In an interview with this magazine in 2019, Museum of Museums founder Greg Lundgren fashioned the First Hill art center as a space designed for risk. "There's a lot of room for error, and there's a lot of room for disappointment, and there's a lot of room for magic," Lundgren said at the time.
When the former medical building finally opened in 2021, some of its exhibits achieved that creative alchemy—perhaps even literally, in the case of Goodwitch/Badwitch.
But earlier this month, the flip side of Lundgren's philosophy placed him squarely in the middle of a social media firestorm and the complicated relationship between Seattle's art and tech realms.
On Friday, July 15, the museum announced a call for art for a full survey of artists working in any capacity at Seattle's two largest tech companies. Amazon vs. Microsoft, an Instagram post said, would set out "to highlight and underline the artists working in big tech and recalibrate the narrative around what a big tech worker is." An illustration for the show featured Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos cross-armed in boxing gloves, a la Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat in this poster.
The reaction was swift and, to put it mildly, not good. As Margo Vansynghel detailed in a piece for Crosscut, some artists saw a troubling parallel between the museum's curation and local gentrification. Affluent tech workers, they felt, had raised the cost of living in Seattle and pushed many creative types out of the city; now they were claiming precious gallery space too. The museum's post said anyone from those companies—delivery drivers, not just engineers—could participate. But multiple commenters questioned whether working-class employees would have the time and resources to contribute. Overall, as local curator Sharon Arnold told Vansynghel, it was "a bit of a slap in the face."
By Monday, the call for art and exhibit were both canceled. In a post explaining his decision to nix the show, Lundgren noted that part of the motivation for the idea was financial. He wanted to build "a larger patronage, a larger network to support them. And rightly or wrongly, I thought that the most mighty economic engine to support local art was the tens of thousands of people employed by high tech in this city." Lundgren said he heard "loud and clear" that this wasn't the way "to have this conversation"; that "big tech should not be viewed as the underwriters of our future health and vibrancy."
It's an open question whether this city's new moneyed elite will back the broader arts community in a world of NFT flexes. The late Paul Allen was a major collector and patron; the Seattle Art Fair he started in 2015 just went off again to much fanfare. But in an email, Lundgren noted that some confidants were skeptical of his idea for the survey due to the tech community's "historically bad reputation for supporting the arts." At the same time, "no one said that tech workers shouldn’t be given a seat at the table."
Some critics merely wanted other artists at that table, or at least in the room. Many at the intersection of art and tech were still stewing over what that would like on Thursday night. As people browsed a blinking new media art show at the Spheres, artist and Microsoft product manager Christian Croft shared his perspective. "I'd be curious to see how it would have played out differently if it were framed instead of exclusive to Amazon and Microsoft employees, if instead the exhibition was a call for work about, by, and from the topics of Amazon and Microsoft," said Croft, whose nearby video installations interrogated machine learning, data privacy, and other existential tech developments. "So maybe you find critical works from the community in Seattle, as well as just creative works by employees and possibly even some self-reflective critical works by Amazon and Microsoft employees."
Lundgren wouldn't rule out a different version of the show. His approach will be different than in the past, though. "It makes me want to curate 'safer' exhibits. It would be a lie to say otherwise. And that's a hard reality to wrangle with, because what I love about art is its ability to experiment, fail, ask questions, be optimistic or antagonistic, or influence real world issues." He'll be more "risk-adverse" now.
What does that look like? Bouncing an idea off a variety of local groups before pushing forward with an idea, perhaps. But a lot of it is still TBD. "What I am still processing is the curatorial process itself and if it should be shaped and approved by social media, if it is okay to be controversial, if your own community will tolerate the occasional failure."
One thing's for sure, he says: A museum that has shown an AI-generation installation will continue to explore the ties between art and tech. "It's rich and fertile soil."
Bits and bytes. Portland-based Pup Passport connects users to dog-friendly breweries in Seattle now. Seattle startups pay like Silicon Valley these days (when they're not laying people off). Former Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin is the CEO of one. Bobby Wagner is also in the venture game, spreading tech fluency to the next generation.