Comment about the Development and Lease Agreement

From: Members of Protect Volunteer Park
To: City Council Parks, Seattle Center, Libraries & Waterfront Committee
Date: December 6, 2017

We offer these comments on the proposed Development and Lease agreements with Seattle Art Museum (SAM) for the museum building in Volunteer Park. We ask that these agreements not be approved by the City Council, for the following reasons. (Details follow for each point. Numbered footnotes are at the end.)

  • The City is not allowed to terminate this lease.
  • An RFP process would protect the public interest.
  • We must confront institutional racism.
  • The old agreement was a better deal.
  • SAAM is not a “public museum”.
  • The Office of Arts and Culture should be involved.

The City is Not Allowed to Terminate This Lease

The proposed lease agreement has a 55-year term. There is no option for the City to terminate the lease sooner, unless SAM defaults. If the City takes the building by eminent domain, the lease says we would owe SAM the cost of a new building, plus relocation expenses.

Fifty years from now, what will public needs be? What will the economy be like? What will SAM be like? There is no way of knowing. It is irresponsible to commit the City to these generous terms with no certainty that they will suit us in the future.

An RFP Process Would Protect the Public Interest

City government has never given any consideration to an operator other than Seattle Art Museum for this building. As a result, today we are evaluating only one proposal for continued operation of the building, and it is a risky 55-year commitment involving large public subsidy of the private operator. The operating subsidy sums to $25.1 million over the term of the lease, plus initial capital payments of $19 million, and the City to have the responsibility for major capital repairs while receiving no revenue from the building to support that.

As with any risky deal, the risk is reduced if we have more than one option to choose from. Instead of locking in our 83-year-old partnership for 55 more years, let’s take a breath and consider that there are many other potential community-based partners who could provide excellent cultural or recreational public benefits, offer better financial terms, and/or use the building at its present size, without expansion.

The Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) should issue a Request for Proposals which is open to a wide variety of community-based organizations. The RFP should be flexible so that each submitter can choose these elements of their proposal:

– Public benefits to be provided.
– Ongoing compensation offered to the City, or subsidy requested.
– Alterations needed to the building.
– Duration of proposal, and whether early termination allowed.
– Capital contribution offered.

DPR’s decisions to consider only one private partner, and not to conduct the public involvement process required by policy, were made under the leadership of a mayoral administration which is no longer in office, and a Superintendent of Parks who will soon have left office. We believe these decisions do not serve the public interest. Accepting this deal would lock in their policies for 55 years. Please reject this deal and give a new administration the chance to conduct a responsible process.

There exists no emergency that requires a rush to approve this one single deal. The building has been closed and empty for 9 months, creating a cost savings for the city, and with no adverse impact on Volunteer Park which is as lively as ever. Seattle Art Museum is still able to conduct its education programs and display Asian art such as last summer’s spectacularly well received “Infinity Mirrors” exhibit by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. It seems it is not essential for Asian art to be kept in a separate, specialized facility.

We Must Confront Institutional Racism

DPR’s summary discusses the City’s Race and Social Justice Initiative, noting that the proposed lease requires SAM to provide public benefits and outreach to historically underrepresented communities.

Going further than that, we insist that the Racial Equity Toolkit must be applied to the City’s decision that Seattle Art Museum be the only private partner considered for the future use of this building. Have these underrepresented communities been asked whether SAM is the organization they would choose to provide these benefits? No, the City has never acknowledged that any other choice exists.

This private partner was chosen to display Asian Art in 1932, at a time when Chinese immigration was barred by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Japanese immigration was barred by the Immigration Act of 1924. Washington State’s Alien Land Laws were forcing land out of the hands of Japanese farmers who had cleared the stumps and in the 1920’s supplied 75% of Seattle’s vegetables. (1)

We must confront institutional racism and that means reconsidering the arrangements we inherit from a time when racial exclusion and discrimination were explicitly coded in state and federal law. Today, we see the results of those laws in Seattle’s distribution of wealth, its physical distribution of communities of color, and other ways. We should consider more carefully how we can act against racism with our policies.

The Old Agreement was a Better Deal

The old operating agreement had a clause allowing either party to terminate the agreement with 3 years notice. Therefore, the 1932 donation of the building was a true gift that did not confer any long-term obligations on the recipient. This was a more public-spirited era, when philanthropists might consider donating something valuable into public ownership. In today’s financialized economy, private philanthropic capital can be expected to have strings attached which ensure long-term private control.

The old operating agreement also made the museum open free of charge to the public, more often than not (four days per week). We feel that this level of access is essential compensation for the free use of a public building. In the proposed new agreement, the public gets four free days per month, which is an improvement over recent practice. However we believe the proposed public benefits are of significantly less value than the public funds and property proposed to be transferred to SAM.

DPR has not provided its estimate of the market rate rent for the facility, nor its estimate of the value of the public benefits proposed to be offered by SAM. We believe this information is essential to making a quality decision.

SAAM is Not a “Public Museum”

The Development Agreement repeatedly refers to the museum as a “public museum”. We strongly object to the use of this term, which appears nowhere in the original 1932 agreement. The proposed museum is not a public museum, because the public has no control over its operations, nor the right to vote on its trustees, nor ownership of its assets. It is a private museum run by a private corporation with nonprofit status.

The Office of Arts and Culture Should be Involved

We question whether DPR is the right place to decide on a major arts subsidy. Our preference is that DPR proceed with the Volunteer Park building the way it does with community based organizations. Market rate rent should be charged, with the partner allowed a credit for the value of public benefits it provides.

If the City wishes instead to consider an agreement that provides a major subsidy to an arts organization, we suggest that the City’s Office of Arts and Culture is the right place to consider this subsidy and balance it against the City’s other arts priorities, with the involvement of the Arts Commission.

Conclusion

We ask the Council to reject these agreements and require City administration to conduct a more open, transparent process to consider the future of the Volunteer Park building. If an expansion or other alteration of the building is under consideration, DPR’s Public Involvement Policy must be followed at every stage of the process.

Best regards,

The members of Protect Volunteer Park:
Susan Allemann
Virginia Allemann
Greg Bader
William T. Bakamis
John Colwell
M. Eliza Davidson
Susie Hammond
Jonathan Mark
Joyce Moty
Charles Ragen
Sheilan
Ronald E. Taylor
Randolph Urmston

FOOTNOTES

(1)
History of Washington’s Alien Land Laws.
http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/alien_land_laws.htm

(2)
Article on Japanese Farming in the Pacific Northwest.
http://www.historylink.org/File/298