November 15, 2021

On Tacoma Arts and Social Change

5 Stages mural by Saiyare Refaei and Tiffanny Hammonds, 2017. Photo: Crews Creative. The mural was produced through Spaceworks’ Artscapes program.

Last October, as part of Tacoma Arts Month, I drove around the city with my sister, artist Teruko Nimura. We delivered handmade mental-health care packages to residential food pantries, driving through areas with little access to public transportation, past neighborhoods with brand-new condos, through food deserts and down streets lined with designer boutiques, in and out of pockets of need across the city. Running between the sweeping views of Point Defiance Park and Commencement Bay to the north, and majestic Mount Rainier to the southeast, Tacoma’s freeways divide the city along lines of class and race — all layered on the tribal lands of the Puyallup. As we crisscrossed the terrain, we noted that most of the community centers and museums are concentrated in just a few neighborhoods, and that whole swaths of the city do not have easy access to public art or arts organizations.

Teruko Nimura printing “Care Is Free” postcards at Springtide Press.

As the third-largest city in Washington, Tacoma has gained a reputation for supporting the arts. With 67% of the vote, in 2018 we were the first city in the state to pass the sales-tax initiative Tacoma Creates, designed to support arts, culture, and heritage organizations, addressing inequity through and around the arts. Though it’s only in the second year of its implementation, I have seen concrete results. Fifty-one organizations, large and small, received funding in the second year, totaling over $4 million. For the first time, our independent Grand Cinema movie house took its summer camp to the Salishan, a historically underserved, racially and economically diverse neighborhood on Tacoma’s Eastside. Organizations like Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center (T.U.P.A.C.) and the Asia Pacific Cultural Center have received much-needed infusions of cash for programming, and are likely to continue to do so. Yet, as game-changing as Tacoma Creates has been, it’s a program that largely funds institutions and organizations rather than individual artists.

Classical ballet students at Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center, founded in 2017 by Kabby Mitchell III and Klair Ethridge. Photo: Jenny L. Miller.

In 2021, mayoral candidate and filmmaker-activist Jamika Scott used “creative economy” as one of the pillars in her campaign. “The strongest asset of Tacoma’s economy is the creative legacy of our city,” she wrote on her website. “We are a city full of creative entrepreneurs and with the right support our creative industry can grow to be the backbone of our local economy.” Though Scott’s campaign was unsuccessful this year, the ethos stands. Can the city build structures and systems with a focus on racial and economic equity? Can we create structures that support representation, sustenance for the marginalized and vulnerable, the undocumented, artists with kids, and artists experiencing housing insecurity?

We wear our nickname, “Grit City,” with pride as a tribute to unions and activists in a city that, as performance artist Anida Yoeu Ali says, “feels true to working-class people.” Many artists in Tacoma — nationally and internationally renowned, both homegrown and transplanted, across a variety of disciplines — juggle full-time jobs with their artmaking. To support them will require a larger concerted effort from other artists, patrons, and community supporters, and the city’s own infrastructure. If one of Tacoma’s greatest assets is creative labor, then the essential question is: Can we keep our artists here? The answer I’ve so far received to this question is largely anecdotal, and it’s not great: The anecdotes all revolve around artists who have moved elsewhere or commute to other cities for their artistic careers.

Installation view of The Kinsey African American Art & History Collection at Tacoma Art Museum. Photo: Steven Miller.

As a rapidly growing city, Tacoma can and should foster meaningful, sustainable connections between the arts and social change, including a reckoning with past mistakes that goes beyond superficial appeasement. As one example of a step in the right direction, some might point to the Tacoma Art Museum’s current exhibition of The Kinsey African American Art and History Collection, which focuses on objects of African-American culture amassed over five decades. For contrast, this is the same museum where artist-activists Christopher Paul Jordan, Jamika Scott, and Jaleesa Trapp protested the lack of Black representation at the nationally traveling Art AIDS America exhibit in 2015, a movement that brought nationwide attention and gave birth to the Tacoma Action Collective. Six years later, the museum is partnering with businesses, artists, and community organizations around the exhibit. They are inviting Black-owned businesses like Campfire Coffee to do pop-up events, and the Hilltop Action Coalition to have conversations about the exhibit. But the question remains: What will happen to these connections and consciousness when that exhibit leaves?

The exhibition opening of The Kinsey African American Art & History Collection at the Tacoma Art Museum. Photo: Amber Trillo.

In a post on the TAM website earlier this year, head curator Margaret Bullock acknowledged that the institution’s collection skews white and male (just 7% of the artists identify as people of color and only 20% as women or female-identified) but underlined that it has earmarked “acquisition funds for at least the next several years solely toward this effort.” A museum representative pointed to several additional indicators of the seriousness of the institution’s commitment to equity, including its support, to the tune of $10,000, of a new Black Lives Matter mural planned in spring 2022 for Tollefson Plaza, a city-owned public space across from TAM. The representative also noted the museum’s years of hosting a community Día de los Muertos celebration and co-hosting of “In the Spirit,” a festival featuring Indigenous artists. The festival is co-sponsored with the Washington State Historical Society and the Museum of Glass and advised by community members, including those from the Puyallup Tribe. (No such recurring arts event exists at TAM for Asian American/Pacific Islander communities.)

Ellaina Lewis singing at Black Splendor at Lakewold Gardens. Photo: Serena Berry.

More comprehensive change is underway elsewhere in Tacoma, led by individual artists and smaller organizations. At the Lakewold Gardens, creative director Joe Williams worked with contemporary Black musicians and composers like Ellaina Lewis and Damien Geter to create Black Splendor, a subset of video concerts within its series Music from Home that highlights Black artistry in the Pacific Northwest. “The performances create a genuine feeling of belonging to the musical experience for every audience member,” says Robert Murphy. “I am honored to have participated as a violinist in Black Splendor, which the community created. It validated my artistic voice.” Pianist and music educator Kim Davenport describes the series as a “unique and vital” accomplishment, adding, “Music from Home celebrates artistry in classical music at the highest level, while also holding accessibility and inclusion as primary values.”

Over at Dukesbay Theater, Aya Hashiguchi Clark and her husband Randy Clark have created a space that practices “color-conscious” casting — staging shows written by artists and featuring characters who reflect the region’s ethnic diversity. Aya has also joined the board at Tacoma Little Theatre, where she has recently recruited people of color to constitute almost half of the board membership. After three years of pushing for this change, she remains optimistic. “It’ll be a snail’s pace, but it’ll happen,” she tells me. “We’re not going back.” As one measure of her seriousness she co-founded Rise Up, a coalition of theater artists in the South Sound that meets with the leadership of larger arts organizations, offering consultation and resources for those who want to pursue diversity, equity, and inclusion work.

Nevertheless, these examples prove what Saiyare Refaei, a muralist and letterpress artist-activist, tells me: “The last four years [in Tacoma] have been a push to diversity, but it’s been up to artists of color to do that push.” Dionne Bonner, a graphic designer, studio artist, and muralist, continues to advocate for more change: “I’m not confident I see myself or my community represented fully in my city.”

The Red Chador by Anida Yoeu Ali, Photography by Masahiro Sugano.

The Red Chador by Anida Yoeu Ali, Photography by Masahiro Sugano.

Meanwhile, resources and deeper infrastructure for artists remain concerns. “We need places to show and perform our work,” performance artist Anida Yoeu Ali says. Ali has shown, lived, and traveled globally, with a successful international arts career — but has only been featured in Tacoma arts spaces twice in the five years that she’s lived here. Still, she says, “I have a lot of hope for this town.” The City of Tacoma does have a grant-making system for artists (disclosure: I am a recipient in the current grant cycle), but most of these are relatively small disbursements of a few thousand dollars, tied to a specific project. Ali and Refaei agree that larger amounts of money should go directly to artists; Ali also underlines the need for unrestricted funds, along with affordable studio spaces and places for artists to show and perform, to offset the burden of living expenses.

An increase of resources will be crucial to retaining artists in a city that has recently become one of the hottest housing markets in the nation; pressures of gentrification and displacement are urgent, even as Tacoma still has something of a second-city mentality, in the shadow of Seattle’s larger, more competitive arts scene. (We seem to be perpetually “on the verge” of bursting onto larger arts scenes. I moved here in 2004 and was told — and saw — this “on the verge” perspective a lot.) This isn’t all bad; cartoonist Mark Monlux points to a supportive and collaborative ethos here, noting that “The artists of Tacoma have concern for each other […] they will take the time, make the effort to be not merely available for each other, but active in their lives.”

Will the city also make that effort? “Where there is new development, can we also make space and involve the arts and artists?” Refaei asks. This has happened in Hilltop, the city’s historically Black neighborhood, where organizers have rightfully raised concerns about displacement of the city’s long-term residents as a result of gentrification. The City of Tacoma’s Spaceworks program, known for activating vacant storefronts into art spaces and incubating small businesses, created its first Black Business Incubator cohort this year, encouraging entrepreneurship in Hilltop. And Fab-5, a Hilltop organization for youth artists and the organizers of #DesignTheHill, has brought murals and deep community involvement to the neighborhood in the wake of a massive light rail extension. “[This project] gives us the opportunity to really stake our claim in this place,” says fourth-generation Hilltop resident Stephen Tyrone Whitmore, in a video for #DesignTheHill. Community discussions, planning, and artists have all been part of the development process.

“Overall, I don’t know if Tacoma has ever been a truly viable place for artists to make a living. I wouldn’t know if it’s truly a viable and supportive place for artists with families, or some of our most marginalized community members,” says Fab-5 cofounder, muralist, and long-time Tacoma resident Kenji Hamai Stoll. “Tacoma is viable and supportive for some, and not for others. I was fortunate to have been raised here and connected to lots of local programs and artists. I also had a really stable childhood and family — without these things I don’t know what my artistic trajectory really would have been.”

I’m grateful for Stoll’s long-term, candid, and nuanced view. I share the concerns raised here by my fellow artists. And, like Anida Yoeu Ali, I have a lot of hope for this town.

Poet Christina Vega, the publisher of Blue Cactus Press, has just released a locally authored women and non-binary folks of color anthology. It’s aptly titled We Need a Reckoning, borrowing a line from “New Year’s Eve, 2020” by Tacoma’s current Poet Laureate, Lydia K. Valentine. “Kate Threat, gloria muhammad (our main editor), [and I] chose the title because we felt it is representative of the climate in our community now,” Vega wrote me, “and of what much of the content in the book is asking of readers. It speaks to the idea that we, women of color, demand our stories be heard, that we be seen, and that it is time for change. We need a reckoning of what has [happened and what is] happening, and then we need to take action. This anthology is not a lament, we are not asking for sympathy. Instead, it is an appeal for honest reflection, for change, and ultimately, celebration.”

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