THERE’S A MONSTER loose in Seattle. He’s a tower of multicolored hair, silky locks from head to toe. No eyes, no ears. Just a Day-Glo Sasquatch with a penchant for shimmying. Rumor has it he has friends, and they could show up outside your office at any moment. Will you be ready for the invasion? Will you be ready to dance? Because they’re coming…the artists are coming.
Beneath the fuzzy full-body armor are Spectrum and Cornish dancers, tapped to frolic around town this spring inside “soundsuits” created by Chicago artist Nick Cave. He builds beautiful, cacophonous costumes-as-sculptures made of found objects, everything from human hair to sequins to sandwich bags. A collection of suits goes on display at Seattle Art Museum in March, but SAM plans to take the suits for a walk, too. “It’s going to entice and build a level of curiosity, to get people to the museum,” Cave said of the planned “dance invasions.” “It’s about being able to have this up-close encounter with the sculptures.”
Desperate times call for creative measures. The lingering recession has stymied cultural organizations worldwide, and prompted local groups—including major players like SAM, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera, and Seattle Rep—to face facts with revamped seasons, fewer performances, staff cuts, and furloughs. Even more debilitating, perhaps, is that audiences don’t seem to care. According to a recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts, 65 percent of the population doesn’t even participate in benchmark activities: opera, jazz, theater, ballet, visiting museums.
Rather than dragging people kicking and screaming to The Magic Flute, arts groups have embraced tech-savvy strategies and adventurous programming to attract new audiences. Not all will succeed—only time will tell if Broadway’s Spider-Man musical will lure 12-year-old boys away from their Wiis and spark a lifelong love of the theater. But other experiments have proven successful: New York’s 127-year-old Metropolitan Opera broadcasts in HD, streaming live performances to movie theaters around the world. The Met even tweets.
Not to be outdone by New York, Seattle was one of two cities the Wallace Foundation—DeWitt and Lila Acheson Wallace’s national arts and education charity—recognized in 2008 for excellence in the arts. (Minneapolis–St. Paul was the other lucky metropolis.) Now nine Seattle organizations—armed with $7.7 million in Wallace grants, a portion designated specifically for audience building—have mounted a full-scale attack on the city. What’s more, they’re joining forces: theaters collaborating with dance companies, museums with rock bands. They’re prepared to show you what you’re missing.
Cue the dancing soundsuits. SAM will also hold two of its quarterly and wildly popular late-night Remix parties during the exhibition Nick Cave: Meet Me at the Center of the Earth, and the first Thursday in May, the museum is planning a happening worthy of the ’60s. Come and make wearable art, and then join a parade through Pioneer Square. “[We’re hoping] the crowd just grows and grows and heads to SAM, where there’s a big dance party afterward,” said Sandra Jackson-Dumont, deputy director of education and public programs.
Faces are flushed with the prospect of a creative explosion. And though SAM had to borrow $7 million from the museum’s endowment to cover debt payments late last year, memberships are up—way up. Thanks to the recent Picasso exhibit, they’re clocking about 100 new members a day. But not everyone has Cubist masterpieces and soundsuits to show off.