Imagine the Possibilities: What John Connolly and Marty Walsh Can Learn from Seattle

It’s hard to know where to begin a discussion about the integral role arts and culture plays in the life of the City of Seattle. Since establishing its Office of Arts & Culture way back in 1971, city leaders have actively worked to make Seattle a regional hub for music, theater, visual art and arts education. Fostering the creative economy is a fact of life in Seattle, just like cloudy weather and coffee.

As Seattle Mayor Michael McGinn observed last month in his budget address to city councilors, “We celebrate and promote arts and culture and historic preservation for its contribution to our quality of life, and also because it helps keep and attract the smart, creative people that power our economy.”

This is a city that passed an ordinance—in 1973—requiring that a percentage of the city’s annual capital improvement funding be set aside for the commission, purchase and installation of public artworks. Seattle’s public art collection now includes nearly 400 permanently sited works and close to 3,000 portable works. More recently, the Office of Arts & Culture developed an app to help visitors and local art lovers locate artworks and learn more about the particular installations they happen upon. 

But what’s most interesting is the way in which McGinn is combining support for the arts with other policy priorities. This is where Boston mayoral candidates John Connolly and Marty Walsh could learn a few fresh ideas about how to foster Boston’s creative culture and simultaneously advance other policies critical to our city.


Take, for example, green energy, an issue that both Walsh and Connolly prioritize in their campaign platforms. In August, McGinn and his collaborators at Seattle City Light (the city’s publicly owned electric company) and Pacific Science Center unveiled “Sonic Bloom” a solar-powered artwork created by local artist Dan Corson that aims to educate people about the science of solar energy in an accessible way.

The installation outside Pacific Science Center features five massive sculpted flowers that glow when the sun shines through the petals by day and light up at night, and serenade passers-by with harmonic tones. The flower power derives from solar panels incorporated in the artwork and on the roof of the Science Center. Signage at the exhibition and inside the Science Center details how solar energy works and how it is powering the flowers.

Education is another vital area where Seattle is harnessing the power of the arts. Improving Boston’s schools is a centerpiece of Connolly’s campaign, and also high on Walsh’s priority list.

At the start of this school year in Seattle McGinn, in partnership with Seattle Public Schools and local arts institutions, began implementing Creative Advantage, a comprehensive K-12 arts plan to ensure that every student receives two hours of arts instruction at school per week. The project was kick started with a $1 million planning grant from the Wallace Foundation two years ago.

“This is a unique community—a city that embraces the arts—and we have a moral obligation to prepare our young people to contribute and participate in industries that require creativity and innovation,” Superintendent José L. Banda has said.

That’s exactly what Creative Advantage aims to do. The program is now being piloted in the Central Pathway, a cluster of schools in and around Seattle’s Central District that was found to be disproportionately lacking in arts education. The eventual goal is for all K-12 public school students to receive two hours of arts education per week.

“Arts education has been consistently shown to improve educational outcomes, increase attendance rates and decrease discipline rates,” McGinn said back in May.

And how is this investment in Seattle’s youth being funded? With higher-than-expected admission and tax revenue from the city’s newest cultural facilities, the Chihuly Garden & Glass at the Seattle Center, and the Great Wheel, a 175-foot ferris wheel, down on the waterfront.

Meanwhile, job creation and economic development is always key to any political platform, as both Connolly and Walsh are well aware. Seattle has undertaken several initiatives aimed at nurturing and maintaining the creative economy.

In 2012, the city launched Arts Mean Business, a one-time grant program to fund positions at local arts, cultural and heritage organizations that would make a difference in each organization’s ability to generate extra revenue and carry out its mission. For instance, the Seattle Women’s Jazz Orchestra received nearly $5,000 to develop and implement a jazz composition contest, while a number of organizations like the Seattle Men’s Chorus and Seattle Women’s Chorus, and the Pratt Fine Arts Center won grants to fund outreach and marketing positions to promote their programs to bigger audiences.

In an effort to put kids to work rather than on the street, the city’s Office of Arts & Culture collaborated with the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative (in another example of how the city effectively utilizes partnerships in achieving its policy goals)  to create the Work Readiness Arts Program. The program links young people with arts and cultural organizations interested in providing them with educational and work experience, and funds those organizations up to $25,000 so that these young people can also earn a paycheck.

Looking to capitalize on its history as the city that spawned rock luminaries like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Heart and Jimi Hendrix, the city created the City of Music Initiative, which aims to enhance the climate for the city’s music industry, which in 2008 created nearly 21,000 jobs in the region, $2.2 billion in sales and $148 million in tax revenues in King County, which includes Seattle. McGinn created a 21-member music commission to implement various plans aimed at growing Seattle’s vital music economy.

Boston has never had this kind of political support for the arts. The arts, cultural, and creative communities have already made an enormous impact on the city. Imagine what it could do with a coordinated effort backed by with the political support of the next mayor of Boston?


("Sonic Bloom" Photo Credit: Dan Corson)

Do you like this post?

Community Impact

The Drama Studio is one of a handful of youth theatres in the United States that offers quality, range, and depth in its acting training programs. For Springfield-area youth, the Studio's conservatory program offers an unusual opportunity for training that prepares its graduates (all of whom are college bound) to...