Fostering an Art Community in Seattle
The Fremont Abbey Arts Center has a reputation for bringing cool, innovative cultural experiences to Seattle. Intimate concerts, new dance performances with live music, storytelling events, and creative workshops are all fair game at the center. This September, check out Seattle Story SLAM, Open Arts Mic, and the many musical performances the center will be hosting.
Director Nathan Marion has been leading the center since 2005. He repurposed an empty old building and immediately began programming. Marion spoke to us about art and non-profit work in Seattle.
You repurposed an empty old building to create Abbey Arts. What are some other under appreciated / underused spaces in Seattle?
Surprisingly even in Seattle where real estate is crazy expensive now, there are still a lot of underused buildings around that have a ton of potential if they can be made accessible. Sometimes they are temporary like a space that’s going to be torn down in a year (ie. Velocity Dance Center took over a Value Village and is doing events there for a while). I’m working with another nonprofit group to hopefully renovate part of an old school house that could be a performance space. I’ve been eyeing a couple other old buildings around town. I think old churches are still some of the best spaces, if those who own them are willing to let the community in.
Describe one of your favorite events or shows at Abbey Arts and what made it so memorable.
I could never narrow it down to one, but a few that pop to mind are:
Mary Lambert singing a collaborative version of “She Keeps Me Warm” at The Round here at the Abbey (soon after the “Same Love” song with Macklemore had gone big and marriage equality passed). It was such a beautiful moment of community, in our smaller gallery space with maybe 150 people. It just felt like everyone was there together in a really special way.
Another great memory is presenting Agnes Obel from Denmark in our CATHEDRALS series at St. Mark’s here in Seattle. Her music is just perfect for that space which is an epic old cathedral that was never finished and has incredible acoustics. We let the audience lie down or sit anywhere around the space, so it’s a pretty unusual concert. It was a very challenging production to bring in and setup (including a big Steinway piano) but so very worth it. I could barely move a muscle after hauling out all the equipment, but the memory of the concert was boosting my brain for weeks afterwards.
Another favorite memory is a youth poet at a recent multi-arts concert saying how she was really encouraged by the show to start writing again. She hadn’t been writing or performing lately and this supportive experience brought her back around to help her want to create something again. How beautiful is that? These stories of life altering arts experiences make all the hard work on a slow Monday worthwhile.
What are the biggest challenges and rewards of running an independent nonprofit organization in Seattle?
I suppose the first thing that usually comes to mind is the challenge of creating hundreds of quality concerts every year on a rather small budget. We really want to present beautiful and amazing shows in a welcoming environment, and that takes a lot of energy and resources to do well. Repurposing old buildings is sort of a “beautiful mess” kind of experience at times. We find ourselves patching things together to put on a show, and it usually always works, but once in a while I do wish for a more high tech space.
Another challenge that surprised me in recent years is how much time it can take to activate a new idea. It can be really tough just finding the time to launch new event concepts and ideas while also keeping a lot of other great shows and programs going in the same year.
Finding fun new ways to reach audiences is another ongoing challenge, as the media landscape seems to be changing every couple years now. We do use Instagram and other social media of course, but I still think “real life” in-person invites and word of mouth is the best buzz to get people to a show. Great videos still help a lot too, and we’re now helping more young artists to create compelling and high quality HD videos, so that’s exciting.
What makes Seattle a great spot for emerging artists of any form?
I believe (and hope this is true) that the creative culture in Seattle is more supportive vs. competitive. Some cities like Nashville, L.A., and NYC are much more competitive and survival based, from what I’ve seen. Then you see cities like Seattle, Portland, and Austin that seem to have a more relaxed vibe. So even though the rents are all going way up, the camaraderie amongst local artists seems to still be very strong. I think artists who really look at what it takes to “make it” nowadays realize that we are all connected and that helping each other rise up just brings the whole creative scene to a higher place, which benefits everyone. Plus it’s just a lot more fun! I mean, who wants to sit at the top of a mountain alone? Ok, well maybe once in a while I do.
I asked this question to a few of my staff at the Abbey and they responded with:
– A long history and appreciation for great music and Seattle’s focus on nurturing all things local create the perfect environment for emerging artists.
– Rainy seasons give Seattlites a need to find inspiring indoor activities. The number of coffee shops provides access for everyday people to experience visual art on walls or even live music. (Juliann Itter)
– A city-wide appreciation not only for artistic products, but the artistic process as a whole. (Cody Kilpatrick)
- Seattle is good place for emerging artists because there are so many resources and opportunities available for new artists to get their feet wet. Established artists are usually open to nurturing and watering the seeds that will eventually blossom into new talent. (Stephon Dorsey)
After events, any favorite watering holes and/or restaurants in the area?
We love to just go across the street to Pecado Bueno, a fun spot with a fire pit, good fish tacos, and cheap margaritas. They also happen to be a major supporter of local nonprofits. including us! Down the street is Add-a-ball which is a quirky underground bar with a ton of old pinball games, cheap drinks, and Jenga. You’ll notice the trend here: cheap drinks.