Politics and Art Clash Over 4Culture’s Future

A county ordinance would impose greater oversight on cultural funding agency. But is that necessary?

Before the Stonewall riots in 1969, the bars, cafes, and diners in Seattle’s Pioneer Square offered a haven to the working class and LGBTQ communities seeking refuge. Storme Webber, an indigenous black lesbian multidisciplinary artist and poet, recalls the time that she spent in the neighborhood with her family in the 1960s. The amalgamation of marginalized communities was alluring, yet safe and empowering. It felt like home. “Lesbian and gay people were incredibly vulnerable,” Webber said. In fact, homosexuality was still considered a mental illness at the time according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. “It was important to have these bars and these cafes and these working class places where safety could be found.”

In light of the city’s rapid development and disappearing cultures, Webber sought to pay homage to the Pioneer Square of yore through a “corrective of history; sort of a restoration of the missing narratives.” But her grand vision to share the hidden stories of Seattle’s multicultural queer culture would take money, resources, and time. When Webber was unsuccessful in getting the project funded through other organizations, 4Culture — the cultural funding agency for King County — offered financial help to get the project off the ground. The grant that she received from 4Culture allowed her to continue her research, edit the story, and hire a director from Chicago. It eventually became Noirish Lesbiana: A Night at The Sub Room, an experimental, inter-disciplinary solo theater work that incorporated video, audio, choreography, and a live performance which debuted at Washington Hall in 2014. “They’ve been supportive of projects that wouldn’t necessarily garner support from other institutions,” Webber said about 4Culture.

Along with running grant programs for artists, 4Culture also uses public resources to preserve historic buildings, help communities document and explore their heritage, and commission artwork throughout King County.

But Webber fears that the agency’s creative freedom could soon come to a halt. A King County Council ordinance introduced and referred to the Committee of the Whole on Monday would impose greater oversight over 4Culture by allowing the Council to annually approve the budget and to hire or fire an executive director. Councilmembers contend that Bill 2018-0086 could help provide greater stability for arts funding in the future.

However, 4Culture staff members and the recipients of their grants disagree. 4Culture spokesperson Christina DePaolo says that the measure addresses a problem that doesn’t exist, and that it might in fact complicate their internal processes. “It could endanger work that expresses an opinion. It could endanger transformative work. It could endanger work from marginalized populations who haven’t had a chance in the same way to create,” said Webber.

But King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, one of the bill’s six sponsors, views it another way. He said that the proposed changes were mostly spurred by the impending retirement of Executive Director Jim Kelly on April 30. The council sees Kelly’s retirement as an opportunity to redefine the county’s role in the agency. “A time of change and the growing funding led to a discussion at the Council around what are the structures and systems we have in place at the County to manage our relationship with this agency?” Upthegrove explained.

Although the ordinance would require the Council to approve 4Culture’s annual budget before transferring the county funds, “there’s no suggestion whatsoever that the County Councilmembers get involved in picking who gets grants and who doesn’t,” Upthegrove said. “We do not want to politicize those funding decisions.” Another provision would allow the Council to confirm the executive director nominee or to remove them from office following a public hearing. Lastly, the Council would be able to appoint future board members during a vacancy or expired term. Currently, the county executive appoints board members who are pre-screened and recommended by the rest of the board, and then the Council confirms those nominees. The new provision would open up that process by also allowing the county executive and the Council to suggest nominees.

Despite the potential structural changes, Upthegrove says that arts organizations that receive funding from 4Culture “most likely” won’t see the changes. In fact, the proposal originates from an idealistic vision: “With a very modest amount of involvement from the elected officials who created and fund the organization, it can make sure that the big picture vision that structures that agency remains consistent with the interest of the public expressed through their elected officials,” he said.

Upthegrove also thinks that the ordinance will help strengthen the communication between the agency and councilmembers, and enhance accountability, which he says will ultimately “strengthen the position of arts and culture funding.” UptheGrove also said in a recent blog post that the changes were prompted because the “amount of public funds the agency will receive is slated to increase by more than $13 million per year.” During a Monday phone interview with Seattle Weekly, he conceded that the statement was misleading.

The story of 4Culture’s funding history is a long and complicated one that includes the unlikely combination of art and sports. In 1967, lodging taxes collected from visitors staying in hotels and motels was directed towards paying off the debt from the Kingdome project, the former home of the Seattle Mariners. Then in 1986, Washington State law stipulated that part of the revenue collected from the lodging tax would go toward King County’s arts and heritage programs between 1992 to 2013. 4Culture receives much of its funding from the lodging tax, so the agency became concerned in the mid-2000s when they realized that they would no longer be able to depend on it in 2013, said 4Culture Executive Director Kelly. To safeguard itself from extinction, 4Culture put nearly half of the lodging tax allocation into an endowment that they knew would eventually run dry. But then in 2011, they received a reprieve when the state Legislature passed legislation promising to reinstate the lodging tax funding for arts and heritage programs in 2021. The revenue generated from the tax will give 4Culture $13 million in the first year that it’s reinstated. In 2020, Kelly said that 4Culture will have $10 million, so they will only receive a $3 million increase in funding in 2021 and not $13 million as Upthegrove suggested.

He added that they already got $13 million in annual flow from the lodging tax in 2012, and that they didn’t receive extra scrutiny at that time. “No one in 2012 was saying, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s so much money! We better jump in and make sure it’s being spent right.’ So why now?” queried Kelly.

DePaolo added that 4Culture looked at 14 other public agencies similar to theirs in the region to see if similar oversight would be imposed on them, but that 4Culture would be the only one if the ordinance is passed. Upthegrove says that the Council is still researching that claim, but that it was “like comparing apples and oranges,” because the other agencies didn’t perform similar functions.

But even if artists won’t be affected by the ordinance as Upthegrove says, they still view it as a slight to the artistic community. In Webber’s view, the bill seems to have come out of the blue. She worries that arts and culture in the city will be jeopardized if the ordinance is passed. “Artists are not trying to get into King County Council to run the Council,” Webber said, “and I don’t think politicians should try to come and run arts and culture.”


Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the executive director currently appoints board members, when it is in fact the county executive. It has been corrected.