Negotiating Risk in Property-Based Arts Economic Development: Exploring the Innovative but Untimely Development Partnership Between the Seattle Art Museum and Washington Mutual

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Property-led arts development (PAD) is central to urban policy and planning. The demand for physical arts infrastructure runs parallel with the public call for arts nonprofits to act more entrepreneurial in shaping and re-imaging urban space. Increasingly, these groups have become active property developers negotiating the risks and rewards of land development rather than remaining passive fundraisers of bricks and mortar campaigns. This shift in organizational identity raises questions about whether the politics of urban arts development have changed. This study asks four questions: (1) how are nonprofit arts organizations becoming more entrepreneurial in property development, (2) how are nonprofit arts organizations reshaping the urban landscape through development partnerships, (3) how are nonprofit arts developers responding to the 2008 economic crash, and (4) how does PAD align with new thinking on downtown development alliances? This research explores the innovative but failed land development deal between the Seattle Art Museum and the now-defunct Washington Mutual to build a joint tower in the central business district. Their atypical private/nonprofit partnership changed Seattle’s downtown landscape through flexible ownership structures, generous planning incentives and off-budget municipal maneuvers. The lauded project turned sour when the homegrown financial institution collapsed, forcing the museum into debt with limited private or public sector solutions. While SAM overcame the immediate crisis, the case is a cautionary tale about the long-term risk of contemporary PAD. The case shows that innovative practices do not predetermine success. Further, the partnership study illuminates how contemporary arts investments reflect as well as contradict new thinking in urban politics literature about evolving patterns of influence in U.S. downtowns.