Could Federal Way reshape itself into a dynamic force in the South Puget Sound by investing in the arts?
The Ford Foundation recently raised a billion dollars in bond funds to double its investment in the arts. That should tell us unequivocally that the arts matter.
Let’s consider how Federal Way could become a catalyst for creativity and use the performing arts as a community builder. First we need to understand that cities generally struggle finding a “secret sauce combination” that enables their connective tissues to evolve into greatness. Cities often fail at finding their combination. They go through the motions and do what they always have done and wonder why the accolades and desired economic success bypasses their efforts.
Our elected city leaders have challenged themselves with addressing affordable housing, homelessness, police support and assuring smooth roads. All worthy, but Federal Way won’t reposition itself into being a first-choice destination for businesses and families seeking a well-resourced community with those choices.
The city’s 2021-2022 biennium budget is a road map of no strategic investment and a continuation of decades-old minimal creative community building efforts. It is a steady-as-you-go, small-think budget.
Politicians know that building culture and community are messy. Results often are hit or miss and potentially fleeting. They prefer organic growth and others taking the lead and financial risk. Focusing on the basics is politically practical. Regardless, Federal Way is economically under-resourced and struggling to find any prestige and purpose beyond being a decent starter city. Using the arts as a foundational building block could change the future well-being of our city.
The Performing Arts and Event Center (PAEC) was built to showcase local as well as traveling quality performing talent — and at the same time be a multi-purpose events center serving local and regional needs. Privatizing the PAEC was a city management decision that ultimately said, “we do not understand the performing arts and convention business and won’t take the risk of learning how to use it as a community building tool.”
The pandemic has shortchanged the PAEC’s growth. It will be several more years before the PAEC’s privatized capability can be realized. As a privatized public resource, its capability as a community building tool has been outsourced to a “business first and community second” philosophy. Spectra as the management company is still figuring out its target audience and Federal Way’s personality as it builds a network of paying customers and users.
Our local politicians talk the talk of building community. But when it comes to actual support for our local arts organizations (our community builders), the city’s arts commission has been given $53,000 annually in grant allocation funds to support local arts organizations. That funding level has been relatively consistent for the past 25 years. Out of a $ 144 million budget for 2021, that is an embarrassingly small commitment for arts support.
The organizations receiving these funds for 2021 are: Centerstage Theatre, Federal Way Symphony, Federal Way Chorale, Federal Way Youth Symphony, Rosebud Children’s Theatre, South King Tool Library, Harmony Kings, Federal Way Lions Foundation and Auburn Symphony.
The other side of the challenge is that organizations requesting and receiving these limited funds need to raise their community profile and become active partners in the community building process. Most of these organizations have been long-standing in the community, but as our community diversifies, they are struggling to build new audience.
Our local arts organizations and grant recipients need to be serious and consistent about the business of building community with their programming. They need to expand education opportunities and prove they have more than a hobby followership of family and friends. Their outreach is vital to their own preservation as well as being ambassadors for the arts and quality of life opportunities in Federal Way.
Supporting the arts going forward requires our local organizations to embrace our growing diversity as they petition the city to become more arts focused. Their survival requires them to become audience relevant. The challenge is to maintain current supporters as they embrace diversity, equity and cultural crossover inclusivity potential.
The city’s mission should be to partner with our arts organizations as they work on expanding their outreach and audience development. The arts are society’s great equalizer and serve as connectors for all walks of life. The city should strive to increase access for the preforming arts and invest in expanding visual arts resources with a clear focus on enhancing quality of life opportunities.
If you want to improve someone’s self-worth, reward their imagination. The more we involve people in the arts, the better we become at collaboration, building common values, passion and purpose, understanding, confidence, risk-taking, patience, communication and more. Supporting the arts is about embracing life skills and community connections.
In Federal Way, it does not matter if you are a progressive or a conservative thinker. The likelihood of coalescing around the arts as a community builder is apparently a scary proposition. Community building for politicians is messy and often ego deflating. Our local politicians prefer to get their picture in the paper for showing up or dialoguing ad nauseam about issues rather than implementing proven community-building practices — such as supporting the arts.
Our city’s preference is for “organic” development as the driver for community change. Organic development means that if it requires additional funding and city resources, the city does not want to get involved, and is likely to invest only when a program is already successful, or when it can’t ignore citizen demand, or when most of the funding can be secured elsewhere.
Based on our historic underfunding of the arts, it would be safe to say our city fears the arts and community building in general. Federal Way’s arts organizations, cultural growth potential, and community building efforts will continue floundering as long as our leadership’s preference focuses on serving the community in ways that do not build strategic value. Our city’s potential slowly burns as we choose to ignore the arts and arts infrastructure.
Keith Livingston is a longtime Federal Way resident and community observer. He can be reached at email@example.com.