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Filling in the Spaces

One year in, Tacoma’s citywide arts incubator proves it’s more than window dressing

On the third Thursday of this month, the sidewalks of downtown Tacoma will fill with people in search of art. They will again find it in the usual dozen-or-so galleries and museums that participated in Art Walk last year at this time. Back then, the Third Thursday Artwalk—like any walk downtown—was pock-marked with signs of the economy’s despair: empty storefronts representing a lost dream or unrealized potential, two sides of the same depressing coin.

This month, however, art walkers will descend on a very different downtown. Now storefronts are filled with art and retail spaces pulse with creative energy—signs of a community sparked by possibility, not just on Third Thursday, but every day of the year. An economic revival? Not exactly, but neither is it a façade.

This is the world the City of Tacoma and its partners, artist-support organization Shunpike and the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce, promised when they launched Spaceworks, a nonprofit organization that pairs Tacoma’s creative community with unoccupied, downtown commercial space. Spaceworks spent the last year enabling brief residencies (one to six months) that showcase local arts and enliven the city.

Artist Gabriel Brown will tell you that it’s working. Costumed in a polo shirt and khaki pants and wearing a shiny watch, the Spokane native steps into the old Woolworth’s storefront at 11th St. and Broadway once a week. There, surrounded by 400 miniature houses he constructed from colorful consumer product packaging, he takes on the role of “Suburbia Man” and spends a full day performing a critique on suburban identity. He golfs with a bull whip instead of a golf club. He naps on a “pond of cardboard.” He teaches himself, with the help of an instructional video, hip-hop dance—for all of Tacoma to see.

“It’s the best way to exhibit work, where you’re reaching a broad audience,” Brown says. “It’s more integrated into the city, where you get more people than those who go to galleries. When people are smirking or glaring at me or looking totally confused—that’s how I know it’s successful.”

It’s more difficult to assess whether Spaceworks as a whole is successful. Last month the organization was the recipient of the inaugural “Public Places Award” at the New Tacoma Awards, and although that award is doled out by the Chamber of Commerce, a partner in the program, the proof of Spaceworks’ positive influence is just beginning to emerge.

“It is not a standard business incubator project,” says the City’s Arts Administrator Amy McBride. “It’s a way for us to offer resources to these artists that aren’t necessarily cash-money, but [the program] has value; And we’re getting so much back from it because it’s not only providing them opportunities, it shows people what an active downtown can look like.”

It also shows how an active downtown can function. Many of the 15 locations Spaceworks currently fills are window displays created by Tacoma artists, but there are also residents using the spaces to experiment with brick-and-mortar business: an all-ages music venue run by the Coma Collective at 1114 Pacific Avenue, a dance space at 915 Pacific Avenue that will host a May 15 performance by the Barefoot Collective, and the Creative Hive at 913 Pacific Avenue, where photographer Sara Montour and creative design firm Slide Sideways will showcase their wares until November. These are the kinds of projects McBride hopes to see more of in the future.

“The best day will be when our storefronts are all leased up and it’s not needed,” McBride says of Spaceworks, “because then we’ll have a marketplace with, I hope, creative businesses throughout downtown. I know it seems like a fantasy to hope that artists can make enough money to actually rent out these spaces, but that’s my hope.” •

See more in the May 2011 issue   →