I’ve received several comments and emails taking issue with, or downright offended by, my characterization of the pro-Chihuly “museum” forces at last night’s public hearing as a bunch of “rich, old, white folk,” as well as the implication I made that the forum was stacked in such a way that most of us on the other side didn’t get a chance to speak.
Well first of all, yeah, my headline was intended to be a little derogatory and hyperbolic. Big deal. So a couple of people of color spoke in favor of the proposal. And the Republicans always manage to get a couple of people of color to speak at their otherwise homogenous conventions.
Don’t take my characterization at face value? Here’s how The Stranger’s Cienna Madrid described the assembled throng:
Last night’s meeting at the Seattle Center on the proposed Chihuly Museum starred nearly 400 men and women in suits, most tied to the Seattle Center, Space Needle, or slick PR firms, all hustling for a project that would benefit the tourist industry, reading their scripts beneath a striped tent-top and bulbed sign that spelled out “Whirligig.”
Moderators Bill Block, Seattle Center Advisory Commission chair, and Seattle Center director Robert Nellums kicked off the meeting with a stump speech on how the Chihuly Museum would benefit the Center. City Council Members Sally Bagshaw, chair of the parks and Seattle Center committee, and Jean Godden, an alternate member of the committee, were also there to hear testimony.
But that testimony was stacked. This was more of a circus than a public meeting.
The Seattle Center brought its own public comment sign up sheet with them and the first hour of comment was wholly devoted to blowing Chihuly’s glass—the audience heard from the CEO of the Space Needle, a Seattle Center Advisory Board member, Seattle Center business managers and financial officers, and a hotel concierge representative. […] Less than 10 people in two hours spoke against this project.
Cienna was wrong on one point; she left before I did, and about two and a half hours into the meeting I finally had my two minutes to speak; not that there were many folks left in the Center House to hear it. It’s also true that about an hour into the proceedings the moderators started pulling names from the middle and back of the sign up sheets, so as to present a more diverse selection of speakers. But my post from the scene, laboriously typed out on my iPhone between 7:00 and 7:30 PM, was an accurate report at the time.
So what were the main arguments for the proposal?
A.) Dale Chihuly is a great guy who gives stuff to schools, and thus deserves this tribute.
Well, maybe he is, and I’ve got no reason to doubt the character assessment of the hundreds of friends (and two or three PR firms) he had there wearing “Yes for Chihuly at the Needle” stickers. But I’m guessing there are a lot of great guys in Seattle, and we can’t offer all of them the opportunity to lease scarce downtown parkland at $11 a square foot. Chihuly is a widely admired, world renowned artist whose talent and fame have made him an extremely wealthy man, so not only don’t I find the “great guy” argument all that convincing, I find it hard to muster any sympathy for him or the Wrights should they feel snubbed by the proposal’s less than enthusiastic public reception.
B.) Seattle would be crazy to turn down a “gift” like the proposed Chihuly “museum.”
The word “gift” was used repeatedly by speakers supporting the proposal, as was the word “museum,” when in fact, neither of these two words are really accurate.
Let’s be clear, the private, for-profit facility the Wrights have proposed is neither a “gift” nor a “museum,” Chihuly or otherwise. Museums have permanent collections; the Wrights’ glass house would not. Even the “$50 million worth of glass art” Chihuly has pledged will merely be displayed on loan, and may be removed entirely once his initial five year contract is up. The Wrights’ lease on the other hand, would continue for another 25 years at least.
What this is, is a gallery, gift shop and catering hall, conveniently located at the foot of the Space Needle where the Wrights could easily cart the food over from their existing catering business. Hell, for all we know, the $50 million worth of glass that Chihuly promises will be just as for sale as tchotchkes in the gift shop. And if Chihuly were to pull out at the end of a five-year contract, what we would be left with is a glorified Fireworks… a nice enough shop, but one which you can already find in malls throughout the region.
C.) The economic prosperity of the Seattle Center, indeed the entire region, depends on building this “museum”
Again and again the subject of money was raised, with the pro-“museum” speakers pointing out how desperate the Center is for revenue while in the depths of our current economic downturn. And while that may be true, I don’t think it pollyanna-ish to suggest that our economy won’t stay in the dumps forever.
Proponents argue that the $11/square foot the Wrights are willing to pay is above market rates for the Center, and that we should be grateful for the half million dollars a year that would generate. But the Fun Forest was already paying $350,000 a year, so it’s not like we’re looking at that much of an increase. And besides, this is public parkland we’re talking about. Since when do we evaluate its value by rental revenue per square foot?
No doubt if this proposal is rejected, that portion of the Fun Forest will remain vacant for a couple years as the economy recovers and the city raises the revenues to implement the master plan. But the alternative to being patient is selling off a 1.5 acre chunk of the Center for at least several decades, if not in perpetuity. So… what’s the rush?
D.) The proposed Chihuly “museum” would prove a tremendous upgrade to the Center’s current, “scary” facilities.
One speaker even suggested that his wife and young children were “afraid” to go the Seattle Center in its current state, but that the Chihuly “museum” would help turn this around. Really. A guy who thinks the Center is too scary and unsafe a place to bring his young kids has the balls to tell us what to do with its redevelopment.
The I’m-a-suburban-white-guy-who-fears-my-kids-might-run-into-some-hippies-and/or-dark-skinned-people bullshit aside, the proposal doesn’t really provide much of an upgrade at all. In fact it keeps the existing, bland brick building where the indoor amusements are currently housed, although it promises to green it up a bit by growing ivy on the walls or something. Now that’s what I call the making of a world class museum.
So yeah, while I eventually got my chance to speak, I stand by my on-the-ground characterization of last night’s meeting, and the cultural elite who packed the hall. In fact, I’m tempted to merely dismiss them as a PR orchestrated hiss. But that will have to wait for another post.
The Stranger has more on what they’ve dubbed “Glastroturf,” including the $25 gift certificates folks are being promised for joining the PR-firm-organized “Chihuly at the Space Needle” Facebook group. Really.
Anyway, you can email the mayor and the council by clicking here, or click through to the Stranger’s post for a list of all their email addresses and phone numbers, and let them know where you stand on selling off Seattle Center land for a for-profit gallery, gift shop and catering hall.