Seattle Culture

Beauty and Diversity in Art

Seattle's art scene is embracing more voices and viewpoints than ever

By Chris S. Nishiwaki March 13, 2024

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This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

Seattle has become something of a hot spot for diversity in the arts.

The Seattle Opera is just finishing its run of X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, following its successful production of A Thousand Splendid Suns, which explored the experience of two women living under Taliban rule in Afghanistan. This past holiday season, Intiman Theatre brought back the rousing Black Nativity, written by Langston Hughes.

Black Nativity returned to Intiman Theatre for another run, captivating audiences through December.

Photo courtesy of Intiman Theatre

 

Seattle Children’s Theatre is finishing up its production of Luchadora! adapted from the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan and told through the voice of a multigenerational Mexican American family.

Luchadora! unfolds through the perspectives of a multigenerational Mexican American family.

Photo courtesy of Seattle's Children Theatre

 

Current shows include ACT Theatre’s Stew, a play that examines three generations of Black women and the relationship between mothers and daughters. The Bellevue Art Museum is showcasing provocative new exhibits including Washi Transformed, a modern interpretation of Japanese calligraphy, painting, and printmaking.

Stew at ACT Theatre delves into the lives of three generations of Black women.

Photo courtesy of ACT Theatre

Washi Transformed is currently on display at Bellevue Arts Museum.

Photo courtesy of Bellevue Arts Museum

It’s a far cry from 2006, when veteran theater director Valerie Curtis-Newton, along with community leader Vivian Phillips, founded The Hansberry Project, named after activist and playwright Lorraine Hansberry to promote and produce art by Black artists.

The Black Women Wisdom Summit, hosted by The Hansberry Project.

Photo courtesy of The Hansberry Project

 

“There were virtually no people of color in decision-making positions,” says Curtis-Newton, who directed Black Nativity. “The early 2000s, it was lonely work for artists of color. After George Floyd’s murder, there was more of an impulse from advocates and allies.”

Those new voices have dramatically changed the landscape the past several years. Curtis-Newton, who is also the head of directing and playwriting at the University of Washington’s School of Drama, is one of a growing number of BIPOC arts leaders throughout Seattle.

Arts Fund CEO Michael Greer, the first Black CEO of the nonprofit arts funding organization, adds that the Covid pandemic magnified many of the disparities across demographics, requiring leaders to become more conscientious about diversity.

“Post-pandemic, the role of the arts shifted,” Greer says. “That required a new outlook on leadership.”

Arts organizations didn’t have to completely turn over their top executives, Greer says, in order to achieve that shift. Existing leaders have also adjusted priorities. But organizations that did choose new leaders have brought fresh, new voices to the scene, including Seattle Rep, the city’s flagship live theater company, which hired Cuban American theater director Dámaso Rodríguez last summer.

Many local arts organizations have extended their executive searches to broaden the pool of candidates, though some are homegrown. Of those, many have trained at the Seattle University MFA in Arts Leadership program founded by Kevin Maifeld 10 years ago. Maifeld, who retired last year, expects the number of BIPOC arts executives to increase.

“When I was (a student) in graduate school, none of my cohorts were people of color,” says Maifeld, who earned a master’s in art administration from the University of Alabama in 2000. “There was gender diversity but no students of color.”

Now, though, Maifeld says graduates see a career path in this region, and are more likely to stay in the area post-graduation.

“The diversity of students and graduates has brought in fresh perspectives because many organizations were run by old white men like me,” Maifeld says. “It has brought a broader talent of artists, actors, directors, musicians. As many of them are moving into these positions, it makes for a much more vibrant community.”

That diverse leadership is now reflected in the art itself and the offerings available to audiences throughout the region.

“We are committed to new works and productions, new voices that matter that are relevant, that are interesting,” says Idris Goodwin, artistic director for Seattle Children’s Theatre. “It gives audiences the opportunity to see themselves. It’s just about values and what is a priority. We have to make sure that we are being equitable with where we put our resources.”

New spaces have also come onto the scene, where diverse artists can come together, share their work, and find community. Arte Noir, founded in 2021 by Hansberry Project co-founder Phillips, showcases works by Black artists in a beautiful space at Midtown Square in Seattle’s historic Central District.

Arte Noir celebrates and elevates Black art, artists, and culture.

Photo courtesy of Arte Noir

A 120-foot mural by artist Takiyah Ward graces Midtown Central Square.

Photo courtesy of Midtown Square

 

The Nepantla Cultural Arts Gallery in White Center, which opened in 2018, hosts monthly art exhibitions focused on marginalized communities, particularly those from the Latinx/Chicanx community. In recent years, it has become a lively gathering space for the neighborhood.

The Nepantla Cultural Arts Gallery in White Center emphasizes marginalized communities.

Photo courtesy of Nepantla Cultural Arts Gallery

Despite the progress, leaders across arts organizations agree that much work remains. Curtis-Newton advocates for more diversity on boards of directors, which ultimately supervise staff leaders at nonprofit organizations.

“The problems are that many of those institutions have not been able to cultivate boards to promote that message (of diversity) and bring in those audiences,” Curtis-Newton says. “I was asked if I would apply for any of those vacancies. I said no because there were no board members that would support the work.”

Work clearly remains to be done. But the progress is palpable.

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