Originally published in Seattle Weekly
It looks by now that the redevelopment of the Fun Forest at the Seattle Center will not include a new facility for KEXP. The citizens’ panel charged with making the recommendation chose the Dale Chihuly Ashtray and Candy-Dish Museum and Gift Shop instead, and rightfully so. As tempting as it might be for fans of KEXP to envision an “Indie-Rock Fun Forest” where Cloud Cult and Okkervil River play free concerts for girls with pink stripes in their hair, one quick look around that part of Seattle Center will reveal it to be a ludicrous fantasy. That area was long ago set aside for super-rich guys to build underfunded temples celebrating their questionable taste. The average person visiting the Space Needle on a summer day probably rode there on the Duck and is wearing a foam hat shaped like an orca. No one in that crowd is yearning to hear a Joanna Newsom in-studio.
But that leaves the question: what about KEXP? I appreciate that the foot of the Space Needle might be the wrong place for a new facility, but KEXP is exactly the kind of civic feature Seattle Center is meant to house. And although the most frequently cited factor in the decision to choose the Chihuly Museum for Seattle Center was financial–the city was over budget, did not have the resources to redevelop the property itself, and chose a tenant that was not only self-supporting but provided income to the city–this is the same logic that Seattle always uses to justify crappy redevelopment.
We’ve allowed most of our city’s cultural establishments, museums, opera houses, sports stadiums, symphony halls, etc., to be essentially purchased by a few rich families who like to see their names etched in granite and their friends chosen as curators. But just because Seattle’s wealthy elite like to build shrines for their middlebrow art collections doesn’t mean that we, as a city, should completely rely on them to fund our culture. Sometimes we need to pony up, or find creative ways to support the things we already know are great, or that we know we want.
The idea of providing a home for KEXP shouldn’t be reflexively dismissed for lack of funding, or pitted against an unrelated tourist attraction in a winner-takes-all battle. The city of Seattle has for too long underestimated the value, both cultural and economic, of the local music community. It’s time for the city to embrace KEXP as a civic institution worthy of support. That’s why I propose that the income generated by the Dale Chihuly Museum be earmarked for the construction and upkeep of a new home for KEXP on the Seattle Center grounds.
KEXP may seem to the average citizen like just another radio station–comparable to the End or KISW–the only difference being that it has irritating pledge drives in place of obnoxious commercials. But KEXP–with its commitment to nurturing, promoting, and perpetuating the Seattle music scene–is quite different from any commercial radio station and qualifies as an institution on par with the best museums and concert halls in the city.
Most patrons of Dale Chihuly occupy a strata that is only barely aware of the local music scene. In fact, let me rephrase that: they are not in the least bit aware of the local music scene. They would be hard-pressed to tell you what a “Pearl Jam” is, let alone why building a venue for an independent radio station at Seattle Center would be in the city’s best interest. While the elites built malls and sculpture gardens, the music community was fighting for recognition, and fighting outright persecution by the city and the police. Club owners and bands were hounded and scorned by City Hall, while bringing untold international attention and economic benefit to the region. Now the music scene is mature, and there can be no doubt of its contribution to civic life here.
Due in no small part to KEXP (and its forerunner, KCMU) Seattle has produced not only a disproportionately large number of globally recognized artists in the past two decades, but has cultivated a similarly large number of connoisseurs as well. It’s inarguable that rock music, hip-hop and jazz are bona fide art forms, so it stands to reason that an educated and sophisticated community of critics and patrons are just as important to the city as the artists themselves. Seattle has just such a community, and KEXP–which features weekly shows dedicated to music across the spectrum, from jazz and heavy metal to soul and reggae–in its eclecticism serves them all. The role it plays in the Seattle music scene, as ambassador to the world at large, farm system for young bands, indefatigable supporter of established musicians (such as myself), and lure for touring artists to include Seattle on their itineraries, or to stay an extra day or two once they’re here, is incalculable. It is a nonprofit contemporary arts organization that’s also the linchpin of a multimillion-dollar industry.
The idea that the city of Seattle should have a distinctive sense of civic virtue, that our culture shouldn’t be reduced to some platitudes about recycling, bicycling, and composting, needs to take stronger hold here. It’s not enough that we’re somewhat apart from the lamebrained national screaming match. We need to set an example of what a progressive city actually does, what it chooses to make important. Funding for the arts nationwide has been choked off by moralizing bible-thumpers and shortsighted cultural primitives. We need to activate our limp-wristed, artsy-fartsy iconoclasm! We need to fund a new public space for our beloved independent radio station!