Seattle Artists and Tacoma’s Homegrown Creatives are Growing a Buzzworthy South Sound Arts Scene

The DIY spirit of Seattle’s scrappy little sister—along with its affordability—is creating a notable art scene populated, in part, by displaced Seattle artists

By Gwendolyn Elliott July 2, 2018


This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Seattle magazine.

This article appears in print in the July 2018 issue. Click here to subscribe.

In the ’90s, when the Museum of Glass was just an idea Dale Chihuly was kicking around, the museum cofounder and Tacoma native was known to drive around in a pink pickup truck with a bumper sticker that read, “VISUALIZE TACOMA.” It was a nod to the running joke at the time that there wasn’t much going on in the town once dubbed “the City of Destiny.”

The idea has persisted. It’s long been acceptable to make Tacoma the butt of jokes (cue the “aroma” punch line here, or one of a hundred episodes of Cops filmed in the area), but a growing community of newly arrived artists and curators, along with the midsize city’s handful of world-class art museums and homegrown creatives, are changing that.

“There is still that sense that Seattle scoffs at us,” says Lisa Kinoshita, a jewelry maker, curator and visual artist who moved to Tacoma from Seattle in 2003. Yet this hard-to-shake reputation presented Kinoshita with an opportunity. She bought a house on the city’s desirable east side in the McKinley neighborhood, and in 2017, opened the downtown art gallery and boutique Minka with Nicholas Nyland, an award-winning ceramic artist. (Nyland has since left the business, which is now run by Kinoshita and Paula Shields, a mid-century modern art collector.) Minka—a Japanese word meaning “house of the people”—is a sprawling, design-centric, art-filled space on the west end of the city’s Pacific Avenue strip. “Nowhere else but in Tacoma could I find such a beautiful, affordable space,” Kinoshita says.

To Kinoshita, affordability is just one of the advantages of setting up shop in Tacoma. The creative spirit in the city is more accessible than in Seattle. She calls it “unvarnished and interesting. There is something about Tacoma that if you just come here and roll up your sleeves, the community will embrace you.” 

Lisa Kinoshita, an artist and curator, with business partner Paula Shields (background) at Minka in downtown Tacoma. Photo by Hayley Young

If Tacoma’s reputation of being a “gritty city” still lingers for some, there are growing indications it is fading—and fast. As a result of Seattle’s booming economy and skyrocketing cost of living, Tacoma is becoming increasingly attractive to home buyers—something that’s reflected in that city’s growing property values. According to real estate information company Zillow, in December 2017, the median home value of properties in the area jumped almost 11 percent, increasing the average home price at the time to $264,300.

Others are noting Tacoma’s increasing attraction. In February, the travel website Expedia dubbed Tacoma one of “America’s Most Artistic Towns,” and that same month, Sunset magazine ranked the city number 13 out of 20 “Game-Changing Places to Live in the West.” The McMenamins hospitality empire, after years of setbacks, has finally started work on one of its biggest projects yet, converting the city’s historic Elks Lodge building into one of its trademark mixed-use properties, with a restaurant, bar, hotel and conference spaces, set to open in 2019. Meanwhile, the city’s craft beer scene is exploding, and the artists—they keep coming.

A photo taken in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (2012) of the orange-colored “Buddhist Bug,” a performance work by Tacoma artist Anida Yoeu Ali (you can see the artist at the top of the “Bug”). The photo “Spiral Alley” was exhibited along with others in the series at Feast Arts Center last October. Photo by Masahiro Sugano

They include former Seattle-based artists Chandler Woodfin and Todd Jannausch, who opened Feast Arts Center in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood in October 2015, after moving to the city earlier that year. Their venture joins an already established arts community in the ’hood, which also is the location of Chihuly’s Hilltop Artists, a 24-year-old youth arts organization and feeder artist program for the Museum of Glass and is home to up-and-coming artists such as Christopher Paul Jordan, who took home Cornish College of the Arts’ esteemed Neddy Award for painting last year, and rising star (and Cornish alum) Ryan Feddersen, who has also relocated from Seattle.

Woodfin and Jannausch, who are married, chose Tacoma because they could no longer afford to live as artists in Seattle. Aside from the cost of living, Jannausch says Seattle’s arts culture is beginning to resemble the stereotypical “art establishment, dependent on big things: big dollars, big commissions,” making it less accessible and more intimidating for artists, art lovers and the creative community in general.

Chandler Woodfin and Todd Jannausch of Feast Arts Center in their workshop in the Hilltop neighborhood. Photo by Hayley Young

At Feast—an art studio, school, exhibition gallery and community gathering place located in what was formerly a car wash—the idea is to “build a community around art…to participate in the culture of the city that is here, and make art accessible to the neighborhood, where everyone feels welcome,” Jannausch says. Art classes, including figure drawing and fabric printing, start at about $10 per hour, and are sometimes offered for free with city partners such as Tacoma Housing Authority. The tiny arts space has hosted shows more ambitious than one might expect given its unassuming footprint, including Tacoma-based, internationally recognized artist Anida Yoeu Ali and her multimedia exhibit, “TheBuddhist Bug.” The center’s artist residencies and community mixers, such as a weekly “coffee and donuts” get-together on Sunday, further stitch together the burgeoning scene.

Susan Robb also is exploring how to foster the city’s community through art; she is one of two of Tacoma’s first artists-in-residence (the other is Texas-based artist Roni Chelben), a city-backed, yearlong residency that launched in December of last year to seek creative solutions to the city’s homelessness problem. Robb, an award-winning, multimedia artist from Seattle, was selected based on her body of work, which includes large-scale public art installations and expansive meditations on human interaction. She is currently researching and planning projects that focus on how to reclaim public sites—such as parks and underpasses—that have long been negatively associated with the homeless. “I’m really interested in the space that exists between the homed and the homeless,” says Robb, “and how we can turn these places into opportunities for connection and conversation.”

Tacoma Artist Christopher Paul Jordan collaborated with local artists on this project, called the People’s Center Mural, in the Hilltop neighborhood. Photo courtesy of the city of Tacoma

A residency to address this problem through art has been “something we wanted to do for a while,” says Amy McBride, art administrator for the city of Tacoma. Shepherding the unconventional program is just another day on the job for McBride, who’s been with the city of Tacoma and the Office of Arts and Cultural Vitality for nearly 20 years since relocating from Seattle. She has helped to establish important partnerships across sectors that have been instrumental in igniting the city’s art scene, overseeing a stable of public art programs that have strengthened the city’s artistic identity. These include now beloved fixtures of the scene, such as Tacoma Arts Month, held each October, which spotlights the arts community through exhibits, workshops, performances and awards ceremonies; a public mural project; and Spaceworks Tacoma, a program that repurposes unused retail space to exhibit local art and develop up-and-coming artists (there is a similar Seattle program called Seattle Storefronts).

“When I moved here, I saw a lot of potential,” says McBride. “And when I started thinking about what potential is, I realized it’s just creative space.” In other words, she says, she’s using art to flip the running joke about Tacoma, to “get out of negative spaces into creative spaces.”

The Venetian Wall of the Chihuly Bridge of Glass (which leads to the Museum of Glass) features 109 of Dale Chihuly’s art deco-inspired glass vessels. Photo by Mahesh Thapa

Tacoma’s history with art and big ideas is prickly. The city famously slammed the door in pop artist Andy Warhol’s face when, in 1982, he replied to the city’s request for proposals seeking art to spruce up the drab exterior of the soon-to-be-completed Tacoma Dome. According to the proposal submitted by Andy Warhol Studios, the artist envisioned “the Tacoma Dome as a large flower.”

It was rejected in favor of Stephen Antonakos’ “Neons for the Tacoma Dome,” which also never came to pass. In a 2016 story about the kerfuffle in South Sound Magazine, Tacoma artist Chandler O’Leary said, “People were so upset by the proposed artwork ideas that the city’s entire public art program disappeared for a couple of decades.” She later references another big idea squashed by the city: an 1873 proposed street design by Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who designed New York City’s Central Park and Seattle’s Volunteer Park.

Ryan Feddersen’s reclaimed downtown street kiosk, “Happenings,” is part of Spaceworks Tacoma’s efforts to repurposeunused retail and community spaces. Photo by Spaceworks Tacoma

But more recently, the city has embraced edgier ideas, even among its traditional arts organizations. The Tacoma Art Museum (TAM) and the Washington State Historical Society (WSHS)—which form the core of the city’s art establishment along with the Museum of Glass and the Foss Waterway Seaport Museum, all within about a mile of each other in downtown Tacoma—have lately each staged bold, provocative exhibits. Seattle artist Zhi Lin’s In Search of the Lost History of Chinese Migrants and the Transcontinental Railroads, which closed earlier this year at TAM, took a hard look at the city’s racist past, recounting the mass expulsion of its Chinese citizens in 1885 and the overlooked history of Chinese migrant workers who helped connect the nation’s coast-to-coast rail system.

Other notable exhibits include TAM’s current show Immigrant Artists and the American West, a survey of Western art that explores questions of cultural appropriation and depictions of native individuals, the contributions of immigrant artists and the pioneering spirit of art made in the West. (It’s worth noting here in 2019 TAM will debut its Olson Kundig–designed Benaroya Wing, slated to become the home of the private art collection of Seattle philanthropists Jack and Rebecca Benaroya.) WSHS’s concurrent 2017 exhibits, Glasnost & Goodwill: Citizen Diplomacy in the Northwest and Witness to Wartime: The Painted Diary of Takuichi Fujii each examined historical issues that continue to challenge us today, in particular, fascism, censorship and resistance in the Pacific Northwest.

Throw in the city’s professional ballet, symphony and opera and it would hard to make Tacoma the butt of jokes now. In fact, it’s looking more and more like the city of destiny it was always destined to be.

SOUND VISION: Rachel Ervin, Jason Heminger and Aaron Spiro in Fawcett Hall, the music venue inside Alma Mater, the new community art center they founded in downtown Tacoma

It’s always homecoming for Tacoma artists at the city’s newest arts center

One of the biggest new venues to hit the Tacoma art scene is Alma Mater (1322 Fawcett Ave.; almamatertacoma.com) a versatile—and gorgeous—22,000-square-foot restaurant, cafe, recording studio, gallery, live music venue and rentable event space in what used to be a Carpenters Union building. The idea was dreamed up by three Tacoma friends, Rachel Ervin, Jason Heminger and Aaron Spiro, who had long felt the city needed a multiuse arts incubator. It was “one of those gaping holes,” says Heminger.

An installation at Alma Mater titled “Neighbors,” by Tiffanny Hammonds and Lourdes Jackson

With a generous investment from Heminger’s pal James Walton—grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton—the space opened this past spring with a bang, the result of an arts “barn raising” of herculean proportions. Among those involved are award–winning Seattle design firm Lead Pencil Studio, which led the building’s renovation, and rising Tacoma chef Kyle Wnuk (formerly of Tacoma’s short-lived upscale restaurant Marrow), who helms both Matriarch, a restaurant, and Honey Coffee and Kitchen, a café, at Alma Mater. Musicians from Seattle, such as SassyBlack, Sisters and Deep Sea Diver, performed during opening weekend, while artwork by Christopher Paul Jordan and Lisa Kinoshita anchored the debut exhibit in the gallery.
From its 500-capacity music venue—which can now host touring bands that draw crowds larger than the city’s small clubs but smaller than its large performing arts spaces—to its monthly art shows and rentable studio space, Heminger is confident Alma Mater will offer a variety of experiences for those looking to create and connect in the city.

“This is a big deal for Tacoma,” Heminger says. “The city has been incredibly supportive.”

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