Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture Launches Cultural PDA to Preserve Cultural Space and Strengthen Communities of Color

by Andrew Engelson

After three and a half years of collaboration between community organizations and the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture (ARTS), Mayor Jenny Durkan today signed legislation creating the Cultural Space Agency Public Development Authority (PDA). This one-of-a-kind organization will be tasked with purchasing land and real estate to provide affordable spaces for the city’s creative, artistic, and cultural communities — especially in communities of color.

“This Cultural Space PDA is one of the things we can do to make Seattle better in the future,” Mayor Durkan said in an online press conference on Tuesday. “It is designed to combat the displacement and disparities we’ve seen by leveraging the City’s investments and to help cultural communities, particularly communities of color, acquire and develop real estate in Seattle. We know that real estate and land acquisition are crucial to creating wealth but also to creating space. We have to act now to preserve this city’s soul.”

The timing couldn’t be better, as rising real estate costs in Seattle, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting economic downturn have delivered a one-two punch to artists and cultural organizations, especially those in the diverse communities found in the Central District and South End.

With initial funding of $500,000 over the next two years, the Cultural Space PDA will work to leverage capital funding from private investors, government, foundations, and philanthropists to allow arts organizations to acquire and develop properties throughout the city. It also marks a fitting coda to Randy Engstrom’s tenure as director of ARTS — Engstrom announced earlier this month that he’ll be stepping down from the position.

“In eight years in this job, this has got to be one of the proudest moments that I’ve had,” Engstrom said during the press conference. “I can’t overstate the opportunity that this organization has to uplift and expand our arts and cultural sector, especially our communities of color, which are some of the most talented innovators in our city. … Ultimately, it’s about creating a sense of agency or control in the creation of culture space in the fastest growing city in the United States.”

Tim Lennon, executive director of LANGSTON and an early participant in crafting the Culture Space charter in 2013, said during the press conference, “I got involved in the PDA because I believe that this should be as much a part of the solution to reversing gentrification and the predictability of who benefits and who loses out as it has been in the past to contributing to those circumstances. This PDA is about creating community wealth-building opportunities for community-based organizations, small businesses, and individuals and community [so they can] own shares of properties. … 

“I proposed this charter because I care about Black, Indigenous, and POC communities — and cultural workers, artists, and cultural businesses,” Lennon said. “I want to see them thrive in the city I call home.”

The first cultural PDA in the country, the new development authority will seek long-term site control on behalf of and in partnership with community cultural organizations representing communities of color. Cassie Chinn, deputy executive director of the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, noted in a press release that “Through its governance structure and decision-making processes and its accountability to historically marginalized communities through its constituency, the PDA creates a tangible local tool and national model to transform structural racism within the public realm.”

M. Angela Castañeda, director of the Beacon Business Alliance and a long-time advocate for arts programs for youth, BIPOC, immigrant, and Latinx communities in southeast Seattle, was involved in the three-year process to create the cultural PDA. She believes it represents an inclusive sea-change in the way the City cultivates diverse arts communities. “The PDA will be able to connect the dots between the funding sources that are weighted down by bureaucracy and systemic racism patterns,” Castañeda said. “It will be a bridge, a pathway, and a connector to truly community-based and grassroots-based cultural, arts, and formative cultural arts advocates who are artists themselves.”

Castañeda is hopeful, having been a part of the inclusive, community-led process that created the PDA, that this new paradigm will put needed funds in the hands of those who know best how to make them work for their communities. “So a group like Forterra [a nonprofit dedicated to preserving land for conservation and community-building], for instance, will be able to come in and do that bridge loan or buy that property and hold it for community use. And the PDA and the BASE [Build Art Space Equitably] program offer the opportunity for community-driven arts advocates or artists to strengthen knowledge, confidence, and status in this arena of developers.”

The effort to develop the Cultural Space Agency began in 2013 as ARTS explored ways to preserve cultural space in the face of skyrocketing property values. Led by Cultural Space Liaison Matthew Richter (himself a visual artist), the process issued the CAP Report in 2017 that outlined strategies to preserve and protect cultural space in Seattle.

Vivian Phillips, a longtime advocate for community arts in the Central District, is optimistic the PDA offers a significant shift in how the City empowers artists and cultural institutions in communities of color. “The thing for me is to focus on the last word: Public Development Authority,” Phillips said during today’s press conference. “It’s this authority — this Cultural Space Agency has to be self-determining as to how the cultural spaces in our community are managed, secured, and cared for. And if you think about how [PDAs] have worked for Pike Place Market, Pacific Tower, and SCIDpda in the International District, it’s exactly what we’ve needed to be self-guided and self-directed. … PDAs allow us to extend resources as we see fit.”

Andrew Engelson is a Seattle-based writer and editor who lives in the South End.

Featured image: Mural in Seattle’s SODO district (Photo: Susan Fried)

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