by Sheri Boggs
If Spokane were to suddenly develop a vital arts scene, would it suddenly explode into our midst, taking everybody by surprise with its energy and momentum, revitalizing everything in its path? Or would it creep up on us, with all the hard work, careful planning and bit-by-bit community building reaching critical mass until one day, we realize, "Hey, we got ourselves a fine little arts town here?" It turns out that Spokane is close to becoming just that, and the reasons why are as varied as the town's arts organizations and leaders themselves.
"It's not like an earthquake; it's more like moving a barge," says Karen Mobley, director of the Spokane Arts Commission. "There's this sense of taking this large, unwieldy entity and pointing it in the right direction."
In terms of excitement about the arts, few things beat seeing a beautiful new venue for the first time. "I'm always amazed at what I see it in all the new facilities," says Yvonne Lopez Morton, media relations manager for the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (MAC). "You look at what the Spokane Symphony is doing with the Fox, of course the new museum, and the Davenport Arts District."
The Davenport Arts District will consist of galleries, coffee shops, restaurants and retailers, not only inside the Davenport Hotel, but in a three-block radius around it. Many see such a combination of architecture, the arts, retail and eateries as the surest strategy for maintaining a palpable arts force in the downtown community.
"I really love the idea of having a big mega-center for the arts," says Amy Carson, owner of Bitters and a member of both the Davenport Arts District and the adjacent City Terminal Block. "Where there's a collection of galleries, and then the retail space and food venues to support it -- that's what gives an art district its visibility."
While the Davenport Arts District was one of the most frequently mentioned "signs of life" in asking various arts leaders about the health of Spokane's art scene, others emerged as well. The arrival of a big-city talent like Robin Stanton as the new artistic director for Interplayers was cited, as were such already existing venues as the Lorinda Knight Gallery, the Met and the Mootsy's poetry series.
What's especially interesting about all of this is that the outside world is taking notice. Art a la Carte, a weekly arts program produced by Spokane's public radio, KPBX, has won two prestigious NPR awards back to back, which is itself something of a remarkable feat, but even more so when you look at what it says about the community.
"The show is nothing more than a reflection of the arts scene in Spokane," says Marty Demarest, host of Art a la Carte and a frequent Inlander contributor. "The reason the show has done as well as it's done is because the arts in Spokane are doing as well as they are and because of the way people are willing to look at the arts now."
The performing arts are so well supported in Spokane that a broader and more varied roster of acts -- including the Wallflowers, Billy Idol, Lyle Lovett and the recent run of Chicago -- are able to keep the Met, the Fox and the Opera House more or less full on a weekly basis. Performances in Spokane have done so well, in fact, that there could be a fourth venue in the works.
"Bravo Presents out of Boise is doing by far the bulk of the shows in Spokane right now. We're actually looking at helping them build a venue in Spokane," says Mike Smith, manager of the Met. "I helped Bravo put those shows [in the Met and the Fox], and the market has proven itself enough that they definitely want to invest in a facility. It's a natural combination."
What all of this indicates -- the new venues, the better shows, the geographical possibility of a bona fide arts district -- is a sea change in the community's view of the arts.
"It's intangible in terms of pointing out specific examples, but you can tell the energy's changed," says Mobley, who has watched the transformation happen over her four years with the Spokane Arts Commission.
Part of the change is due to an infusion of "fresh blood" into the artistic community as a whole. "I'm seeing it in how more artists and architects are moving here, from Seattle and elsewhere," says Carson. "It's an issue of feasibility. The cost of living here is so much less; you can actually afford studio space and work space. And more than that, you can afford a home here. It's not just about being able to work here; for a lot of the artists I know, making a home here is the major focus."
While some artistic souls are encouraged to move here, other lovers of the arts are seeing plenty of reasons to stay.
"Personally, I still feel like I can live here because the human need for the arts is recognized," says Demarest. "I've noticed a general, community-wide feeling that the arts are important, that they're not frivolous. The public seems to be more open to the arts, and if they're not necessarily nurturing the arts, at least they're not closing their minds."
In fact, business and the arts make not-so-strange bedfellows. The Downtown Spokane Partnership, a coalition of downtown business owners and retailers, introduced "Live After Five," a series of summer concerts to promote a vital downtown core.
"I think the Downtown Spokane Partnership is starting to notice how the arts can benefit downtown," says Lorinda Knight, owner of the Lorinda Knight Gallery. "Downtown can really benefit by there being a strong arts community downtown."
And while some are just beginning to recognize the importance of the arts, those who are already involved are hoping that looking at the arts in a new way will keep the momentum going.
"Art is not entertainment. Art is one of the works of man. Until fairly recently, art was a figurative place that was a conjunction of science, philosophy, religion, spirituality, the celebration of life and the recognition of despair," says Curt Madison, an academic and artist who moved here last year with his wife, Margot Casstevens, after examining whether Spokane was an arts-friendly enough community. "We need to raise the level of the debate about the arts, that it's a discussion of life's most central issues. It's not a question of 'What am I going to do after dinner?' In that sense, I think the arts would benefit from a more academic standpoint."
But some see the answer in democratizing the arts and making them accessible to everyone.
"We find that we're competing with so many things when it comes to getting people to attend our events," says Lopez-Morton. "People have limited time, and it's important how they spend it. We've found that we need to get out of that academic mode and look at the arts as a form of entertainment and to create programs and events that people will come to see."
Whether you see the arts as a boon for business, an opportunity for greater discourse or as something fun to do, the most important element of maintaining a healthy arts scene is participation.
"Yes, Spokane is looking very right for an arts flowering," says Madison. "But that requires some participation. Not only in terms of going out to the galleries and seeing the shows, but if you see something and are moved by it, do something about it. Buy a piece of art, talk to the artist, get involved with your world."