Councilmember Licata left office on January 1, 2016.
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Urban Politics #141: Changing The Arts Commission

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

With assistance from my Legislative Assistant Frank Video.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.



  • The Mayor’s Proposed Arts Budget
  • The Mayor’s Proposal To Reorganize The Arts Commission
  • My Observations
  • My Recommendations
  • Allied Arts Forum On The Arts Commission

The Mayor’S Proposed Arts Budget

In response to the City’s anticipated $60 million deficit next year, the Mayor has proposed drastic cuts in every City department budget, including the Arts Commission’s. The Council is presently considering the Executive’s idea to temporarily suspend one of the Commission’s annual revenue sources, 20% of the City’s admissions tax receipts other than those generated by men’s professional sports. Half of that revenue stream will be made up from the General Fund. The Admissions tax would automatically kick in again in 2005.

In all, the Mayor is calling for reducing this office’s budget by 25%. This cut includes $200,000 reduction in individual artists and small arts organization funding, the elimination of technical assistance to arts organizations, a $30,000 savings, and the elimination of the Arts in Education program, cutting another $123,000.

The Mayor’S Proposal To Reorganize The Arts Commission

Background on the Seattle Arts Commission

A 15-member volunteer citizen Arts Commission Seattle was formed in 1971 to initiate, sponsor, or conduct public programs to increase public awareness of fine and performing arts. Initially the commission had only part time staff to assist it. Over time additional staff was hired to carry out the art programs under the commission’s jurisdiction.

The Commission was not a City department. It reported directly to the Mayor. However, in the years since the Arts Commission’s creation, it has evolved into a City department and the City staff performed the duties that City code originally assigned to the Commissioners. The Mayor’s current proposal brings the current municipal code up to date to reflect the relationship that has evolved.

Background on the Office of Economic Development

The City’s Office of Economic Development (OED) and the Seattle Film and Video Office (FVO) housed within it were both formed in 1994. The FVO was created to market Seattle as a desirable filming location and to oversee permitting and the regulation of filming in Seattle. OED was formed to “provide business assistance and community and workforce development services to businesses, community organizations and residents so that Seattle has a strong economy, thriving neighborhoods, and broadly shared prosperity.” OED also works with non-profits and trade organizations to promote Seattle as a desirable tourist destination.

Background on the Music and Youth Commission

On September 29th of last year, Councilmember Richard Conlin and I sponsored and the Council passed Resolution 30282. It created a Music and Youth Commission, consisting of 16 volunteer members who would be charged to “promote and facilitate communication and understanding between and among music and dance promoters and licensees whose events cater to youth, musicians, parents, and governmental officials in the pursuit of safe, legal events.

The Mayor’s Proposal

The Mayor proposes to re-organize the Arts Commission into the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs (OACA). The City’s Film and Video Office would be moved there from OED. The Mayor would establish the Music and Youth Commission in 2003 and place it in OACA.

“Cultural Tourism” would be added as a core function of OACA. OACA would no longer be a City department, becoming instead an office within the Mayor’s Executive Department. The Arts Commission would remain a 15 member volunteer body with its Chair being selected by other Commissioners and not the Mayor as it is now. Its mandate would be expanded to include the film industry, the tourism industry, and the all-ages music industry.

The Executive’s argues that tourism, commercial film permitting and promotion, and all-ages music promotion and policy are intertwined with the performing and fine arts and that by aligning them all within a single office, each will be more effectively administered.

My Observations

Observations on the Seattle Arts Commission

The Seattle Arts Commission was the first public art program in the country that stressed the social function of art over the beautification of buildings. The Commission’s unique collaborations between artists, neighborhoods, and schools produce more than a diverse collection of artworks. It has generated experiences that strengthen neighborhoods through a better understanding of people and the history they leave behind for the next generation. As a result of this approach to public art, it has become a national leader. Other cities send their staff to attend the Seattle Arts Commission’s public art training classes.

In 1999, then Mayor Paul Schell and I convened an Arts Task Force that put forth a number of recommendations for changes to the Seattle Arts Commission. It concluded that the Commission didn’t need to be reorganized. Instead, it concluded the Arts Commission needed more funding to better meet demand and noted that it had its budget reduced successively over the years while simultaneously experiencing increased demand for its services.

In 2000, I sponsored and the Council passed Resolution 30222 and Ordinance 120183 endorsing the Mayor’s Arts Action Plan (his response to the task force recommendations) and establishing a new Arts Account for the Arts Commission. The Arts Account was to receive 20% of the City’s unrestricted admissions taxes. The Arts Commission was to use this money in three areas the task force identified as needing the most help in better meeting citizen demand for arts services: individual artists along with small to mid-sized arts groups, neighborhood arts, and art for youth, both in and out of school. For the past two years, the Arts Commission has been working to implement the provisions of this legislation.

Observations on the City’s Film and Video Office

Last year, with one full time and one half time staff member, the City’s Film and Video Office played a principal role in securing over $19,830,000 in commercial film production spending in Seattle and its surrounding areas, money spent on City permit fees, hotels, restaurants, actors, laborers, film-related companies, and other goods and services. This year’s budget for the Film and Video Office, including staff salaries, was about $151,000.

Denver is the only large U.S. city that presently organizes its commercial film activities in an arts office similar to what the Mayor proposes for Seattle. According to Stephanie Two Eagles, Director of the Colorado State Film Commission, the Denver Film Office, which is housed in the City’s Department of Art and Culture, does not function well because “the person holding the film position is so often pulled to do other arts projects that he can’t do the job effectively.” I’ve been told that Denver area film location managers express concern about how the office will be staffed when the current mayor retires, since the person holding the job is a political appointee.

My Recommendations

Most Councilmembers and I remain unconvinced that promoting tourism and commercial film activities would be best served in an arts office that would try to blend a business oriented “cultural tourism” agenda with a more community based art orientation that the Arts Commission has historically championed.

Last Thursday, I presented the following recommendations to my colleagues. Their response was generally favorable. They include:

1. Allowing the Seattle Arts Commission to be reorganized as the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs within the Executive Department. This would at least eliminate confusion when referring to the Seattle Arts Commission, separating by name the volunteer commissioners from the office they serve. It may also provide the broader mandate the Arts Commission could use to more consistently and effectively advise other City departments on arts and culture issues.

2. Retaining the Film and Video Office and its staff in OED and placing the Music and Youth Commission there, as well. I have heard from over 30 local and State film industry representatives. Most pointed out that they were not consulted over the decision to move the Film and Video Office into the Arts Commission. All prefer that the City’s film permitting and promotions activities remain organized as it is presently and that it remains in OED. Since it appears the functions of the Music and Youth Commission are intended to focus on business and economic activities related to music events for youth rather than the creative activities of original music composition or performance, that are presently overseen by the Arts Commission, placement of the Music and Youth Commission in OACA may be premature. All-ages dance supporters do not seem concerned over where the Music and Youth Commission is housed.

3. Retaining the authority of the Arts Commission to approve OACA’s budget and initiate arts programming rather than dropping it as was proposed by the Mayor. This authority is a power currently provided in our Municipal Code (3.56.030). I believe it serves as a potential check on the potential for arts funding and programming priorities to be dominated by any Mayor’s pet projects.

I believe it’s important to delegate decisions on public art priorities to those professionals and neighborhood representatives who are actively engaged in the arts. Instead of a staff-driven advisory board approach to the Arts and Culture Commission, I prefer an approach that is more grassroots and oriented to community representation.

4. Increasing the number of Arts and Culture Commission members from 15 to 16 with the Mayor appointing half and the Council the other half. This formula is the same used as the new Music and Youth Commission. By having both the Council and the Mayor appoint Commission members, both branches of government will stay engaged to promote the arts and provide for a more broad-based citizen representation on the Commission.

5. Seeking to restore some of the budget cuts proposed for the Arts Commission. At approximately 25%, the mayor’s proposed cut is significantly larger than cuts asked of other City departments. I have met with the new Director and the Chair of the Arts Commission to determine how the cuts could pared down to allow the new Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs to carry on the core objectives that came out of the 1999 Mayor’s Arts Task Force’s recommendations.

Allied Arts Forum On Mayor’S Arts Proposals

Allied Arts is holding a Beer and Culture Night discussion next Monday, November 4th, from 8:00 to 10:00 P.M. to discuss the future of the Arts Commission. Michael Killoren, the Director of the Seattle Arts Commission, will be joined by Ellen Sollod, artist and former Director of the Seattle Arts Commission, Richard Andrews, Director of the Henry Gallery and former director of the Seattle Arts Commission’s Public Art Program, and Barbara Thomas, artist and former Seattle Arts Commission staff and Co-Chair of the Mayor’s Arts Task Force. The discussion will take place at 1041 Summit East on Capitol Hill. R.S.V.P. to 624-0432.

For more information on Allied Arts, visit their web site at For more information on the Seattle Arts Commission, visit them at You can learn more about the City’s Film and Video Office by going to

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