With the solstice last week beginning to turn evening darkness to light, Seattle theater enters the strange, empty liminal space between Christmas shows and the first shows of 2024. Thanks to the Doors Open levy, funding for arts in the region will dramatically increase in the next few years.
2023 was the second year confidently calling itself post-pandemic. In part, that moniker was for the world’s general reversion to pre-COVID policies, but also for how the ongoing contagion has permanently affected live performance. The loss of Book-It Repertory Theatre over the summer is soothed, but not healed, by new theaters like Gaisma Theatre Group and Yun Theatre establishing themselves. Café Nordo continues its search for a new home, and Annex Theater rose from the ashes and found me as a first-time attendee. The state of perpetual change in the Seattle arts scene feels especially prominent this winter.
In reflection on the past and in mutual hope for the future, three Seattle theater executives — Seattle Rep’s new artistic director Dámaso Rodriguez, ACT’s artistic director John Langs and Taproot Theatre’s producing artistic director Karen Lund — sat on a December Seattle Town Hall panel presented by the Northwest Center for Creative Aging, moderated by critic and writer Misha Berson.
Langs and Lund both have endured the troubles with financing, staffing and artistic programming with their respective theaters since 2020. Rodriguez, on the other hand, began his position at the Rep in July 2023. In a way, the new energy Rodriguez brought to this panel represented a wave of new faces in Seattle theaters — not just in audience members, as Lund highlighted in reflection of changing viewership demographics at Taproot, but in executive leadership. As Rodriguez began his first full season at the Rep, Theatre Puget Sound was seeking an executive director, and Theatre Off Jackson concluded the application period for its executive director this past fall. Additionally, it hasn’t even been a year and a half since ACT’s Board of Trustees stepped down to initiate a ground-up revitalization toward the theater’s goals. Amid COVID-affected staff cuts, rising costs of living in Seattle, decreasing career sustainability of performers and technicians, and rapidly changing leadership at multiple professional levels of theaters — the future of theater in Seattle appears uncertain.
“We’ve made hobbyists out of a lot of artists,” Langs said of the impacts of the last three years.
“We need to show up [for them],” he said later, regarding smaller and fringe theaters through which local talent often begins their journey.
The periods of disconnect that characterize a time of financial and artistic uncertainty grow slowly but fortunately distant for the companies that have pulled through thus far. Of patronage, Lund reported that Taproot’s subscriber counts had nearly recovered thanks to work on repairing the priceless trust of audience members, as in 2023 the theater was able to avoid canceling any shows due to illness because of its new understudy program. ACT’s last three shows have all met their financial goals, and the response to the ACT/Fifth Avenue coproduction of “Cambodian Rock Band” was tremendously positive. Rodriguez reflected on the success of Seattle Rep’s “Between Two Knees,” both for its popularity and for its “controversial” nature sparking energetic discussion.
It’s thanks in part to donors, government assistance and COVID-specific aid that has helped theaters survive the last three years, but the arts scene appears to be exiting the pandemic phase and must look to increased sales and new forms of funding. As theaters aim to regain ticket revenue and rely less on donor support to survive, a newly approved levy was at the tip of everyone’s tongue at the Town Hall.
This new funding stream, dubbed the Doors Open levy, was passed unanimously by the King County Council on Dec. 5 and will impose a 0.1% increase to the sales tax rate starting in April. The money will be distributed by the county’s cultural development authority 4Culture to not-for-profit arts, history and culture initiatives.
The new levy will dramatically increase Seattle and King County’s public arts funding, with nearly $72 million estimated to be collected in 2024 and more than $100 million in each subsequent year. Half of the new money will go to ongoing artist grants, and 15% will go to expand cultural opportunities at public schools. An additional 15% will go to projects that are free and publicly accessible, while 10% will go specifically toward addressing inequities in the arts and culture sectors.
4Culture executive director Brian Carter said government grants can be a force multiplier for arts institutions such as museums, production companies, studios and workshops. Having a sustained source of funding means that these groups — which often operate on tight margins — can have the stability necessary to boost other revenue streams like ticket sales or sponsorships.
Since 4Culture already has an established grantmaking system that supports hundreds of organizations throughout the county, integrating the new Doors Open funds will be relatively seamless, Carter said. The first wave of applications will be collected in fall 2024.
Manuel Cawaling, the executive director of the arts advocacy organization Inspire Washington, said the Doors Open levy is a culmination of almost 20 years of advocacy. In the 2017 August primary elections, King County voters narrowly rejected a similar proposed levy by less than 1% of the vote, largely due to concerns over the regressive nature of sales taxes, which disproportionately hurt poor people. After that defeat, arts advocates refined the proposal into what would become the Doors Open levy.
Cawaling said the new money is needed more than ever to help arts and culture organizations recover from the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The pandemic has [had] a really long tail for the cultural sector,” he said. “Cultural organizations, businesses, creative people and nonprofits as a whole — their work and their businesses are still very fragile because of the pandemic.”
In the U.S., public funding for the arts is a relatively small component of a cultural institution’s business model. For the fiscal year of 2023, the entire budget of the National Endowment for the Arts was just over $200 million for a population of 334 million people. The new Doors Open levy will raise about half of that annually for 2.3 million people. It will also far surpass the state’s annual total spending of less than $7 million.
Combining all levels of government arts and culture spending together, Seattle spent roughly $36 per resident in 2023. This number is comparable to how much New York City and Los Angeles are projected to spend in 2024, at $32 and $27 per capita. With the Doors Open levy, Seattle’s per capita arts and culture spending will rise to $72 in 2024 and $85 by 2025.
This dedicated funding would make the Seattle and King County area the highest municipal arts and culture investor among any big city in the U.S., putting the area in an arts class akin to European countries and Canada. Those regions have historically placed a greater emphasis on arts and culture as a civic tradition, with many institutions directly or indirectly owned by the public. In 2024, Vancouver, B.C., is projected to spend about $136 per capita on arts and culture, while Berlin will spend $300 per person.
Another aspect of this public investment in arts and culture is that it can be funneled towards equity priorities. Carter said that all 4Culture grants consider racial justice factors when they are awarded. The new money will further these goals by reducing the sense of scarcity; only 40% to 50% of applicants are currently approved, he added.
Ultimately, the new Doors Open levy could be a paradigm shift for Seattle’s creative economy. Carter said he was excited by this influx of new funds.
“I think it will be a golden period for art, for heritage, for public art and science within King County,” Carter said. “And I don’t say it lightly. It is not simply the additional Doors Open funding. … I think that will result in additional investments from other sources of revenue for artists, and historians, and museums, and theaters and aquariums. So I think it’ll be a flourishing of creativity.”
Lund made it very clear in an interview that “artists need to be able to make a living wage as well. We need to be able to pay them for the work that they do that enhances life for everyone in the Pacific Northwest.”
Taproot’s educational tours and in-school residencies have faced funding losses since before COVID closures, and the recovery of these programs is still a work in progress.
“People are starting to get ready for residencies again,” Lund explained, referring to a current program that brings elementary students to the Isaac Studio to perform. Programs like these were a community favorite from Book-It Rep, and while Taproot can play a part in filling this void, Lund recognizes her theater is just one part of a united effort to keep the performing arts community afloat.
Lund says the expected support from the Doors Open levy will triple the existing funds and open up possibilities for performing arts institutional recovery that once seemed much farther off. Both Langs at Town Hall and Lund later highlighted the possibility of decreasing the amount of programming by focusing on coproductions, which could allow smaller companies to increase annual programming and forge paths for company development.
“It only helps Taproot Theatre whenever a new theater starts up or whenever an older theater invests more into community,” Lund said. “We need each other so desperately.”
Instead of being merely a survival mechanism, coproductions in a time of increased funding can begin to bridge a collaborative gap between the biggest performing arts institutions of Seattle with midrange and community-level theaters.
When reflecting on Taproot’s humble beginnings of starting as six young theater makers with big dreams, Lund asked, “Who’s that next group of kids with a dream?”
That next group of “kids,” while surely present among the smaller, scrappier companies that challenge and surprise audiences year after year, is also represented in King County youth.
“One of the things we’ve noticed is that as much as we tour around the state of Washington, we probably do the least amount of touring the [City of Seattle] proper,” said Lund.
Budget cuts in Seattle Public Schools have prevented educational theaters, like Taproot, from engaging with students and have in turn restricted opportunities for early exploration and enjoyment of the arts in ways that can be foundational to life skills or even life passions. Lund’s own first theatrical experience was being taken on a field trip to see a play, which will be one of the points of access highlighted in the Doors Open levy.
“Enough thanks cannot be given to InspireWA and all that they have done to get this to happen. Enough thanks cannot be given to Dow Constantine, who has been on our side about this for over a decade,” Lund said. “I’m positive that our region is going to really blossom because of this work.”
She looks forward to Seattle regaining listing alongside New York City and Los Angeles as a hub for arts and culture.
Restoring educational programming through the persistence of companies like Taproot and the triumph of the Doors Open levy is creating futures for both youth in King County and the arts workers that bring them theater to nurture an entire community that is impacted by art. The Doors Open levy responds to a community need and creates the trust of audiences and communities, much like the trust gained back by Taproot in their updated programming.
As Taproot celebrates the recent match of 2023 of subscriber counts to 2022 among their returning guests, Seattle should expect a recovery of theater arts in public schools, increased job security and opportunity for theater makers and futures of theater in Seattle that don’t come at the sacrifice of personnel or revenue.
W. Barnett Marcus is an actor living in Seattle.
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change.
Read more of the Dec. 27, 2023–Jan. 2, 2024 issue.