Pivoting Creatively: South Seattle Arts Nonprofits Scramble to Find Ways to Stay Afloat

While larger arts organizations – like the Seattle Symphony – might be able to support regular streaming opportunities, smaller arts non-profits are attempting to make due with fewer resources and philanthropic support.

by Kamna Shastri

Last Thursday as I sat down at my computer to start drafting this article, I stumbled on live stream feed from independent British artist Nerina Pallott. I clicked, and through the blocky, pixelated quality I felt the tense muscles in my arms and shoulders relax as someone across the world serenaded me with her voice and accompanying piano through cyberspace. Amidst the news cycle teeming with a flurry of pandemic centered, almost dystopian coverage, music and art is a soothing salve.

James Miles, executive director of Arts Corp says “the need for art and the want for it has increased – when people are in dire straights they resort to something creative.”

SEEDArts director Kathy Fowells agrees but warns that “right now our ability to do that is crippled.”

Arts organizations are scrambling to continue providing alternative means of connecting and staying creative. They are adapting, but also bracing themselves for lost revenue, and a struggle to stay in community.

Finding New Ways to Adapt

Arts Corps, an organization that works with schools and teaching artists to bridge the opportunity gap for arts access and education serves over 2,500 elementary, middle, and high school students in South Seattle.  Their annual gala had been set for March 20th and like many other non-profits who hold fundraisers in the spring, the COVID-19 outbreak made them cancel their event plans. But instead of canceling completely, they pivoted the event to succeed online by hosting a NPR Tiny-Desk style live-stream concert to attendees.

Like the gala, much of the organization’s programs are now conducted through cyberspace. Miles also said they didn’t realize schools would close as soon as they did. While they had been bracing for programming shifts, they had to scramble to change their models of instruction to online learning within a short amount of time. Last Tuesday, classes began over Zoom. Online meeting platforms will also be the stage of choice for the annual Brave New Voices slam poetry competition in which Youth Speaks poets participate.

Miles says the organization is still paying its hourly employees and teaching artists and finding a way to be flexible while continuing to provide quality programming to young working class and people of color in South Seattle. One strategy has been to create art kits and distribute them at hot-lunch pick-up sites in conjunction with schools. Housed in a large Ziploc bag, the art kits would include materials and instructions on how to access Arts Corps’ YouTube channel which will become the new platform of engagement in lieu of in-person programming. If Wi-Fi is an issue, there are instruction on how to use Comcast’s free wi-fi service for students.

Arts Corps is talking to other arts organizations in the area, like Artists Trust and the Northwest Film Forum trying to come up with collaborative ways to support artists. For now, Arts Corp is trying to help their teaching artists however possible, even if it means helping them file for unemployment status as other gigs are canceled and leaving them without income. Miles says long-term sustainability is the biggest concern for Arts Crop – even though they are one of the few arts nonprofits that can weather out three to four months of a shut down.

Lost revenue

SEEDArts is one of those arts organizations that is more on edge, unsure of their futures. The organization, serving Southeast Seattle’s diverse, artistic community, had to close their Columbia City gallery, resulting in a loss of at least $2,500 a week. The Rainier Arts Center – which they own – has seen cancellations through the end of May. SEEDArts director Kathy Fowells says “our calendar is completely empty.” And in the wake of a shelter-in-place order, Fowell’s says they are scrambling to find ways to continue operating KVRU 105.7 FM, a low power station focused on local community arts and information, including multilingual public service announcements.

KVRU 105.7 contributors (photo: Sharon Maeda)

This is all that SEEDArts is losing a huge percentage of their earned revenue, which accounts for 70% of the organization’s annual budget. About 10% of the organization’s revenue comes from sponsorships, and even that is threatened as the pandemic reveals just how interconnected consumers, small businesses and non-profits are; there has been a decline in sponsorships from small neighborhood businesses who usually support local arts because those same businesses are facing profit losses themselves. Fowells says SEEDArts’ funders are already pivoting their priorities towards COVID-19 response projects, limiting opportunities to seek funding through grants.

This is a concern not just for the organization’s ability to serve the Southeast Seattle community. It is also a blow to a local neighborhood that is home to a disproportionately high number of artists. According to the Creative Vitality Index, over 3,000 Southeast Seattle residents have creative jobs. That is the highest density of artists in the state.

According to Fowells, they are thinking of solutions, like showcasing artwork online or having a live tour of the Columbia City Gallery online. Streaming events live feels more daunting, bringing up questions of whether there are enough resources and revenue streams.

While larger arts organizations – like the Seattle Symphony – might be able to support regular streaming opportunities, Fowells says there is less information and support for smaller arts non-profits. “I really hope and believe that the philanthropic community will step up [and] increase their giving towards smaller arts organizations. But I recognize that everyone’s capacity is going to be limited,” she said.


In a letter by Path with Art Executive Director posted to their website, Holly Jacobson writes, “ In the best of times, many of our participants struggle with feelings of anxiety and isolation as part of their everyday experience, and cite Path with Art as an essential way to reduce stress, manage mental health, and connect to community.” In the letter, Jacobson asks supporters to contribute in various ways and discusses strategies to continue to support the community that serve individuals recovering from homelessness and addiction with the calm respite art provides.

That sense of camaraderie fostered by the arts scene isn’t gone either, but rather transitioned to new platforms. Fowells noted connecting and collaborating online in Facebook groups that were previously quiet, for example.

“I hope that we can all learn from that, meet some new people through that. Focus our collective energy through that, maybe some good will come from that collaboration,” she said.

These signposts point to how important art truly is in our lives – and non-profits make it possible to share in creative expression with community, so much so that the two become inherently interlinked. The Seattle Symphony has been doing free live-streams, and other musicians across the world have been playing mini-concerts from their living rooms to provide a sense of respite and inadvertently community. If there is one thing COVID -19 has unearthed, it is that organizations that entertain us and enrich us throughout the year need support, and now more than ever. As Miles puts it, “They are the fabric, the heart and soul of this region.”

Kamna Shastri is a Seattle based journalist

Featured image by: Naomi Ishisaka

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