Karen Mobley has been a guiding hand helping to shape Spokane's now-thriving arts scene for more than two decades. Mobley moved to the city in 1997 to serve as the city's arts director, a position she held for 15 years until the arts department was cut from the city's budget in 2012. Mobley, an artist and writer who's shown widely in galleries here and regionally, then went on (and continues to) consult for Spokane Arts, the nonprofit created to replace the former city-managed department. Earlier this year, Mobley was inducted into the Spokane Citizen Hall of Fame, overseen by the Spokane Public Library Foundation, for her ongoing contributions to local arts.
INLANDER: Looking back on your time as the city of Spokane's arts director, what are you most proud of accomplishing?
MOBLEY: I'm proudest of the work we did to expand and strengthen the Visual Arts Tour, First Friday and opportunities for artists of all disciplines to have an impact on what was a rebirth of downtown. I think a lot of the work we did to bring artists and arts advancement in downtown, that predated the renovation of the Fox [Theater], and a lot of those big transitions in the early to late 2000s.
I also think that, for whatever it's worth, sticking around through all of that enabled the arts commission and work of Spokane Arts to be born. If I had just walked away and said, "This is really hard," I think that it would have been, during the Recession, easy [for the city] to say, "We're not going to have an investment in that." And it wasn't my fight alone. Nothing has happened with me by myself — all of it has been people working together, people collaborating.
What do you think Spokane is succeeding at, in terms of supporting local arts, and promoting involvement in the arts to its residents?
I think one thing that we're doing well is, through the help of both Spokane Arts and things like the Visual Arts Tour, is to work together to create opportunities for people to co-promote and collaborate on things. Creating ways for people to pull together, that has been a big asset of Spokane. Obviously there is some competition between organizations, but people feel that if they work together all the boats will rise. I think we've done well with that.
I think we've done well particularly with leadership of Ben Stuckart and people on City Council creating the SAGA grant program, which has nothing to do with me — that is post my time at Spokane Arts. But as a community, [SAGA provides] opportunities for two things, funding and recognition, and that piece of providing credibility and recognition is important.
I also think we've done well as a community to support arts infrastructure. In the years I've been in Spokane, we renovated the MAC, the opera house, the Fox. There has been a lot of investment in places where art or performing arts and other activities can happen.
Where can we do better?
This is not just a Spokane thing, but a Washington state thing. Washington is very low, relative to all states, for its level of investment in grants for artists and arts organizations. For as healthy as the Washington economy is, we have a relatively low level of state support. We're like 46th or 47th in the nation, and we used to be one of the top states. If we're the top economy in the country, we shouldn't be in the bottom 10 states in arts funding.
What are you currently focusing on, in your own art and community arts?
I'm in a unique position in that I'm doing a variety of things, but I'm not the person in charge of all of it. I'm doing some project management for Spokane Arts in public art and teaching arts administration at Whitworth, which has allowed me to take things I've learned and help the next generation become good arts leaders.
I'm also doing some statewide advocacy and leadership. I've been actively involved in the Washington State Cultural Alliance on the board and on the Cultural Access PAC board. Both of those are focused on trying to find ways to strengthen the advocacy for the arts in community, in government and, in the case of the PAC board, to have relationships with elected officials to support things like [the Washington State Arts Comission] and other organizations that provide funding and policy support to arts organizations.
I'm spending about half of my time doing the teaching and project management and about half of my time working on my own art and writing. Right now I'm working on art for two shows in Spokane and one in Moses Lake. I'll be in a show in the library downtown with Mariah Boyle in October and organized a show for the Terrain gallery, also in October, a group show that includes six other artists. ♦