Selfless in Seattle

High-tech philanthropists are remaking the city's arts scene

You have to love those high-tech billionaires, especially the Pacific Northwest types. Their creativity with computers has changed the way our entire world runs. Now, as they begin giving some of their wealth back to the community, particularly in the arts, they're changing the physical landscape as well.

Perhaps no city in the world is a more dramatic example than Seattle, starting with Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Paul Allen's Experience Music Project (EMP), housed in a building designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry for maximum impact right in the center of town.

No matter what angle you approach it from, the structure, loosely shaped like a guitar, is eye-popping, if not mind-expanding. Inside, the interactive exhibits - visitors can play in a rock band or experiment with musical instruments - and collections of guitars and historical artifacts are a monument to Mr. Allen's love affair with rock 'n' roll. EMP was born out of his private collection of rock paraphernalia.

Specifically, a hat and guitar belonging to rock icon Jimi Hendrix were the beginning of the concept.

"[Allen] said to his sister Jody, 'If I'm that excited about this stuff, others must be, too,' " says EMP's curatorial director, Chris Bruce, with a laugh. "Paul's thinking was 'OK, you've got the exhibit, you've got your Hendrix experience, now go home and continue that experience.' "

The EMP is a perfect example of the impact young, successful, high-tech innovators will have wherever they go, he says. "They're using their money to amplify their own experience," Mr. Bruce says.

Cultural makeovers

Allen's temple of rock history may be the city's splashiest example, but it's hard to walk through the centers of culture anywhere in the city and not be met with some instance of high-tech money at work.

Walk into Benaroya Hall, the new home of the symphony orchestra downtown, and you are greeted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Lobby. The opera is about to get a new $20 million house donated by the McCaws (of the cellular phone industry).

Over at the Seattle Art Museum, the most exciting project is the coming sculpture park on the water, to be built on the last bit of available frontage. The project was launched with a healthy seed grant of $10 million from Jon and Mary Shirley (Mr. Shirley is a former president of Microsoft Corp.), as well as $4 million each from Mr. Gates and Allen, all Microsoft-made money.

"They are very thoughtful donors, and they want their money to have an impact," says Maryann Jordan, deputy director for external affairs at the art museum.

Given their forward-looking mind-set, Ms. Jordan says, many of these new donors favor modern over historical collecting. She points out that many of these donors are quite young, particularly compared with the more traditional big-money donors of earlier generations.

In many ways, she says, "we're just beginning to see the effects of their giving. Come back and ask that question in 10 years...." But even as the momentum is building, she adds, these high-tech donors are having an effect beyond the specific projects they sponsor.

"The impact of high-tech money, both directly and indirectly, has fostered an atmosphere of culture," she says.

Part of that atmosphere is the general affluence generated by the technology sector in Seattle. Economic well-being is very important to a healthy arts community, says Jolynn Edwards, associate professor of interdisciplinary arts at the University of Washington at Bothell.

"It's interesting to see how this new money affects taste," Ms. Edwards says.

Families have more money to spend, and they are looking for places to go. "The more people you have visiting the temples of culture, however broadly defined, the better," she says.

While a rock 'n' roll museum may not be her own choice, she says we should see our society as one that appreciates all of its traditions.

"Rock is valuable ... and we need to preserve it because it may be one of the great contributions of 20th-century culture," she says. Funding the sort of cultural experience that other, more traditional donors might not immediately favor is a perfect role for the more visionary, proactive philanthropists that define these high-tech entrepreneurs.

But this profile can raise some provocative questions for a community in development. For example, a distinct, if less vocal, faction in Seattle does not support the brash EMP.

"Waste of money," says the sales clerk in the gift shop close to the museum. "You spend your 20 bucks, and what do you have? Some rock 'n' roll. Lots of space devoted to not much bang for your buck...," says the middle-aged woman, who did not want to use her name.

Indeed, learning to work with a community is part of the challenge facing young philanthropists with a point of view.

"There's a vast difference in pace and style," says Paul Shoemaker, executive director of Social Venture Partners (SVP), a new type of charitable foundation that makes grants and follows them up in a style more akin to a venture capital company than a traditional foundation.

Still a business venture

Venture philanthropists, as they have been called, approach their giving as they would a business venture, looking for immediate outcomes and the rewards of success. But, points out Mr. Shoemaker, art communities progress through consensus, while many of these driven high-tech philanthropists are used to calling their own shots.

"There's a translation layer between a profit and a non-profit," says Shoemaker, who adds, "they have different ways of operating because of their audiences and constituencies."

Seattle, which has been transformed by its technology industry from a slow-paced city of under half a million people a few decades ago, to a pulsing, international business hub of over

1-1/2 million, has been dubbed "ground zero" for this nexus of new technology and money. SVP consists of investment partners, more than half of whom are ex-"Microsofties," and a number of whom are still in their 20s.

"This is a very young high-tech community," says Peter Donnelly, president of the Corporate Council on the Arts, a civic organization created to promote understanding between the two groups.

"It's really less than 20 years old," Mr. Donnelly points out, "and the challenge will be for the community to support it" - and its ideas, as outside-the-box as they may be.

Creating new experiences

For now, the Experience Music Project is basking in the support of a world that is trouping to its gleaming doors.

"I think it helps us experience and understand our own culture," says Maggie Erickson, a University of Kansas sports medicine major, fresh from her performing debut in the simulated rock band exhibit.

"Maybe this will encourage people to go home and create new experiences in their own community," she says.

A response sure to warm the heart of the most driven high-tech donor anywhere.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Selfless in Seattle
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today