August 3, 1997

The Great Divide In The Art World, Spokane Can’t Compare With Seattle First Person: Former Curator At Cheney Cowles Sees A Frustrating Lack Of Support For Art In Spokane

Beth Sellars Special To Staff writer
 

To compare and contrast the visual arts of Spokane and Seattle is like comparing apples to oranges. There really is no comparison.

Seattle embraces the visual arts, private and public sources finance it, numerous venues present it, and the media frequently support it with informative and insightful feature stories. A complex infrastructure exists of private and corporate collectors, numerous commercial and non-profit galleries, an explosion of new and enlarged art museums, an increasing collection of private foundations that award individual artist grants, and city and county arts commissions that have collected art and supported artists for 25 years.

Seattle is the largest city in Washington. Spokane is the second largest. In Spokane, there is one commercial gallery and several college galleries showing contemporary art, one small private art foundation, a city arts commission with a confused public arts mission, and no major contemporary art collectors.

The “art museum” - actually a history museum with an attached room for art that apparently has been good enough for community needs for the last 65 years - now rarely presents contemporary art venues. The Spokane visual arts infrastructure is tiny, made up of a handful of passionate but seemingly unreplenished art supporters, endlessly struggling to expand the arts into Spokane’s daily life. Incidentally, they and the artists are the unsung treasures of your community.

There are good artists working in both cities. Seattle nurtures its artists. Spokane, for the most part, views its artists with suspicion or ignores all but the most pedestrian. The most innovative artists send their work out of town to achieve recognition. The others work in isolation and wish they lived in a more supportive environment.

As curator of art at the Cheney Cowles Museum, and a Spokane resident from 1983-95, I was continually frustrated with the underlying notion of insecurity or inferiority that permeated the artist, as well as the general community’s sense of worth. I was equally bewildered with the resistance to emotionally compete with confidence on a regional or national level. As a local curator, I always thought if we few art supporters could just demonstrate enough energy, passion and enthusiasm for contemporary art, the local artists, and the community in general, all three elements would eventually come together on a more positive level.

Since I moved to Seattle to work as an independent curator, I have been asked to curate several Eastern Washington exhibitions. In each of them, the Spokane artists have been enthusiastically received by Seattle galleries, media, buyers and the general public. These artists can compete with the best, just as Spokane has the potential to compete with Seattle. But from this distance, I’m now not entirely confident the puzzling veil of insecurity will ever be completely lifted from Spokane.

Perhaps if Spokane eventually realizes how important the arts are to the overall health of its community, then both city and artists will benefit. Possibly, even the extreme differences between Seattle and Spokane will lessen.

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