When Paul Schell won the job of Seattle mayor last November, arts buffs 'round town were filled with hope. This guy, after all, was the first Seattle politician in living memory to use the word "art" without one eye on the TV cameras. But as months ticked by, Schell gave no sign that he had a municipal policy for the arts, or that his team was in the process of shaping one.
Last month the first sign appeared: A campaign promise to jack up city support for the Seattle Arts Commission was inoperative, Schell told the Seattle Arts Commission. More money for the arts would have to come from private pockets.
A couple of weeks later, Seattle Times op-ed columnist (and Seattle Weekly founder) David Brewster reported that "a good deal of action is taking place backstage" in the Schell camp. But the action, Brewster wrote in his June 12 screed, would be strictly in-house, wadding existing arts-related programs into "a cultural resources department, as has been done in Los Angeles, Portland, and Chicago.... A broadened department might operate arts education programs in the schools, the city's film division, Sister Cities, and other cultural tourism programs, arts facilities, and neighborhood arts programs."
The harder you looked at Brewster's trial balloon, the odder it looked. If the author approved of the purported mayoral plan, why did he salt the same column with irrelevant personal digs at the mayor? On closer reading, it wasn't even clear that the arts superagency idea had even originated within the Schell administration. But if not there, where? In Brewster's own fertile civic imagination?
Not entirely, it appears. The halls of Seattle's bureaucracy have been reverberating for two weeks with the rumor that someone in the mayor's office has sketched out a plan to bring together under one head a number of offices, commissions, and agencies that currently report directly to the mayor—including the city's film office (currently under Donna James), the Arts Commission (present director Wendy Ceccharelli), the Seattle Center (Virginia Anderson), and the Public Library (Deborah Jacobs). So last week when a mayoral employee casually remarked that Schell would soon announce the appointment of a new "special assistant for arts and culture, the boards, and the commissions," alarm bells went off all over.
Prematurely, it appears: Information about her background has been guarded as jealously as the formula for Coca-Cola, but the appointee in question, Yazmin Mehdi, turns out to be no mysterious stranger but a seasoned laborer in the city's budget office. Nothing mysterious about the job, either: It's the onerous role of playing liaison (read "buffer") for the mayor with arts advocates, while vetting nominees for citizen advisory boards on arts, preservation, design, etc.—pretty much the same job James found herself stuck with under Norm Rice.
Some people are saying that the consolidation plan is nothing but a ploy to maneuver SAC director Ceccharelli into resigning. But a phone call would be a somewhat more efficient way of achieving that goal since the SAC director serves at the mayor's pleasure. A more plausible theory: Somebody needs a job, and the Schell team's trying to create one. But surely our new mayor knows enough about bureaucracy to realize that the heads of the units earmarked for consolidation aren't going to accept demotion without a fight? A fight, in this case, about nothing whatsoever of substance?
If you want to know what Art Town thinks—and you're gonna find out whether you want to or not—the reorg idea offers the mayor only one rational advantage: It postpones indefinitely having to articulate an arts policy of his own, and back it up with concrete actions.
The Royer and Rice solution to the problem Schell faces was to "appoint a blue-ribbon panel to study the issue." Can't get away with that one anymore; the issue's been studied to death. Anybody working in the arts today could write down five specific pressing needs the community faces on the back of a cocktail napkin. A single example: The Opera House is falling down; it's going to cost $75 million to fix it up. How's the job to be paid for? And who's going to bell that cat if not the mayor?
It's not just money that's in short supply; courage, candor, and resolution are, too. It's time to remind the mayor that his is the executive branch of local government; the one that does things, makes choices, leads.