Artists take to empty storefronts
Idea is to put unused space to useJoshua Trujillo / P-I
Artistic entrepreneurs are making temporary use of vacant storefront space in Seattle’s Pioneer Square and Chinatown neighborhoods, and some wonder if the idea could catch on at other unused commercial spaces in the city.
Started last summer because of neighborhood worries about the empty spaces, the “Storefronts Seattle” program was used by 11 artists and art groups using 10 spaces during the first three months of operation.
With the program’s second three months starting this month, there are a dozen artists and art groups using 11 spaces and the program expects to add one new space and one new art installation. The group has two more artists to place after that, said Ellen Whitlock Baker, program manager for the arts-support group Shunpike, which manages the effort.
The idea was to put empty spaces to use, give artists and entrepreneurs exposure for their ideas and discourage the taggers and criminals who frequent abandoned areas. The attempt, scheduled to last through February, is attracting attention.
“We’re starting to get some inquiries from other neighborhoods to potentially start the program there,” she said.
Pioneer Square and Chinatown neighbors, worried about the graffiti and street crime they saw near vacant storefronts, took the problem to the city and to Shunpike, a group that does consulting work for artists and small arts groups.
A steering committee that included at least one city official was set up and helped locate property owners willing to let their spaces be used at essentially no cost while they continued looking for paying tenants. Ten street-level spaces, likely to attract passer-by attention, were found, including one with two display windows. The Seattle Office of Arts & Culture put out a call for artists and the steering committee chose those who could use the spaces from 150 applicants.
In September a group of 11 displays, studios and “creative creative enterprises” occupied the spaces. In December seven different groups moved into spaces, with five holdover enterprises staying on. A theater group, using one space for rehearsals, finished its work and moved out.
Each group was allowed to stay in a space for up to six months on the understanding that it can be moved out on a month’s notice if landlords find paying tenants. The city’s arts and economic development offices and a King County development authority contributed $13,000 for stipends and other expenses, and another $2,000 was raised from neighbors and the arts community.
The program is similar to ones run in San Francisco and New York, and to one managed by Shunpike in downtown Tacoma. Shunpike arranges for the temporary leases and the artists use the space free.
Occupants include fabric and paper artists, woodworkers, animation and video developers to an artistic “social space” and a pinball museum.
In the Seattle program James Barker of Bellingham set up a huge “three-dimensional painting” in a storefront at 312 Occidental Avenue South. He’d found it difficult to get the work displayed in conventional museums because of its size and complexity. He said he found sympathetic ears at the city arts and culture office and leaped at the chance to display the work in a storefront.
“Hopefully I will not have to barge it back to a desolate island and lock it back up in storage, but…find someone that can appreciate the beauty and intricacies of what I have achieved and someone that will might be willing to take on my future endeavors, to see this project completed,” he said.
The Seattle effort is spurred by bad economic times when commercial building spaces are more likely to become vacant. It’s scheduled to last until February and it’s not clear how much of the program can continue. With city budgets tight the Arts & Cultural Affairs office lack cash to provide further support.
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