Local artist, teacher, activist, community organizer and attorney Nikkita Oliver recently launched her run against Ed Murray for Seattle’s mayoral seat. Oliver, who’s gained recognition as both an eminent Seattle artist and a keen and passionate community organizer, is a vocal leader of Seattle’s Black Lives Matter faction, has helped spearhead the campaigns against the proposed massive North Precinct police station and a new King County youth penitentiary in an effort to eliminate the city’s investment in the school to prison pipeline.
At this point, it looks likely that Oliver could make it through the primary and into the actual muck of the mayoral race, and it seems equally likely in that case that the bulk of public scrutiny will be focused on her record as a community organizer, activist and attorney. This would make sense. The primary job of a mayor is to help craft and implement policy, and the activist-organizer-lawyer half of Oliver’s resume is certainly the most relevant when discussing her ability to govern effectively.
Yet, on an instinctual level, I find myself moved by Oliver’s other body of work–her artistic practice.
In conjunction with the announcement of her candidacy, Oliver also sat for an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. At one point the interviewer asks her why she believes people might be open to a mayor whose background in not primarily in business or law. “We need more multi-faceted individuals in office who can think beyond just business,” she said in her response. “I can think business. I went to law school. I know how that mind works. But I’m also an artist. I’m able to imagine what seems impossible and then figure out the steps to get that onto paper.”
The interviewer’s question is a fair one. The political arena is rarely considered the provenance of artists or creators, outside of protest. And yet the barely concealed implication of that question, one with which every working artist in the universe is well-acquainted, is essentially “How is your artistic practice (and by extension your art) valuable in the real world.”
Oliver’s response is thoughtful, the kind of line I’ve pulled out in interviews to try to justify a degree in music. But the truth is, those kinds of answers are bullshit. Or mostly bullshit. The value of the artist communities in Seattle does lie in the nebulous territory of “creative problem solving” and “dreaming big,” but it also lies in the fact that these communities make this city lots and lots of money. And I’m positive that Oliver, as a working artists herself, understands that.
I’m really, really tired of having to justify why art and culture are important in the most esoteric terms possible. Artists, cultural creators, event producers, gallerists, and entertainers are politically valuable because they’re a real constituency in this city, and they’re economically valuable because – once more for the people who didn’t hear – THEY MAKE THIS CITY MONEY. Artists don’t need to justify their existence or their intellectual worth, and they certainly don’t need to do so in a city that continues to exploit their labor while ignoring their economic needs.
According to Visit Seattle, Seattle and King County’s official destination marketing organization, in 2015 38.1 million people visited the city and county and spent $6.8 billion dollars. Per the same survey, travel-related jobs counted for 1 in 17 jobs in the city (statistics for 2016 are as yet unavailable, so we’ll work with these number for now).
It’s a bit more difficult to find quantitative data about the economic impact of art and artists in Seattle, but it’s large enough that we’ve dedicated considerable resources towards the creation and maintenance public art. In 1973 the city adopted a percent-for-art ordinance which stipulates that 1% of eligible city funds be set aside for public art. Additionally, the folks at the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture continue to work towards the allocation of available funds for grants and residencies throughout the city. Mayor Murray agrees, per his remarks on the Office’s annual report: “Investing in the arts makes our community more vibrant, spurs economic growth and furthers our pursuits of economic justice.”
This is all great. Artists, creators, entertainers et al. need money to continue to work. Public art is important! The problem is that while effort is being made to preserve the city’s status as a Cultural Destination, noticeably less is being done to stymie the effects of rapid growth and gentrification that threaten to displace large chunks of the city’s creative communities (some of the most vibrant of which, it should be said, are part of the queer and POC communities which have been most affected by gentrification and the rapid rise of living costs).
The greatest gift you could give creators in this city would be immediate, substantive housing reform. Grants won’t do shit if no one can afford to utilize them. Public art will be meaningless if the people who create it have been pushed outside the city itself.
As Oliver states in the Emerald interview, “What is the Central District? The African-American Arts Cultural District or something like that? Why does it function as a museum to Black folks as cultural relics in Seattle that we can go visit but we can’t live in? It’s because he has sided with corporate developers time and time again. If you look at zoning laws that have happened in the last four years it’s all been driven by corporate developers.”
Policy making is hard. Reaching the kinds of compromises one must to effectively govern is excruciating and tedious and usually dissatisfying. Mayor Murray has been, if not a friend then at least a cheerful acquaintance of the arts, and for that I guess we should thank him. But I can’t help but feel excited about the idea of a mayor who understands firsthand the importance of affordable housing, who wants to protect queer and POC and creative communities because yes, they enrich culture of the city, but also because they contribute real, legitimate work that keeps the city moving along.
In 1992, artist and activist Zoe Leonard (another working artist!) published a poem entitled “I want a president,” which opens with the declaration, “I want a dyke for president.”
All due respect to Ms. Leonard, but I’ll take an artist for mayor too.