Is Seattle Ready for a Cultural Space Renaissance?

by Beverly Aarons


It’s 1967, and tucked inside a half-storefront in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District, a tiny cultural space is born — Wing Luke Museum. Now, in 2021, that once diminutive cultural space resides in a massive 60,000 square foot building, home to over 18,000 objects, including artifacts, photographs, documents, books, and oral histories. Wing Luke is a prototype of what BIPOC cultural and artistic communities can create through Seattle’s new Cultural Space Agency PDA

“The growth of the Wing Luke Museum as an organization benefited from a relationship with a different PDA,” said Cassie Chinn, the deputy executive director of Wing Luke Museum. “And that was the Seattle Chinatown-International District Preservation and Development authority, which is kind of a similar structure as the Cultural Space Agency, but the focus is just in the Chinatown-ID.” 

What is a PDA?

A PDA, aka Public Development Authority, is a government-owned corporation — a legal entity completely separate from the city or county that created it. A PDA can purchase assets such as land and take on liabilities such as loans for real estate. Seattle has numerous PDAs including 4Culture, Capitol Hill Housing Improvement Program (now Community Roots Housing), and the Pike Place Market PDA. The Cultural Space Agency is the City’s newest PDA designed to create and preserve cultural space in Seattle for BIPOC communities by cultivating knowledge, connections, and community curation. 

Knowledge 

The Cultural Space Agency is led by arts, cultural, and community leaders trained in Building Art Space Equitably (BASE), a year-long certification program where participants learn about commercial real estate, property ownership models, government bureaucracy, and just about anything else related to establishing a cultural space in Seattle. As a 2019 BASE graduate, I’m still unpacking everything I learned from the various cultural institutions, artists, and entrepreneurs who shared their expertise and experience creating cultural spaces built on a foundation of racial equity. One thing that stood out in my time as a BASE participant is the bone-deep wealth of knowledge available — reference materials, workshops/panels, site visits to existing cultural spaces, and the peer-to-peer information sharing. Nothing about this experience was superficial. It was obvious to me at the time that BASE was serious about giving BIPOC communities the knowledge they need to enter the commercial real estate space, which is primarily dominated by wealthy white men. 

Matthew Richter, City of Seattle cultural space liaison, said that he wants to completely upend the commercial real estate space. “I keep a document on my computer called ‘real estate so white,’” he said. “And it’s overwhelmingly white. It’s 75 pages of white faces scrolling by. Hacking that system, deconstructing that system, rebuilding that system to be more equitable is the ultimate goal of the BASE program. I think of us as training an army that is going to go out and hack that system and replace that grid of faces with faces that are more representative of the cultural communities that drive this town, that create the value in this town …”

Connections 

Buying, selling, or leasing property isn’t just about monetary transactions — it’s about relationships. Making the right connections played a pivotal role when Wing Luke Museum went searching for a new home after 20 years in a half-storefront.

“At that time, the museum wasn’t in the place to develop its own property. It didn’t have the capacity to do that,” Chinn said. “So this organization, the [Chinatown-ID] PDA, was able to not only bring the technical expertise for, ‘How do you develop the site? How do you make it work?’ they also had the relationship with the family property owner to work out a long-term lease agreement with them to develop the site. And then they were able to bring these two partners together to co-inhabit a single site.” 

Much like the Chinatown-ID PDA, the Cultural Space Agency is designed to connect cultural organizations and individuals to the resources and people they need to build the type of spaces they’ve envisioned. 

Community Curation

Dozens of cranes clutter Seattle’s skyline — progress for some, displacement for others. But one thing is certain: most of those cranes won’t construct cultural space for the BIPOC communities living in the shadow of Seattle’s rapid and radical transformation. According to the Structure For Stability Report, 75% of Seattle’s cultural spaces are located in 50-year-old buildings — sometimes older. Many arts and cultural organizations reported that they were rejected for leases in newer construction despite their ability to pay. As older buildings are demolished or fall into disrepair, many arts and cultural spaces could disappear like those spaces documented by Vanishing Seattle. The Cultural Space Agency will give its BIPOC leadership the power to support cultural space projects in Seattle that directly benefit vulnerable communities most impacted by displacement. 

“Rooted at its core is to operate through a racial equity lens,” Chinn said. “But it goes deeper than that because it is meant to have Black, Indigenous, [and] People of Color leadership in decision-making roles. And we know that that doesn’t always happen even with organizations that operate from a certain level on the racial equity spectrum. … They [the BASE cohort] especially want to elevate Indigenous and Black leadership in light of historic inequities within our city and communities.” 

What Is Cultural Space? 

The City of Seattle defines cultural space as follows: 

  • Art presentation spaces (e.g., museums, performance halls, bookstores, record stores, etc.)
  • Artistic production spaces (e.g., rehearsal spaces, film/video studios, writers’ centers, etc.)
  • Artistic supply spaces (e.g., art supply stores, musical instrument stores, film/video equipment rental centers, etc.)
  • Cultural heritage organizations (e.g., ethnic community spaces, immigrant community spaces, spaces that celebrate unique cultural heritage, etc.) 
  • Art education spaces (e.g., art schools, writer training centers, art/literary departments in a university, etc.)
  • Artist live/work spaces (i.e., spaces designed to provide housing and work space for artists and their families) 
  • Arts support organizations (i.e., spaces occupied by organizations that provide funding, support, and advocacy for the arts)

How to Get Involved

The Cultural Space Agency structure is still in development, but at some point community members will have an opportunity to propose community space projects to the PDA leadership, Matthew Richter said. The exact selection process is still being designed, but it’s meant to be flexible in response to community feedback. 

“The Cultural Space Agency is created as a values-based and values-directed organization,” Chinn said. “… It’s meant to be community led and directed. It’s meant to have transparency and accountability to community and the public as it goes forward.” 

Learn more about the Cultural Space Agency on the City of Seatttle website


Editors’ Note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that Cassie Chinn was the executive director of the Wing Luke Museum — Cassie Chin is the deputy executive director. We apologize for the mistake.


Beverly Aarons is a writer and game developer. She works across disciplines as a copywriter, journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and short-story writer. She explores futuristic worlds in fiction but also enjoys discovering the stories of modern-day unsung heroes. She’s currently writing an immersive play about the themes of migration as well as a series of nonfiction stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their local communities and the world. In August 2018 she produced a live-action game and event where community members worked together to envision an economic future they truly desired to leave future generations.

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