Photo depicting the park-side exterior of the Rainier Arts Center.

Southeast Seattle’s Rainier Arts Center Celebrates 100th Birthday

by Amanda Ong

On July 20, 2022, SouthEast Effective Development (SEED) and SEEDArts will celebrate the 100th birthday of Rainier Arts Center! The event will include live outdoor performances from the ADEFUA Cultural Education Workshop and musical duo Ben Hunter & Joe Seamons, followed by refreshments from Chef Tarik Abdullah of Feed The People. The event is free and open to the public, but space at the reception is limited, so anyone who wants to attend should register on their Eventbrite page.

The Rainier Arts Center was originally occupied by the Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist, and was built in 1922. The building was vacant for many years, and was purchased by SEED in 1995. After renovations, it opened in 1997 as the first multicultural performing arts center in southeast Seattle. Originally, it was called the Rainier Valley Cultural Center, from 1989 to 2016. In 2016, SEED rebranded it as the Rainier Arts Center.

“It was really at the community’s urging that SEED purchased the building,” Kathy Fowells, director of SEEDArts, told the South Seattle Emerald

SEED is a nonprofit organization founded in 1975, and their division SEEDArts works specifically in arts, affordable housing, and economic development. SEEDArts has five primary programs, including running the Rainier Art Center, the Columbia City Gallery, their radio station KVRU 105.7, their affordable SEEDArts studios, and their public programs with Columbia Hillman Arts & Cultural District as SEEDArts Public and Community Arts. 

The Rainier Arts Center has become a key community resource, and has hosted events like the Ethiopian Cultural Arts festival, the Vietnamese Remember Saigon Festival, and the Odunde Festival. The Center launched its Anchor Partner program in 2019, which provides an affordable home base for grassroots arts and cultural organizations that did not have their own space or had been displaced. 

“[Anchor Partners] all pay at a low monthly fee to be an Anchor Partner and then can use the center for all their meetings and rehearsals and events and classes,” Fowells said. “I just love the Anchor Partners Program because it allowed us to really activate this space, especially in downtime between rental events, but more importantly, it gave those organizations that couldn’t afford their own venue a home base.”

Current Anchor Partners are ADEFUA Cultural Education Workshop, Khmer Community of Seattle King County, and Wasat.

The building also underwent renovations between 2020 and 2021. Some of the most important updates include a grand curtain, an improved sound system, and a green room. Even the building’s renovations, Fowell says, were done with the community’s input in mind.

“The whole reason we purchased and renovated the Arts Center was because so many people in the community and organization said, ‘Hey, this iconic building in the neighborhood, it needs to serve the community,’” Fowell said. “We listen to the community … Like a lot of groups were saying ‘We can’t use this space, because there’s no backstage.’ So we renovated the downstairs and built a green room. I think, you know, for a facility to serve the community, it has to take its direction from the community.”

The 100th birthday doesn’t refer only to the building’s status as the Rainier Arts Center, but also to its having served as a community-based facility for 100 years. The building is a landmark of the area in its location presiding over Columbia Park, one of the most important green spaces in southeast Seattle. 

“It’s really the fact that the facility is in the neighborhood [it is] that makes it so special,” Fowells said. “One of my focuses in my work is ensuring that artists and arts and cultural organizations have the space in their own new neighborhood to do their work … make a living from their work, and at the same time, enrich the community by bringing those events right to the heart of the neighborhood. It removes a lot of barriers.”

As southeast Seattle combats gentrification and displacement, art spaces are often undervalued and some of the first to be displaced. Over 25 years, the Rainier Arts Center has provided a home for the arts within the community to ensure that art spaces are not forgotten. Still, the threat of displacement remains an issue at large in the area.

“It’s even more heartbreaking because it’s the most diverse community in the city, and as you see this rapid development coming to the neighborhood, I’m seeing more and more artists and arts organizations getting pushed out,” Fowells said. “I’m scared, because there’s no further south you can push people. If we push them out of the Rainier Valley, they’re going to Renton, Kent, Federal Way. And the City of Seattle loses that creative heart and soul.” 

Fowells says there is a small window to make sure that we invest in the facilities and infrastructure to support the creative economy in southeast Seattle. The Rainier Arts Center is a vital facility within this window, which makes the building’s 100th birthday something to celebrate all the more.

“We really wanted to fully throw a party, really just to thank everyone for being involved,” Fowells said. “And to give the community a chance to come in and say, ‘Wow, look at this, this place has really changed a lot in the past couple of years.’” 

Celebrate the 100th birthday of the Rainier Arts Center with SEED and SEEDArts on Tuesday, July 20, from 5:00 to 8:30 p.m. at the Rainier Arts Center on 8515 South Alaska St. RSVP to the event through the Eventbrite page.

The Rainier Arts Center is always looking for community partners and sponsors, volunteers, and donors. Connect with them about opportunities through the Rainier Arts Center website.

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

📸 Featured Image: Tomorrow, July 20, Rainier Arts Center celebrates its 100-year anniversary as a hub for Seattle’s South End culture and communities. (Photo: Kathy Fowells)

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