Olympia needs a place to showcase its arts, cultures and heritage

The former city hall and fire station in downtown Olympia, at the corner of State Street and Capitol Way.   November 30, 2018
The former city hall and fire station in downtown Olympia, at the corner of State Street and Capitol Way. November 30, 2018 phaley@thenewstribune.com

Our thriving arts community and our historical society have fallen in love and would like to move in together and start a family of programs and exhibits. They have their eye on a house of sorts: the former city hall and fire station in downtown Olympia, at the corner of State Street and Capitol Way.

That historic building, which has housed social service agencies for a number of years, is about to become vacant. The city of Olympia owns it, and the City Council’s Land Use Committee is considering what to do with it.

The idea for making it an arts, cultures and heritage center is being championed by the Olympia Arts and Heritage Alliance, or AHA, which just earned its official nonprofit status a month ago. Its board includes some of our community’s most respected leaders, including former Senator Karen Fraser, former Secretary of State Sam Reed, local historian Shanna Stevenson, and former state Arts Commission executive director Kris Tucker. Members are drawn from both the Olympia Historical Society and local arts organizations, including the Olympia Artspace Alliance.

The Artspace Alliance worked for several years to build affordable artists’ housing and studio spaces downtown, and though they didn’t have the capacity to raise the millions that would require, their work did inspire the private development of Annie’s Artists’ Flats, set to open next year in a handsome new building at Fifth and Adams downtown, and in the adjacent and historic Montgomery Ward building that faces Fourth Avenue.

This welcome new building is just one indicator of the economic power of the arts. Just a few months ago, the city council received a big study it commissioned on how to expand the “Arts, Cultures and Heritage Profile of Olympia,” which found 400 arts-related businesses that employ 1,013 people. And though it didn’t quantify the revenue of these businesses, or the economic impact of the twice-yearly Arts Walks, downtown Olympia – and the whole city – score significantly higher than most towns in creativity-based income generation.

And aside from the economic benefits of nurturing the arts, the idea of a local center for arts, cultures, and history would be more than a marriage of convenience. It would reconnect parts of our community’s stories and cultures in ways that could deepen our understanding of how Olympia became the creative and distinctive place we love.

It’s notable that in this new discussion, the word “cultures” has become plural, signaling an intention to fully include the tribes, the African-American community, Latinos, and all our immigrant communities. By doing so, it could offer a new, more inclusive vision of what unites us.

This bold idea, which merges decades-old desires for both a historical museum and an arts museum, is a very long way from fruition. There is not yet a plan that spells out how much it would cost, how the money would be raised, or even what it would include. In addition to exhibitions, should it have space for archives, performances, and classes? Can AHA build the capacity to manage it? Does the city council have the political will and the public support needed to help make it happen?

These are big, gnarly, difficult questions that will take time and effort to answer. But the question that matters most is simply this: Is this dream worth the herculean effort it will take to bring to life?

Yes, it is.