MoM’s ‘Amazon vs Microsoft’ exhibit sparks controversy
By now, it should be clear that it’s foolish to keep waiting for the tech industry to save the arts sector, says Kim Selling, a longtime Seattle-based writer, advocate and arts artist. The sale compares him to the Liza Minnelli Cabaret song “Maybe this time.” “Maybe this time she’ll be lucky, maybe this time her life will change, her lover won’t leave her,” Selling says.
The appeal to art, Selling says, incorrectly assumed that the arts sector simply hadn’t “reached out big tech enough.” Overall, the idea felt very “both-sided,” says Selling, who now works in tech himself. “It almost felt like a Democratic call to action email where politicians were like, ‘We just haven’t tried hard enough. ‘We just have to walk across the aisle’ and it’s like, ‘No, singing Kumbaya doesn’t solve the city…a few people in tech who decide they like art now aren’t going to change major systemic issues .”
These issues run deep. A 2019 “Creative Economy” report noted that while Seattle is home to the nation’s highest-paid IT workers, its arts workers were the nation’s lowest-paid.
According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2021, a person employed in computer systems design and related services in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area earned an average of $182,675 per year, while people working in the arts, entertainment and recreation sector made about a quarter of that, $48,908 on average. And while many tech workers have been shielded from pandemic-related layoffs, people working in Seattle’s arts and entertainment sectors have been hardest hit proportionally. They still are: Arts and entertainment employment remains 24% below pre-pandemic levels, lagging most other industries in part due to inflation.
Seattle musician, writer and comedian Ahamefule J. Oluo says that’s why the call for art has touched such a nerve. “The way people have reacted is an anger that comes from the fact that people don’t know how they’re going to pay their bills, don’t know if they’re going to be able to stay in the city where they grew up, don’t know not if they’re going to be able to have a sense of community because everyone has to move somewhere else. It’s a really painful thing.
Anger is not personal, notes Oluo. “It has nothing against those [tech] employees. … People have to work to earn a living. Members of my family have worked for Amazon, Microsoft,” says Oluo. “But to present the art of these companies without delving very specifically into the extreme damage and deterioration of the city’s art community at the hands of these companies…it’s really hard to come to terms with that with all the artists of the city go through.”
Philanthropy, says Oluo, will not undo the damage done. Even if some nonprofits or artists receive funding from the company, “it’s nothing compared to what should be given away,” says Oluo.
“What we need to do,” Selling says, “is that the massive corporations that should be paying massive amounts of tax, for [actually] pay their taxes. We need those taxes to go into municipal funds that provide housing and job opportunities, accessible health care, and things people need at street level.
Janet Galore, a longtime Seattle artist and co-owner of Beacon Hill art space The Grocery Studios who also works for big tech companies, agrees. “What artists need is affordable housing, places to make art…places to exhibit art, people who write about art,” says Galore. “We need livable and affordable spaces for the huge community of people who are not the face of the arts – all the people working behind the scenes, and doing the lighting, audio setup, video, helping with the programming. … We also need people interested in these kinds of roles to be able to educate themselves without going into debt.
“Art vs. Tech,” adds Galore, is a red herring. “I think as soon as you start saying, ‘there are these two sides, and how do we bring them together?’ It’s totally the wrong conversation,” she says. “Focusing on the fundamental changes needed to create a sustainable creative ecosystem is the first thing we need to do.”