Artists try to paint clearer picture of why museum’s idea to

The Museum of Museums in Seattle, with a neon sculpture out friend entitled “All My Friends,” by Dylan Neuwirth. (MoM Photo)

Greg Lundgren called it a “rough week.”

The longtime artist, arts advocate and current director of Seattle’s Museum of Museums was clearly fatigued from the backlash he’d been navigating after a failed attempt at launching an exhibition with overtures to the city’s tech crowd.

“Amazon vs Microsoft” was only a call for submissions last Friday, with a plan to feature artwork created by employees of two of the region’s tech giants.

A week later, “Amazon vs Microsoft” was a canceled idea and the source of bitter commentary on social media and elsewhere about the city’s art scene and tech’s impact on it.

MoM’s Greg Lundgren, and no that’s not an Amazon banana. (Photo courtesy of Greg Lundgren)

“Mostly it’s been a rough week to see that Seattle, and social media in general, is so quick to judge, so quick to condemn, without deeper inquiry, without kindness,” Lundgren told GeekWire. “There is no middle ground anymore, there is no nuance, there is no margin of error. It is really unfortunate to witness, and a dangerous environment for art and self expression to live within.”

Photographer Charles Peterson was one of those who waded into the back and forth on Instagram.

“I’ve known Greg a long time, and I know he meant well. But it’s just one of those ideas that should have been left on the back of the cocktail napkin,” Peterson said via email. “There’s a lot that’s wrong with it: for me it’s primarily the tired ‘vs’ meme (whats next, Starbucks vs Peets? Boeing vs Blue Origin?), to the patronizing open call (the actual artist/employees of those companies might not be so keen to be called out in that fashion).”

Lundgren opened his first gallery in Seattle in 1997. For 25 years, he said he’s made it a priority to create opportunities for artists and propose solutions for how Seattle could become a better city. He started MoM in 2020, during the pandemic, in a renovated medical building on First Hill.

He’s witnessed a lot of change in Seattle, much of it driven by a tech boom that has fueled hostility toward companies and workers who many blame for upending the culture and affordability of the city.

“Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t,” Lundgren said of his many varied art spaces and exhibition ideas over the years. “But I think it’s important to keep trying, even when they do not connect, find traction or popular support. The alternative is to sit around and complain about it, stop making art, or leave a city that I love.”

Keep reading for more of Lundgren’s thoughts on the “Amazon vs Microsoft” fallout and his views on Seattle’s art scene and tech’s participation in it. GeekWire also reached out to others in the arts community for their take. Their responses are below. All have been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Museum of Museums call for submissions for “Amazon vs Microsoft” featured illustrations of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates wearing boxing gloves. (Museum of Museums via Instagram

GeekWire: Are you more bummed that your idea fell flat or just frustrated that any effort to discuss the tech community and the art community in the same breath elicits such reaction in Seattle?

Greg Lundgren: “The core idea of ‘Amazon vs Microsoft’ was to continue a dialog around artists’ complicated relationship with Amazon and Microsoft, with the hopes of building a stronger, more inclusive arts community. We succeeded in starting the conversation, and I hope that continues in a constructive way. I did not anticipate the speculation and assumptions behind the premise, nor the level of hostility around the call for art. Our art community holds strong opinions about Big Tech and the people it employs, that are justified and not easily changed. It is Amazon’s and Microsoft’s moment and opportunity to correct that narrative, and I hope that they do.”

What is your overall impression of where art and tech stand in Seattle in 2022?

“Many of the artists and organizations in our region have a very complicated and unspoken relationship with Big Tech. It has more layers than an onion, which makes it difficult to tweet about or properly share on social media. One layer is that the tech boom in our region has made it much more expensive to live here, which would be easier to digest if that same community — both corporate and private — participated more, gave more, found ways to protect and grow our artist communities. Another layer is that Amazon and Microsoft do buy art, underwrite institutions, artists and nonprofits (to date, MoM has never had a corporate sponsor or received money from any company). Do they do it enough? No. Are they getting better at it? A little.

‘I think it’s important to keep trying. The alternative is to sit around and complain about it, stop making art, or leave a city that I love.’

“Many in our tech community love and support arts and culture. They are our friends and patrons, they buy art and make art and do care about the future of Seattle’s cultural landscape. They are not all one size, one color, one hivemind. And I think their increased participation in our art community can only create a stronger art community.”

What do you think artists actually want from the ‘tech bros’? For them all to leave?

“Many say that big tech ruined Seattle. Some rightly expect more from them and some have given up on them. Some pay their bills with tech dollars — whether they work in big tech or sell work to people that do. It is a complicated, messy, passionate, sometimes hypocritical narrative. Historically, be it the Italian Renaissance or abstract expressionism, many major moments of artistic advancement happened when the artists and the wealthy were in synchronicity. Divided, it is hard to see an outcome where the Seattle art community comes out ahead.”

Is there a place where you think artists have figured this relationship out, and in Seattle it’s still just growing pains? 

“I think New York and Los Angeles, Houston and Miami have better relationships between the artist community and the wealthy. Peggy Guggenheim and David Rockefeller were the grandchildren of industrialists. Maybe we are too young, maybe it’s the grandchildren of our tech billionaires that will contribute. My fear is that it will be much too late by then.”

A message to tech workers in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. (GeekWire File Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Artist feedback

Sharon Arnold is a Seattle arts writer and curator.

‘There is a lot of tension, because tech happens to be our dominant industry, with the greatest number of high-wage earners who are the very people displacing those who are pushed out.’

  • “Our region has suffered some of the most extreme expansion in high-end development and housing, and unmitigated rent increases and increases in property taxes due to a lack of state income tax; much of this leading to rampant gentrification of our affordable neighborhoods and displacement. There is a lot of tension, because tech happens to be our dominant industry, with the greatest number of high-wage earners who are the very people displacing those who are pushed out. This is not a new problem, though the past 12 years have been particularly difficult … and while the tech sector is not the sole cause, it is a significant factor.” 
  • “Ultimately I’m sad that canceling the show further vilified the people in the arts community who spoke up and asked if there was a better way to approach this idea, based on all that has come before and enriched our community conversations. I believe this could have been truly reparative and generative in the end.” 

Charles Peterson is a longtime Seattle photographer known for documenting the grunge music scene in the 1980s and 1990s and rise of such bands as Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and others.

‘How much affect tech in relation to the real estate market has had, I don’t know. It seems more a citywide failing than one particular industry.’

  • “I think the P.C. knee-jerk ‘tech bros’ response is about as original and well thought out as the right wing ‘But what about Hillary?’ response. There needs to be a balance. It’s too bad, as I think there could be something there, about where the tech and the art worlds intersect, that could make for a great show. Just leave the wackiness out of it and curate it.”
  • “Affordable space to make art has been, and always will be, the biggest issue facing artists and the galleries that display them. How much affect tech in relation to the real estate market has had on that, I don’t know. It seems more a citywide failing than one particular industry. Humans need scapegoats, and tech is an easy one, but Seattle has never been much of an art town as it is. Which often meant the outliers were doing exceptional stuff, whether they got noticed or not. They just did it. It’s still very much the same, just a lot more expensive to live in, which can be a big drag on inspiration, to say the least.”
Sculptures at the base of an Amazon headquarters tower in Seattle. (GeekWire File Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Vivian Hua, co-chair of the Seattle Arts Commission, is a writer, filmmaker, organizer and onetime executive director of Northwest Film Forum in Seattle.

‘Despite the fact that these companies are absolutely everywhere, it feels like they are nowhere to be found as far as grassroots artists are concerned’

  • “Speaking as an independent artist and not from an Arts Commission standpoint, the city is getting more expensive, in part due to tech, and artists and culture makers are getting priced out every day. I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. Microsoft can have whatever fine art curator and Amazon can do as many mural initiatives in their buildings as they want (the latter doesn’t always mean anything considering buildings in Seattle have to spend a portion of their money towards art in the physical build out) but are these companies supporting the local arts ecosystem? Maybe an artist here and there benefits from their programs, which isn’t particularly impressive to me considering the sheer amount of capital they have. In all the fundraising, advocacy, and community-building efforts I am a part of, across numerous disciplines, nonprofits, and artistic communities, do I see their presence in any meaningful way? Not really. Despite the fact that these companies are absolutely everywhere, it feels like they are nowhere to be found as far as grassroots artists are concerned.”

Vanessa Villalobos, co-chair of the Seattle Arts Commission, is an independent artist, choreographer, and dancer.

  • “This viewpoint is my own, not the Commission’s: Individual artists and cultural organizations are at the heart of creating that allure for tourism and local quality of life! I believe the Seattle Arts Commission can be a viable think partner to entities, such as corporate, to rethink how to design employee engagement/retention programs that not only benefit internal staff but also contribute to the local art scene. This means intentional outreach and sincere partnerships with community artists. WE (artists) are here — we just don’t know for how long.” 

Robert Hardgrave is a longtime Seattle painter, illustrator and sculptor.

  • “I support Greg Lundgren in what he tries and does because he’s been trying and doing to make the art community work for well over 20 years. Maybe the corporate exhibit idea was a bad idea, but who am I to say. I’ve been an artist in Seattle for 30 years. The tech boom has made this city almost unrecognizable. And the sort of folks that are moving here don’t give a sh*t about this city. I don’t think it’s just Seattle that is feeling the capitalist corporate greed oppression. Most artists I know are unable to make a living here with just art. Supplemental income is always necessary. There are grants and award opportunities here but there are so many artists it’s as if getting hit by lightning would be easier to achieve.”