Art

MoM’s ‘Amazon vs Microsoft’ exhibit sparks controversy

Systemic issues

By now, it should be clear that it’s foolish to keep waiting for the tech industry to save the arts sector, says longtime Seattle arts writer, advocate and artist Kim Selling. Selling compares it to the Liza Minnelli Cabaret song “Maybe This Time.” “Maybe this time, she’ll get lucky, maybe this time, her life will turn around, her lover won’t leave her,” Selling says.

The call for art, Selling says, wrongly assumed that the arts sector just hasn’t “reached out to big tech enough.” Overall, the idea felt very “both sides,” says Selling, who now works in tech themselves. “It almost felt like a Democratic Call to Action email where politicians are like: ‘We just haven’t tried hard enough.’ ‘We just have to reach across the aisle’ and it’s like: ‘No, singing Kumbaya doesn’t fix the city… a few people in tech deciding they like art now is not going to change major systemic issues.’

Those issues run deep. A 2019 “Creative Economy” report noted that, while Seattle is home to the highest-paid computer workers in the nation, its arts workers were the lowest-paid in the country.

According to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2021, a person employed in computer systems design and related services in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area made on average $182,675 a 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 were insulated from pandemic layoffs, people working in Seattle’s arts and entertainment sectors were proportionally the hardest hit. They still are: Employment in the arts and entertainment sector remains at 24 percent below pre-pandemic levels, lagging behind most other industries due in part to inflation.

Seattle musician, writer and comedian Ahamefule J. Oluo says that’s why the call for art hit such a nerve. “The way that people reacted, it’s an anger that comes from people not knowing how they’re going to pay their bills, not knowing if they’re going to be able to stay in the city that they grew up in, not knowing if They’re going to be able to have a sense of community because everyone has to move somewhere else. That’s a really painful thing.”

The anger is not personal, Oluo notes. “This has nothing against those [tech] employees. … People have to work to make a living. People in my family have worked for Amazon, Microsoft,” Oluo says. “But to present art by these companies without very specifically diving into the extreme damage and the deterioration of the art community in the city at the hands of those corporations … it’s a really hard time to stomach that with everything that artists in the city are going through.”

Philanthropy, Oluo says, won’t make up for the damage done. Even if some nonprofits or artists are getting funding from the company — “it’s nothing compared to what should be given,” Oluo says.

“What we need to happen,” Selling says, “is for massive businesses that should be paying massive amounts of taxes, to [actually] pay their taxes. We need those taxes to go into city funds that provide housing and job opportunities, accessible health care and things that people need on a street level.”

Janet Galore, a longtime Seattle artist and co-owner of Beacon Hill art space The Grocery Studios, who also works for major tech companies, agrees. “What artists need is affordable housing, places to make art … places to exhibit art, people writing about art,” Galore says. “We need livable, affordable spaces for the huge community of people who aren’t the face of the arts —all the people working behind the scenes, and doing the lighting, the audio setup, the video, helping with programming. … We also need the ability for people who are interested in those kinds of roles to get educated without getting in debt.”

Art vs. Tech,” Galore adds, is a red herring. “I think as soon as you start saying, ‘there’s these two sides, and how do we bring them together?’ That’s totally the wrong conversation,” she says. “Focusing on the fundamental shifts needed to make a sustainable creative ecosystem is the primary thing we need to do.”

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