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Seattle Loves The Arts, But They Still Struggle To Make Payroll

The iconic sculpture in McCaw Hall, home of the Pacific Northwest Ballet and Seattle Opera.
Flickr Photo/Frank Fujimoto (CC-BY-NC-ND)
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The iconic sculpture in McCaw Hall, home of the Pacific Northwest Ballet and Seattle Opera.

A new national survey ranks Seattle fourth in the nation when it comes to the number of nonprofit arts and culture organizations. That's higher than San Francisco or Minneapolis.

Longtime arts administrator Sue Coliton isn't surprised by that news.

"My immediate response to that particular study was, 'Oh, that's an interesting data point.'"

Coliton, formerly with the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, cites other studies that also show that when it comes to cultural communities, Seattle's is among the most vibrant.

In particular, the findings indicate that when it comes to attendance, participation and contributions to the arts, Seattlites embrace the region's cultural institutions.

"If you look at the Americans for the Arts Creative Industries Study," Coliton points out, "Of all the cities they tested, Seattle ranks 21st in population, (but) Seattle ranks number one in arts businesses per capita."

Coliton points to what she calls an entrepreneurial spirit that is pervasive in the Puget Sound region. The same can-do spirit that spawned Boeing, Microsoft and Amazon has also helped arts organizations like Seattle Symphony and Pacific Northwest Ballet forge new ways to both present and market performances.

And she notes that national funders like the Wallace Foundation have recognized those efforts with significant infusions of grant funds.

That said, the Great Recession had an enormous impact on Seattle cultural nonprofits. Many local companies decreased charitable giving and fewer audience members invest in season tickets these days.

Coliton says you can look at the great attributes like quality, agility and large numbers of creative professionals, "but if you interview the executive director of a mid-sized arts organization, they're going to talk to you about the challenges of making payroll."

She cautions that the value these arts organizations bring is not yet matched by the amount of public and private support they receive.