Island supports the arts, but what about the artists? | Opinion | June 10

I had a delightful chat this week with Greg Robinson, executive director of the Bainbridge Art Museum. With the auditorium and classroom space complete, and the blueprint in place for the museum building, things are starting to percolate. He and the board are taking their time, building a support base and honing their mission.

Prior to accepting the position on Bainbridge, Robinson directed the Museum of Northwest Art, or MoNA, in La Conner, near my old stomping grounds.

We talked about the artists whose work graces its walls — Guy Anderson, Mark Tobey, Morris Graves – about how those artists were attracted to the Skagit area, not only for its beauty, but for the affordable lifestyle that allowed them to concentrate on developing their craft. Many artists of that time lived in ramshackle cabins in an enclave on the Skagit Bay dubbed “Fish Town.”

Actually, that’s a fairly common pattern: Artists flock to low-rent, often abandoned areas, and revitalize them with an eclectic style. As the reputation as an arts haven grows, so does the price of real estate, squeezing out the artists who then migrate to more affordable locations. The reclaimed SoHo district in Manhattan is a perfect example. And to some extent, Bainbridge.

For instance, a few hours after my visit to the art museum offices I had another conversation. This one was with artist Craig Spencer, who is about to lose the free studio space he’s enjoyed for 15 years, in a rundown building tucked away off Madison Ave. He’s been able to support himself as an artist, mainly because he lives close to the bone, living aboard his sailboat and, until now, having access to affordable studio space.

I’ve heard similar stories lately: artist Brian Mackin, whose massive pottery requires substantial space to create, store and crate for shipment all over the world. Foreclosure forced him and his wife Andie to seek other digs, and he’s been looking for affordable studio space to complete already commissionsed work. He’s still looking.

A closer look at the addresses for artists on the Bainbridge Island Studio Tour reveals many zip codes besides 98110.

“Bainbridge supports the arts” is an oft-heard statement and its arts infrastructure is formidable: 62-year-old Bainbridge Arts & Crafts; vision and support for a new art museum; vigorous support for art education; a designated fund for public art and a city-mandated arts council.

But there doesn’t seem to be much support for the Bainbridge-based artists themselves.

Artists used to make do renting cabins and “mother-in-law” type cottages on the island, but even the price of those have increased. I’m not aware of any low-cost or co-op studio space available on the island.

There are a few monetary awards given each year to artists, but the bulk of the money for arts on Bainbridge goes to organizations, not artists. Everyone knows funds are tight, but when there is money to be spent, it would be nice if it went to more Bainbridge-based artists.

The new museum’s mission is “to create a permanent home on Bainbridge for the contemporary art and craft of our region and our time.” And that’s a worthy goal.

But unless more effort is made to provide permanent homes on Bainbridge for contemporary artists and craftspeople, the art in the new museum won’t reflect what’s being created here.

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