ON PAPER, SUSAN TRAPNELL should be the city’s most effective director of the Seattle Arts Commission since Wes Uhlman appointed John Blaine to the newly created post back in 1971. Trapnell knows first-hand from a quarter-century in arts management (first of Bill Evans Dance Company, then A Contemporary Theater) the prosaic hard work that goes into the generation, presentation, and financing of the performing arts. Over the years she’s worked for a diverse string of temperamental bosses; liaison with Paul Schell, whom she’s known for many years, should be a no-brainer. She already knows her way around the city bureaucracy via years spent negotiating ACT’s move to a new downtown home in 1996, not just with the ever-cryptic Department of Construction and Land Use but the housing department and historic preservation board as well.
But neither Trapnell’s inherent abilities nor her views on the proper cultivation of the arts and artists will ultimately define her tenure as Commission director. Though confirmed in the job by a unanimous 9-0 City Council vote, she takes up the post at a time when her two masters, mayor and council, are in serious conflict—more over matters of style than substance; but when it comes to the arts, style is everything.
The central conflict between executive and legislative was clearly manifested in the process that led to Trapnell’s nomination. Only when the process was essentially complete did the council learn by way of a mayoral press release that Trapnell had been chosen.
Trapnell is only the most recent example of Schell’s penchant for close-to-the-chest decision-making in matters of vital concern to his fellow elected officials. The council has not rejected a mayoral appointee in more than 40 years, according to Frank Video, aide to City Council member Nick Licata. But there are more ways to express dissatisfaction than a direct “no” vote. Instead of quizzing Trapnell himself at her obligatory preconfirmation appearance before his Culture, Arts, and Parks committee, Licata let it be known that he was inviting “regular arts folks to come to the table and ask questions.” When the mayor’s office asked for an advance look at the list of issues to be raised—not an unreasonable request, given Trapnell’s newborn-bureaucrat status—Licata’s staff engaged in a little noncommunication of its own, leaving the nominee to cope on the fly with highly specific queries from groups like Allied Arts, the Seattle Poetry Festival, 911 Media Arts center, Horsehead, and Folklife: none exactly chosen to represent the mainline performing-arts community where Trapnell is professionally most at home.
Trapnell confesses to having been a bit bemused by her mini-inquisition (sandwiched between circus animals and aquarium fish into little more than 20 minutes of a committee meeting), but hardly upset by it. “I understand why there would be questions,” she says. “The public hasn’t voted me into the job. On the other hand, this is not a career move for me. I’m not trying to prove anything, I just want to do something.”
And what, given the city’s ever-dwindling contribution to nonprofit arts funding, might that be? “I think the model we ought to look at is economic development: What can we do with a severely limited amount of money to leverage the desired result—how do we keep the energy going, how do we keep artists here? The city’s One Percent program for the visual arts is an example: It doesn’t try to do everything; instead it does one thing well.”
But what kinds of leverage are available to a small city agency? “We work with what we already have. There are any number of arts programs already in existence under city auspices. We need to state a clear policy that gives city departments incentives to look at their programs for ways to help artists prosper.”
On the subject of her immediate agenda, she says, “I have a lot to learn from people who’ve already been at the Commission for a long time, but there are some things I’d like to see change. It’s time to review how we distribute our grants to smaller groups and organizations. The present system works well for the big organizations; it ought to, they had a role from the very beginning in designing the kind of funding they needed. But small organizations and individual artists have different priorities. I’d like to see us get them together to shape our approach to their needs.”
How about pitfalls ahead? “I see a serious contradiction in the way government talks to the arts about public support. Everybody talks about maintaining access for everybody, in part by keeping prices low. Well, government has made a commitment to supporting access for institutions like libraries, parks, and schools, but it’s never made the same kind of commitment to access to the arts. Yet we’re told constantly told when grant time comes around, ‘If you don’t provide access, we’re not going to support you.’
“There’s a related but much broader problem. Seattle doesn’t really like excellence, at least in the arts. We punish success. In part it’s our populist tradition, in part it’s because we aren’t always able to recognize excellent work, but part is just plain envy: As an art community we are really terrible at acknowledging someone else’s success. So sooner or later our finest artists go away. I was incredibly lucky when I was young, getting to live in Vienna when I was 10 and Paris in my twenties—not that I’m saying that Seattle has to immediately start competing in that league—but I did learn that how cities deal with art makes a difference.”