It’s an all-too-familiar narrative in Seattle: Artists carve their space, their space attracts developers and, despite widespread pity, artists are uprooted when developers price them out.
When art space clashes with the pressures of Seattle’s real estate market, art space often loses. And, if they can find it, Seattle artists often can’t afford the studio space, taking into account the financial stresses they already face paying for basic needs like housing — median rent prices for a one-bedroom have risen 9% in the last year alone. But across Seattle, artists and arts organizations have cobbled together ways to maintain arts space. Some collaborate with developers; others make use of boarded-up space while it awaits the wrecking ball.
Here are four such stories.
In 2011, 120 artists were forced out of the Western Building in Pioneer Square for the Highway 99 tunnel project. For one of the artists, painter Jane Richlovsky, it was her third time having to move studios due to a building’s elimination of art space.
Richlovsky decided it was also her last time. She used her $150,000 of relocation funds to lease space in a historic Pioneer Square building, forming a collection of art studios under the name ’57 Biscayne. But, as a rental space, ’57 Biscayne had no guarantee of permanence, leaving Richlovsky and the other artists vulnerable to displacement once again. So, in 2015, she banded together with another artist, a small-business owner and a property developer, and the four made a nearly $5 million offer on the entire building housing ’57 Biscayne.
Now known as Good Arts, the building at 110 Cherry St. is the doing of Richlovsky, theater veteran Steve Coulter, Cherry Street Coffee House co-owner Ali Ghambari, and Greg Smith, CEO of real estate development firm Urban Visions (and the other Cherry Street co-owner). Today, it houses the ’57 Biscayne’s 27 studios, as well as several small businesses, like Open Books: A Poem Emporium and the artist-run underground tour group Beneath the Streets, which shares its space with the newly resurrected Skid Road Theatre.
To purchase the building, Richlovsky and Coulter, who are a couple, invested “a chunk” of family money Coulter inherited, and the group got a loan with help from Smith’s good standing with the bank, Richlovsky said.
Clare Johnson, a visual artist and writer, has leased a studio in ’57 Biscayne since 2019 to work on her acrylic paintings, dip pen drawings and public art projects, such as her drawings made into vinyl wraps that can be found on the back of traffic signs in the Delridge-Highland Park Neighborhood Greenway. Similarly to Richlovsky, Johnson was pushed out of her studio space at 1426 Jackson St., where she was for nine years before the building sold. Getting her studio in ’57 Biscayne “felt like a miracle,” she said — one where she didn’t have to sacrifice square footage or pay more in rent.
“It’s such a precarious career to put your trust in, and it takes so much to trust that it’s going to work out from year to year,” she said. “To have something that I know I can count on just means more than I think normal people in other kinds of jobs would even understand.”
The Cherry Pit
When a Central District convenience store closed down this summer, two co-workers at the neighboring karaoke bar independently had the same idea to turn it into a live music and art space. Two other co-workers got on board with the spontaneous idea, and The Cherry Pit was born.
“The whole thing has just come together better than a plan,” said Shawn Doran, Cherry Pit co-founder and visual artist.
The property is slated to be demolished and redeveloped in a couple of years, and the landlord agreed to lease it to The Cherry Pit in the meantime, according to Doran. The four founders of The Cherry Pit — Doran, painter David Teichner, musician Josh Teodoro and music promoter Anjali Kusler — are nearing their 10th show in the space. The space is mostly used for live music, but there has also been an art installation and a photography show, with plans to do more art shows in the future, Doran said.
“I want to be able to provide outlets for people … and that’s what we’ve been doing,” he said. “Every time it’s great and I have a great time and everybody walks away smiling and laughing.”
All of the renovations to the space — coming in at about $3,000 — as well as most of the $1,500-per-month rent, have been financed out of pocket by the founders. For most live shows, 70% of the proceeds goes to the bands, 30% to The Cherry Pit, and for three benefit shows, all proceeds went to the bands. They aren’t wealthy, Doran said, but they “make decent money, and when things are split four ways, it makes things more manageable.” To make it more worthwhile, three of the founders have some sort of personal studio at The Cherry Pit, and the fourth is gaining experience as a music promoter.
But, Doran said, they aren’t in it for the money. “We haven’t covered rent yet with the shows, and that’s the dream, I guess, but that’s really not the necessary goal,” he said. The goal, rather, is to provide more art to the Central District in a space where people of all ages can network and share community.
“Seeing these, like, 16-, 17-year-old kids coming, they don’t know where else to go, and they think this is the coolest thing in the neighborhood,” he said. “That has been super adorable for me, and it makes me super proud and happy to see kids have a safe space to go.”
Doran predicts it will be at least a year and a half before the property is redeveloped. The owner of the karaoke bar where The Cherry Pit founders work is in talks with the landlord about building out a new space for the bar, Doran said, and he hopes The Cherry Pit is beneficial enough to the community that he can convince them to build a permanent art space as well.
“I think there is a desire, and it’s just showing developers beforehand, like, look, there’s an audience for it already, and we can just put it right in,” he said.
The Studio at 2+U
When development firm Skanska planned 2+U, its high-rise office and retail space downtown, it requested an alley vacation, where the city transfers the right of way of a public alley to a private property owner, and in return, the property owner is required to provide a public amenity.
Skanska chose a 1,110-square-foot rehearsal and presentation space as its public amenity, and Shunpike, an organization that helps small and mid-size Seattle arts groups develop business skills, to manage it. Performing artists and musicians can request the space, called The Studio, through an application on Shunpike’s website, which reopens every three months. For the three months, the chosen artists can use the space daily for free.
Charlie Foushee, Skanska’s executive vice president and regional manager for Seattle commercial development operations, said art space is a great way to engage the community in what the building offers at street level. This engagement, in turn, helps business for the retailers and attracts new tenants to the building.
Martin Tran, Shunpike’s program director, said the rehearsal-room program, which began in 2020 and continues to be fully booked, has been critical for artists whose rehearsal space was unavailable the last two years, due to either temporary or permanent closure.
Parmida Ziaei, a freelance dancer, choreographer and designer, was selected to use The Studio for three quarters in 2022, using the space to create her original works and teach private classes. Ziaei said she has rented other studio space in Seattle, but this is the first time she has had access to a dedicated art space, free of charge. The price point, or lack thereof, makes a big difference for Ziaei, who always wants to pay her dancers, even if she isn’t making much off the production.
“It just makes it challenging to be able to give yourself more time when you have to get more hours and you have to put in more resources,” she said. “Things become more of like, oh, let’s get this done in less amount of time so we can save money on space.”
Ziaei is also the co-founder of Seda Iranian Theatre Ensemble, which she said gives her a particular appreciation for how difficult it can be to access art space in Seattle. Even looking for space nine months before Seda’s February show, she said, meant slim pickings. “[The Studio] has been really valuable,” she said.
At Inscape Arts in the Chinatown International District, a group of artist tenants wants to purchase the historic building housing 100-plus studios — even if it takes years.
The group, called Friends of Inscape, began its effort in 2021 after hearing that the building’s owners were looking to sell and had marketed it as a redevelopment opportunity. Friends of Inscape wants to safeguard the building’s art space, community space and history as a former immigration and detention center (the group also hopes the building will one day have landmark status). But the journey to ownership is not a short one. Eventually, Friends of Inscape will raise money for the purchase; for now, it is focused on garnering support and identifying the needs of its surrounding community.
To do that, Friends of Inscape is forming a community advisory group, which it hopes to formalize in January. The group will be made up of “folks that are prominent within the arts and cultural sphere within Seattle, people that are really key supporters of the Chinatown International District, people that have a background or history or some kind of personal connection to immigration, or to the building itself, and … artists that are working within the building,” said project coordinator Jenelle Clark.
For more advice on how to raise money, garner support and equitably approach the purchase, Friends of Inscape has a working group of advisers it’s consulting, including local politicians, arts leaders and the Cultural Space Agency, a public development authority chartered by the city of Seattle in 2020 to develop cultural spaces.
“We’re trying to think about this more holistically, in terms of wanting to reach out beyond just the concept of the people that would be renting space within the building,” Clark said. “Thinking about the future of the building as this neighborhood’s fixture and this community gathering place and this really important living monument to immigration within Seattle.”
Tara Tamaribuchi, an artist who’s part of the Friends of Inscape’s leadership team elected by the tenants, said it’s important to preserve the 76,000 square feet of affordable studio art space and to protect the property from gentrification.
Tamaribuchi values her studio space at Inscape, but she also values the community she’s fostered there. “I don’t believe there is a studio building like this anywhere at the intersection of so many important things. It is hard for me not to care.”
This coverage is partially underwritten by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all its coverage.