Is Experience necessary?

Paul Allen's latest hire chills the arts community.

The Blob is back and this time it has a bounty hunter. This week Jo Allen Patton appointed a new top manager for brother Paul's Experience Music Project at Seattle Center: Jim Weyermann, who is charged with raising money for the project.

The name of the appointee was no surprise: Weyermann has been a familiar name to Seattle culturati since his days as manager of the Seattle Children's Theatre when it was still young and struggling. It was the job itself that sent a silent tremor through the nonprofit arts community.

To understand why, try this little metaphor on for size. Suppose there's a guy in your neighborhood who, thanks to his job, has seemingly unlimited free tickets to Sonics games at his disposal, and who's generous about handing them out to all the families on the block. And suppose this guy has a kid who plays in the local Little League, and the kid has his eye on the job of starting pitcher for the team. He may not be the best pitcher in the neighborhood. But would it be smart to compete against him for the job? At best, you'd be risking your own Sonics seats if his dad took offense; at worst, you could piss him off enough that nobody on the team would get freebies, and that would not do much for your popularity with your little friends, would it? Better to shut up, smile through clenched teeth, and master the lesson early that money, or the equivalent, makes its own rules.

What's the parallel? Just this: Weyermann's new boss Jo Allen Patton is not just executive director of EMP; she is also vice-chair of Vulcan Northwest, the Allen empire's for-profit holding company, and executive director of the Paul G. Allen Foundation for Medical Research, The Paul G. Allen Virtual Education Foundation, and, last but not least, the Allen Foundation for the Arts. By virtue of that last position, she also serves as a trustee of the Corporate Council for the Arts, the powerful and influential organization which dominates general corporate donations to the arts around Puget Sound.

The Allens, in other words, are themselves major players in the arts-donation game. What happens when Weyermann, acting as their agent, starts hustling for donations from other funders for pet projects like the Experience Music museum? Indeed, why does EMP, the brainchild and pet project of one of the richest people on earth, need a director of development to hustle grants and sponsorships just like any other cash-strapped nonprofit?

Weyermann, aboard at EMP only a couple of weeks, says fellow fund-raisers have nothing to fear: on the contrary, Weyermann is "hopeful that we can use any leverage we may have to create even broader funding sources, national and international. In fact we are already working with a number of organizations to develop programs in common which may attract wider arts and education funding into our market."

Before Allen ever embarked on what at first was called the Jimi Hendrix Museum, he told reporters that he didn't anticipate there would be any call on public or private subsidy to support it: the institution would, if not run at a profit, at least break even through a mixture of admission, concessions, souvenirs, publications, and the like. And part of Weyermann's job will surely consist of lining up some of the corporations which have grown fat on pop—the multinational record companies, instrument makers, electronics manufacturers, maybe even some megagroups longing for premature immortality—to pay for all the interactive multimedia exhibits promised when EMP opens (somewhat behind schedule) in mid-2000.

All that's fine, the fearful say, but it doesn't address their central concern: two powerful organizations, one dispensing arts funds, one soliciting them, both run by a single individual. In this case, not letting your right hand know what your left is doing is part of the problem, not the solution.

People who want to do the world a favor often end up giving it a black eye. Seattle is littered with public art that no public body would have touched with a stick had its potential donors not been rolling in the green stuff and hence been un-say-no-to-able for fear they might withhold some future benefaction.

The amount of local corporate money devoted to the arts has been growing over the years, but only about fast enough to replace the dwindling support from governmental sources like the National Endowment for the Arts (and Seattle Arts Commission). What happens to the pie if the Allens' Frank Gehrydesigned rock 'n' roll pleasure dome starts asking for a slice commensurate with its size?

Los Angelenos today are almost offensively delighted by the museum the Getty Trust built for them on a Hollywood hilltop. They have every reason to be: it's a masterpiece, and a civic treasure. But if it had turned out to be an eyesore, an embarrassment, a total turkey, it would still be there, looming over Sepulveda Boulevard. Money like the Gettys' or the Allens' makes its own rules, whether its owners want it to or not, even when all they want to do is give it away for the benefit of others.

 
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