48 Hours of Artistic Inspiration: My Trip to Seattle 

Emily Ruddock - MASSCreative Director of Policy and Government Affairs

In compiling a list of the country’s top 10 influential and arty cities, Seattle would make nearly everyone’s top five. It’s exported coffee, Jimi Hendrix, and Dale Chihuly to the rest of us.

But the emergence of a creative culture didn’t happen by accident. Faced with the Great Boeing Bust of the early 1970s and an unemployment rate of 17 percent, Seattle’s then Mayor Wes Uhlman revived a demoralized and out of work population by creating a citywide arts commission. His reason? “We have to give people hope.”

Since then, Seattle has become one of the leading U.S. cities when it comes to public investment in art and creativity. Last month, I travelled to Seattle for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s Learning Journey. The two-day event drew 24 policy planners and local elected officials from around the country interested in learning how Seattle has been so successful in making art and creativity an expected, recognized, and valued part of everyday life.

Over the course of two days, we took tours, sat through presentations, and participated in panel discussions. Our first stop was the Luke Wing Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, located in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District.  Housed in a former community center built by members of the Chinese American community, the Museum takes a community-driven approach to its programming. Exhibits are created with input from the community, and this approach means that every nook and cranny of the museum makes the Asian-Pacific American communities of the area—and their lived experiences—visible.

Next, we learned about Seattle’s commitment to arts education during a panel discussion about The Creative Advantage, a public-private partnership working to make arts education available to every student in Seattle public schools by 2020. Driven by working artists, arts organizations, school leaders, and Seattle’s Office of Economic Development, the initiative is a strategic investment in the future of Seattle.

As Rebecca Lovell of the city’s Office of Economic Development put it during the panel discussion, “the future of work is creativity, empathy and computational thinking” and Creative Advantage is working to make sure each child is fully prepared for work and community leadership.

Next, we heard about the region’s approach to space, culture, and equity.  Seattle, like Boston, is experiencing a population boom. Every nine minutes someone moves to Seattle and every 28 minutes a new unit of housing is built. Supply is not meeting demand, and the housing crisis is real in Seattle.  Each panelist spoke about the struggle of simply keeping communities intact and preserving non-traditional cultural spaces.


Escaping a Burning Culture, Baso Fibonnaci and Jean Nagi, part of the SODO Track @3414 4th Ave S.

Our first day ended with a walk along the SODO track—a two-mile stretch of murals painted by artists from across the world. Organized by 4 Culture, the cultural funding agency for King County, the SODO track was created over three summers and transformed the backside of the SODO business and warehouse district into a colorful, thought-provoking space that fires up the imagination. The SODO track is also the path for Seattle’s light rail connecting Seattle to the airport and southern region of King County. As a result, the SODO track is the welcoming portal for travelers and commuters into the city. For me, a highlight of the tour was seeing murals created in partnership with Urban Artworks that connected the mural artist with underserved youth in the area.

On our second day we travelled to Washington Hall where Duke Ellington, Afrika Bambaataa, and Bill T. Jones once performed and which was the site of 17-year-old Jimi Hendrix’s first public show. Years of neglect left the the building was in disrepair. Historic Seattle took on the renovation project and restored the space.  Historic Seattle’s Executive Director, Kji Kelly, pointed to the anchor tenants of Washington Hall as the reason the space continues to be of and for the community: 206 Zulu, Hidmo and Voices Rising all focus on connecting young people with artists, building coalitions, and developing the next generation of community leaders.


The facade of Washington Hall

After the official program was complete, I took advantage of my remaining hours in Seattle to visit The Chihuly Garden and Glass museum next to Seattle’s Space Needle. As I wandered through the exhibits and saw examples of Dale Chihuly’s evolving artistic style, I reflected on the trip.

What sets Seattle apart from other cities of similar size is the care it takes to lift up cultures, encourage creativity, and create art that is accessible to everyone. As many others have pointed out, Seattle is a lot like Boston. It has a healthy private sector, a spirit of technical innovation, and storied cultural institutions. But where Seattle has distinguished itself is with its significant public investment in the creative sector. Artists, cultural leaders, and the creative community are a true partner in the design and implementation of the public policies that make Seattle a place where people are healthier and happier—and have “hope.”  


View of the Space Needle from inside Chihuly Garden and Glass museum.

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