How Town Hall Seattle Helps Artists Take the Next Step

The First Hill institution’s Artist in Residence program sparks creativity and community-fueled programming.

“Almost anything will give me an idea for a poem,” Elisa Chavez says. “Sometimes it’s a news story … sometimes it’s the content of a lecture that just fires something off.” As Town Hall Seattle’s current Artist in Residence, Chavez holds the keys to the historic building—figuratively and literally—and with it the ability to attend events, curate programs, lead conversations, and, at the end of her three-month term, present an original work inspired and shaped by her experience.

Since 2012, Town Hall has awarded this unique opportunity to a selection of local artists, chosen for their artistic accomplishments and diverse perspectives. Many are in experimental phases of their career or are exploring broader civic issues. Encouraged to cross disciplines and collaborate with the adjacent Scholar in Residence, the artists exemplify Town Hall’s mission to present community-sourced, interactive programming that reflects multiple points of view.

“Our residents are like Town Hall ‘super users,’ ” Town Hall Executive Director Wier Harman says. “They model the way our community can engage with this place.”

The In-Residence program exemplifies Town Hall’s commitment to programming that encourages community involvement. This means facilitating interactive nights, called Scratch Nights, when the residents can present works-in-progress and solicit audience feedback. Throughout their residency, the Artists in Residence also participate in timely conversations on social media, responding to ideas and continuing the dialog ignited at Town Hall. At the end of the process, each resident produces and presents a culminating event.

Since beginning her residency in March, Chavez, a spoken word poet, has spent countless hours in the historic building—reading, discussing politics and race, attending lectures, and writing poetry. Building on her involvement with Rain City Poetry Slam while immersing herself in Town Hall’s collective creativity, Chavez is exploring the role of translation in news and art. And although she’s still developing the framework for her final Town Hall event in June, she’s fascinated by “art as a vehicle for far right ideology,” a topic she sees as inherently polarizing, but relevant given our current political climate.

“[Town Hall is] not programmed from the inside out, it’s programmed by the whole community,” Wier Harman explains. This shows in the diversity of Artists and Scholars in Residence, selected for their unique interests and deep community ties. Some previous Artists in Residence include exhibition developer and public programs organizer Minh Nguyen; visual artist Juan Alonso-Rodriguez; choreographer Elana Jacobs; musician George Quibuyen, a.k.a. Geo from Blue Scholars; cartoonist and author Ellen Forney; and musician, composer, artist, and comedian Ahamefule J. Oluo.

During his residency in 2014, singer/songwriter Tomo Nakayama wrote and recorded his first full-length solo album, Fog on the Lens, using Town Hall’s corridors, spare rooms, and venue spaces to create his vision. For his final Resident Findings event, Nakayama kicked off a one-day 14-venue Seattle concert tour with an intimate afternoon showcase at Town Hall.

In 2015, Town Hall welcomed conceptual artist C. Davida Ingram into residency. Through her project, Bodies of Knowledge, the artist created an interdisciplinary performance event that wove autobiography, storytelling, and new modes of documentary-making into an exploration of “the ways that we know what we know—on a social, personal, and political level.”

Ingram regards her residency at Town Hall as a boon to her lifelong work as an artist. “Because it’s a former church, [the Town Hall building] still has the sense of wonder that temples, mosques, and churches all have—where we sit and contemplate what makes us divine,” Ingram says. “And that’s what art allows us to do. To understand human experience.”

Beginning this fall and spanning the building’s grand renovation, Town Hall’s programming will be decentralized to an array of off-site venues throughout Seattle. During this time, Town Hall will select Artist and Scholars in Residents in various neighborhoods to foster community engagement.

“What I really appreciate about Town Hall is they keep pushing for new and different kinds of ideas and genres,” Chavez says. With a growing portfolio of poetry and access to the organization’s collaborative community, she’s thriving in Town Hall’s open space for experimentation and discovery.

“I’m very grateful to Town Hall for the opportunity to surprise myself,” she says.

Town Hall Seattle’s historic building is turning 100, and it needs some love. A top-to-bottom renovation will preserve the landmark’s historic look and feel while making critical infrastructure, seismic, and performance advances. With state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems, a new downtown-facing entrance, and new multilevel restrooms, Town Hall will be more accessible, more comfortable, and more vibrant than ever. Learn more and get involved at townhallseattle.org.

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