Pioneer Square experienced a jump in its dragon population this past fall. At the same time, the International District saw a sudden increase in dinging noises. These strange spikes can be traced to a new pilot art project called Storefronts Seattle, in which local artists—such as Dan Reeder, who meticulously crafts papier-mâché dragons, and Charles and Cindy Martin, who exhibit a serious penchant for pinball machines—are awarded three- to six-month, rent-free artistic installation and/or residency space in vacant storefronts lining the streets of Pioneer Square and the International District.
Coordinated by local arts nonprofit Shunpike (shunpike.org), which assists artists with the less delightful yet essential business part of being artists, the Storefronts project aims to benefit both artists (via free space and increased exposure) and property owners (via increased foot traffic and better showcases for their available space).
The idea is a bit of a no-brainer. In fact, a few artists say they had previously attempted the same thing on their own (without success). “I had called several leasing agencies and real estate agents to see if I could use some of the empty spaces to show my work,” says participating quilt artist Luke Haynes. “But this is better, since it involves multiple spaces and more than one usage.” Shunpike serves as the “tenant” in these agreements, matching artists with spaces, negotiating utilities and insurance, and acting as liaison between artists and property managers.
“Storefronts is an invaluable opportunity for independent artists,” says Holly Arsenault, who with husband Matt Richter is showcasing their line of handmade wooden furniture in Round 2 of the pilot, running December through February. (Round 1 ran from September through November.) “It’s a huge opportunity to build up our visibility,” says Arsenault, who applauds the time and space the storefronts provide to explore ideas, as well as the “freedom to connect directly with a walk-by audience.” Cut-paper wizard Celeste Cooning, also a Round 2 artist, agrees. “I am very fond of the idea of bringing art to the people in unexpected places and in unexpected ways,” she says. “Changing the context of the work allows you to reach a diverse group of people going about their everyday lives.”
Capturing the attention of passers-by is a key element of the Storefronts project. As Shunpike executive director Andy Fife notes, “Empty storefronts give people very little reason to walk down a street.” But when vacancies are filled with art installations and artistic working spaces, Fife says, “the street becomes a gallery” and, consequently, a draw. In addition, anecdotal reports from participants in Round 1 reveal that activating the spaces with artwork and lights has discouraged the littering (and worse) that previously took place in front of the spaces. “It’s not just an interesting change,” says Fife, “it’s meaningful.”
Landlords are beginning to recognize Storefronts’ potential. “Property managers have been receptive, though not quick to respond,” Fife says, citing the recent business exodus from Pioneer Square. Shunpike program manager Ellen Baker says that thanks to the success of Round 1 (for which landlords donated 10 spaces), more property owners have expressed interest in Round 2 (at press time, 12 to 14 spaces were expected to be donated).
Perhaps not surprisingly, given that Storefronts offers free rent for street-level, windowed space in the city, artist response has been resounding. Shunpike fielded 176 applications for the Seattle pilot. Two selection panels of artists, business professionals and neighborhood property managers culled that to 23 artists, spread across Rounds 1 and 2. The hope is that a successful pilot will lead to replication of Storefronts in other Seattle neighborhoods. (Shunpike is simultaneously running a similar pilot in Tacoma, called Spaceworks Tacoma.)
How will success be judged? Fife says the primary goal is to demonstrate the value of having art and artists in otherwise empty spaces. Accordingly, he posits several questions about each placement, including “Is it activating the space?” and “Is it bringing value to the neighborhood?” Among those contemplating the answers are the many collaborative partners directly involved in Storefronts, including The Alliance for Pioneer Square, Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area, the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs and Department of Planning and Development, and the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority. Also likely eager for results are the project’s funding agencies (such as 4Culture) and generous individual donors.
Another benchmark of success may be how artists proceed after Storefronts. Baker says throughout the project Shunpike is staying true to its organizational tagline (“The Business of Art”) by offering participants assistance in starting or expanding their operation. “We work closely with the artists and give them the tools to continue their business after the project is over,” she says.
In the best-case scenario, some of these temporary tenants would make the transition into actual tenants—when and if property managers realize that an artful space for reduced rent beats papered windows and no rent. The Martins—whose pinball museum celebrates “kinetic art” via their collection of usable vintage machines—are among the hopefuls. “The support we have been shown by the community has been outstanding,” says Charlie Martin. “We would be ecstatic to have the Seattle Pinball Museum become a full-time, long-term operation in Chinatown/International District.” Sounds like a high score.
Round 2 kickoff: First Thursday Art Walk, December 2. Runs through February.
For a full list of artists and locations: storefrontsseattle.com