Mayor Marilyn Strickland conducts business from a 12th-floor suite in the Municipal Building overlooking downtown high-rises and Commencement Bay, but she surveys the burgeoning Tacoma art scene from the ground level. On a recent visit to the mayor’s office we found Strickland, who is a downtown resident, eager to invite citizens from all corners of the city to join her in celebrating Trick Art Treat on Oct. 28, 5 -7pm. “Come down to my rec room!” she smiles, waving her hand toward the streets far below.
Trick Art Treat is a showcase event for Spaceworks Tacoma, a program providing selected artists with free exhibition, work or performance space donated for use by retail property owners. “It’s just nice to walk past all these [activated] storefronts – you do a double take,” says Strickland, whose own favorite work of public art is a permanent piece titled Projecting Drop, by Jill Anholt, on the 12th St. hill climb. Since June, Spaceworks art installations have brightened the windows of the F.W. Woolworth Building, historic buildings in the theater district, and commercial properties on Pacific Ave. Strickland, who covers a lot of ground downtown, observes that art is experienced differently depending on one’s mode of transportation – though one can drive by, “When you walk past it you stop and it looks a different way.” The mayor credits City of Tacoma Arts Administrator Amy McBride with developing the visionary program, which has garnered widespread media attention and even spawned a similar project to the north, Storefronts Seattle. “I’m very pleased with her leadership. I think it’s been a wild success.
“Maybe we can bring it to some other [Tacoma] neighborhood districts,” she enthuses, noting that the project directly benefits artists, who gain exposure and a free place to work for up to six months; landlords, whose vacant properties are energized by the presence of tenants during struggling economic times; and the urban landscape as a whole. So far the program has supported more than 50 artists and arts-related groups.
Tacoma is now almost 200,000 strong, according to 2009 US Census Bureau statistics, and it is recognized as an indie art mecca with a creative culture encompassing grass roots organizations as well as a lively and hyperactive online community. McBride’s office is currently overseeing a number of major public art initiatives which, while impressive individually, verge on extraordinary in their boldness and their cumulative effect of bringing the arts into local communities. In addition to Spaceworks Tacoma, there is Art at Work Month, in November, offering an outstanding showcase for working artists, performers and galleries; a popular open-studio tour; and free workshops and information sessions for the public and those in the creative fields. Tacoma’s innovative, city-wide Murals Project hires professional artists to execute wall-size paintings on blighted buildings; in some cases, fighting graffiti with sanctioned graffiti – a controversial, aikido-style maneuver that has so far proven successful. It is “helping people understand the difference between graffiti and tagging,” says Strickland. The project is supported by the Tacoma Public School District, the Chamber of Commerce and Safe Streets. As local artist (and former graffitist) Jeremy Gregory told the Tacoma News Tribune, “Murals do work….You don’t scribble on something you respect.”
Both McBride and Strickland emphasize that there is a social benefit to public art projects. The mayor praises Gregory’s recently completed Hilltop Mural as a fine example of how art can bring about dialogue in a community. Neighborhoods become invested in such mammoth projects as they progress over weeks or months. “What an amazing piece of work that is,” she says of Gregory’s 60′ wall painting, which offers a fantastical narrative of Hilltop history. Its canvas is an empty 1920s brick building belonging to Pastor Ivory Crittendon and his wife, Billie, who plan to turn it into a café and office complex. The Crittendons express a desire to see the adjacent, overgrown lot turned into a community garden – an idea Strickland embraces. Such an idyllic green spot could anchor the Martin Luther King Jr. Way corridor, which is in the early stages of a city-supported revitalization plan, she says.
Strickland, who has lived in Atlanta, Portland and Seattle, believes that Tacoma’s multifaceted and active art scene, as strong as it is, is still “under appreciated and underrated….I challenge anyone who says Tacoma doesn’t support the arts.” She points out that the city’s sectors – in industry, the military, technology, business, and higher education – create an incredibly diverse and vibrant social climate that breeds creativity. A wide range of talent will be on full display during Spaceworks Tacoma’s event on Oct. 28; for a schedule of artists and events, click here.