In an interview With this magazine in 2019, the founder of the Museum of Museums, Greg Lundgren, redesigned the First Hill art center as a place designed to take risks. “There’s a lot of room for error, and there’s a lot of room for disappointment, and there’s a lot of room for magic,” Lundgren said at the time.
When the former medical building finally opened in 2021, some of its exhibits achieved that creative alchemy—perhaps literally, in the case of Good witch/bad witch.
But earlier this month, the downside of Lundgren’s philosophy put him squarely in the midst of a social media firestorm and the complicated relationship between Seattle’s arts and technology realms.
On Friday, July 15, the museum announced a Call for Art for a full survey of artists working in all capacities at Seattle’s two largest tech companies. Amazon vs. Microsoft, according to an Instagram post, would aim to “highlight and underscore the artists who work in Big Tech and recalibrate the narrative of what a Big Tech worker is.” An illustration for the show featured Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos in boxing gloves, a la Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat on this poster.
The response was quick and not good, to say the least. As detailed in a play for Margo Vansynghel cross-section, some artists saw a disturbing parallel between the curation of the museum and local gentrification. They felt that wealthy tech workers had raised the cost of living in Seattle and pushed many creative minds out of town; now they also claimed precious gallery space. The museum’s mail said anyone from those companies — delivery drivers, not just engineers — could participate. But several commentators questioned whether the working class would have the time and resources to contribute. Overall, as local curator Sharon Arnold Vansynghel said, it was “a bit of a slap in the face.”
Both the call for art and the exhibition were canceled on Monday. In a post explaining his decision not to do the show, Lundgren noted that part of the motivation for the idea was financial. He wanted to “build a bigger patronage, a bigger network to support them. And, rightly or wrongly, I thought that the most powerful economic engine in support of local arts is the tens of thousands of people employed in this high-tech city. ” Lundgren said he heard “loud and clear” that this was not the way “to have this conversation”; that “Big Tech should not be viewed as the insurer of our future health and vibrancy”.
It’s an open question whether this city’s new affluent elite will support the broader arts community in a world of NFT flexions. The late Paul Allen was a major collector and patron; the Seattle Art Fair, which he launched in 2015, just got underway again with much fanfare. However, in an email, Lundgren noted that some insiders were skeptical about his idea for the poll, since the tech community has “a historically bad reputation for supporting the arts.” At the same time, “no one said techs shouldn’t get a seat at the table.”
Some critics just wanted other artists at that table, or at least in the room. On Thursday evening, many at the interface between art and technology were still pondering what would be so appealing about it all. As people browsed a blinking new media art exhibit at the Spheres, artist and Microsoft product manager Christian Croft shared his perspective. “I would be interested to see how it would have turned out differently if it had been framed rather than exclusive to Amazon and Microsoft employees, if the exhibition had instead been a call for work on, by and from Amazon and Microsoft issues,” said Croft, whose nearby video installations questioned machine learning, privacy, and other existential technological developments. “So you might find critical work from the Seattle community, as well as just creative work from employees, and maybe even some self-reflective critical work from Amazon and Microsoft employees.”
Lundgren wouldn’t rule out another version of the show. However, his approach will be different than in the past. “It pushes me to curate ‘safer’ exhibits. It would be a lie to say otherwise. And that’s a harsh reality to confront, because what I love about art is its ability to experiment, to fail, to ask questions, to be optimistic or antagonistic or to affect real-world issues.” He will now be “risk-averse”.
How does it look? Perhaps bouncing an idea off a variety of local groups before pushing an idea forward. But a lot of it is still TBD. “What I’m still working on is the curatorial process itself and whether it should be shaped and sanctioned by social media, whether it’s okay to be controversial, whether one’s community will tolerate the occasional failure.”
One thing is for sure, he says: a museum that has showcased an AI-generation installation will continue to explore the connections between art and technology. “It is rich and fertile soil.”
bits and bytes. Portland-based Pup Passport now connects users to dog-friendly breweries in Seattle. Startups in Seattle these days pay like Silicon Valley (if they’re not laying people off). Former Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin is the CEO of one. Bobby Wagner is also in the gamble, spreading technical mastery to the next generation.