the rents changing. For others, it’s simply facing rising rents or increasing management costs.
If I sound frustrated its because I am. I see art as infrastructure, just as important to dense, walkable neighborhoods as sidewalks, drainage, and parks. But why don’t we treat art and culture that way? It’s a long story. But part of it goes back to that oxymoron issue. Art is a business, if we define business as a way of investing money and time in order to create a return on that investment that covers the original investment. The derision that is heaped on Dale Chihuly is fine if it’s about his art, but not about his business sense. I don’t care for his stuff all that much. But he’s making money. And somehow an artist making money or being successful, for many, means they are no longer an artist.
Our code should be trying to do things to make art and culture requirements in some kinds of mixed use developments. Options for TDR for arts and cultural space, incentives for including space in new developments, reducing the costs of compliance with the code (there was a great program in Chicago that helped fund code compliance), and empowering local arts organizations to become developers themselves all make sense. The Chicago program actually amended the code so that it was easy for performance venues to comply.
I am all for reducing the costs and impacts that space needs and code compliance (fire safety, earthquake safety, etc) have on arts organizations bottom lines. But there has to be more work on the part of organizations to get people on their boards and hire executive directors who understand that art is a business. It takes money coming in the door and going out to make things run. Our code and requirements need an update, but so do our perceptions about what it means to be an artist.