Why Doesn't Bellevue Have a Thriving Arts Scene?

Bellevue has smarts, money and culture, so why not a thriving art scene?
hyatt regency, bellevue, arts, tateuchi center, eastside arts
A model of the Tateuchi Center, in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Bellevue

For years, the only physical evidence of the Tateuchi Center in Bellevue has been in a dim corner of the downtown Hyatt Regency hotel lobby. There, in a preview center, sits a glass-encased balsa wood model of a 2,000-seat concert hall; mounted television screens cycle through photos of imagined future acts and a row of theater chairs summon the ambiance of opening night. It’s the footprint of a project expected to draw world-class performers and to serve as the nexus of the Eastside’s cultural hub. 

Whether because the project is years behind schedule—the still unfunded Tateuchi Center had hoped to open in 2010—or because current passersby lack enthusiasm for a facility once previewed in The New York Times, this modest corner shows few signs of life. In many ways, the story of the center—from ardent start to tepid follow-through—mirrors the broader Bellevue arts scene. Despite the hype about Bellevue’s growing skyline and invigorated nightlife, a vibrant arts and cultural scene hasn’t taken off. Are things about to change?

Early iterations of what was originally known as the Performing Arts Center Eastside (PACE) began to take shape more than 20 years ago. After $60 million in donations—including $25 million from Seattle’s Tateuchi Foundation—and land gifted by developer Kemper Freeman in 2002, fundraising for the Tateuchi Center screeched to a halt during the recession, never to regain momentum. In May, realizing that the project was critically stalled, the Bellevue City Council agreed to consider a public-private partnership to raise the remaining $115 million. The council expects to choose from several funding paths later this year. Many say the future of Bellevue’s arts scene hinges on its success.

“This is a potentially defining moment for the city,” says Mary Pat Byrne, arts specialist for the City of Bellevue, pausing one morning between installations of the Bellwether sculpture exhibit. Outside Bellevue City Hall, artist Connie Sabo’s giant balls of woven newspaper, which seem to hatch like eggs, rise up. “Bellevue, for a long time, has felt like it’s right on the edge. It’s becoming something and it’s not going to happen in one big explosion.” 

But the Tateuchi Center is far from the only arts casualty on the Eastside. The Bellevue Art Museum (BAM) struggled for years to find its financial footing, closing in 2003 and reopening as the Bellevue Arts Museum in 2005 with a renewed and popular focus on crafts and design. Six years later, the Bellevue Philharmonic Orchestra called it quits. Even smaller arts ventures have suffered. Ten20 Theatre, a black box performance space planned for a luxury apartment building that sits kitty-corner to the future Tateuchi Center, is unoccupied and has been so ever since plans for the midsize venue first began formulating in the late 1990s. Open Satellite gallery, a 2,000-square-foot space bankrolled by John Su, the same developer behind Ten20, featured quarterly rotating exhibits. After attempting to switch to a nonprofit model, the project nose-dived in 2011, closing after just three years of operation. And last winter Pacific Northwest Ballet’s (PNB) Francia Russell Center, in the Bel-Red corridor, announced that Sound Transit’s path through the neighborhood would displace the academy. 

Some point to the notion that having an arts hub across the lake in Seattle might weaken prospects for Bellevue, but stakeholders insist that’s not the case. Tateuchi Center executive director and CEO John Haynes calls Eastside demographics a “delicious” formula for cultivating the arts—affluent and diverse, its families and businesses represent about half of the donations to Seattle arts organizations. But tolls and worsening traffic have made it harder to get to Seattle venues. In research cited by the Tateuchi board, residents on both sides of the lake were surveyed about the number of cultural events they attend annually. Seattleites averaged 10; those with an Eastside ZIP code, just four. And, Haynes says, Eastside audiences for Seattle’s arts are eroding at a rate of 10 percent a year. 

“The way that PNB and Seattle Symphony will cure that is to begin looking for a first-class place to play and perform on the Eastside,” Haynes says. 

From where Erik Hall sits—as an actual artist producing work in Bellevue—the prognosis is less rosy. 

Hall’s paintings are most often of massive unraveling landscapes. But if you look closer, they are less scenes of trees and rolling hills, and more the distorted creep of shadows across the canvas. He and his wife, Amy Spassov, who is also an artist, opened the sleek, white-walled Hall Spassov Gallery in downtown Bellevue in 2006, only to find themselves the driving force behind the city’s gallery scene. 

“It’s just us,” Hall says. “There are only one or two other galleries. You’d think for a place that has the financial influence [that Bellevue does], there’d be more.”

When tolls went up on State Route 520, Hall Spassov’s Seattle clientele dried up and local collectors didn’t fill the void. Having powerhouses such as T-Mobile and Microsoft in Bellevue’s backyard has been a boom to the city’s economy, but the young techies they employ prefer their gadgets and cars to art collections, Hall says. He and his wife recently opened a second gallery in a 108-year-old building in Seattle’s Pioneer Square.

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