Although the sun does occasionally break through the clouds here, Seattle has long been cursed with the fabled Northwest aesthetic: buckets of rain, curtains of mist, towering mountains and acres of moss. Its a dark, mysterious look made famous by the hit television shows Twin Peaks and The X-Files, both of which were filmed locally. But the aesthetic isn't new. Back in the 1930s and 40s, painters and sculptors such as Kenneth Callahan, Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, George Tsutakawa and Paul Horiuchi gave figurative moodiness and abstract simplicity a decidedly rain-soaked look, and their styles were lumped together as the Northwest School. (They were even photographed in a Life Magazine spread, posed like philosophers on moss-covered trees.) The Northwest look, combined with Edward Curtiss famous early-1900s portraits of local Native Americans, produced an aesthetic myth that dies hard even today.
Now, things are changing. The patriarchs of the local art scene, the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) and its brother the Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM), have been making a steady push away from showing exclusively antiquities and toward more contemporary art. At SAM, look for modern art shows curated by Trevor Fairbrother, and be sure to check out the Native American and African galleries. At SAAM, the vibe is quieter but expectant since longtime curator William Rathbun recently retired, leaving the path open for new vision.
The contemporary art shows at the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington always have an academic background and a pushing-the-envelope flair. And, the Center on Contemporary Art (CoCA) and a host of edgy galleries--Houston, James Harris, Greg Kucera, Artspace, Soil and Pound--showcase young, impoverished, enthusiastic local talent. Check it all out at the monthly neighborhood Artswalks, during which galleries stay open late and hand out wine and cheese to strollers. The downtown/Pioneer Square area hold its Artswalk on the first Thursday of every month; Capitol Hill follows suit on the first Saturday; Kirkland opens its doors on the second Thursday; and Ballard rounds out the cycle on the second Saturday.
Going to the movies in Seattle is a bit like drinking coffee: On Friday night, do you trot off to the shiny corporate multiplexes and swallow the latest action flick? If so, then you're a Starbucks drinker. But if you resolutely favor the shabby independent film houses, where the bill of fare is usually European and impenetrable, then you probably also go out of your way to visit Seattles murky independent coffee shops.
Hollywood glitz rules the downtown scene at Pacific Place and the Meridian. Art-house funk lords over Capitol Hill at the Egyptian Theater and the Harvard Exit, and over the University District at the Neptune, the Varsity, the Seven Gables and the Grand Illusion. Those with catholic tastes can have it both ways at the various annual film festivals, where sneak previews of blockbusters play alongside obscure Yugoslavian flicks. The biggest fest is the Seattle International Film Festival, which takes the town over for three weeks in May and June. But keep a lookout for the Seattle Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, the Polish Film Festival, the Scandinavian Film Festival, the Women in Film Festival . . . you get the idea.
Admittedly, there are those who think watching nerdy Seattleites try to negotiate downtown with flapping rain ponchos and lattes in recycled, unbleached cups is comedy enough. But if you want something a bit more organized, try the Comedy Underground in Pioneer Square, where open mike nights trade off with national headliners, or visit Giggles in the University District, where professionals hold forth on the weekends. Theres also The Drink on the eastern side of Lake Union, with an open mike on Tuesdays and comedy on Wednesdays, and the Eastside Comedy Club in Kirkland.
Apart from the deservedly renowned Balanchine-school Pacific Northwest Ballet, and the beloved contemporary dance house On The Boards, good dance in Seattle is hard to come by on a regular basis. The best pickings include the University of Washingtons excellent World Music & Dance Series, which brings such top-notch groups as the Paul Taylor Dance Company into town every year. And homegrown dancers, most notably Mark Morris, often come through the city trailing clouds of glory and winning new fans.
The Frye Art Museum has a pleasant collection of 19th and 20th century paintings, while the Museum of History and Industry covers the same time period but with its focus on Seattles history. The Burke Museum and the Museum of Flight offer glimpses of natural history and Boeing science respectively, with towering artifacts (dinosaurs and airplanes, naturally) at both.
The history of Seattles ethnic minorities gets a thoughtful, detailed look at the Wing Luke Asian Museum. And the Seattle Childrens Museum and the Pacific Science Center, both at the Seattle Center, are paradises of activities for kids. Further afield, the Bellevue Art Museum has a good collection of 20th century art, while the Tacoma Art Museum and the Washington State History Museum are Tacomas newer answers to the Seattle Art Museum and the Museum of History and Industry.
In the 1940s, when Sir Thomas Beecham was (briefly) the conductor of the Seattle Symphony, he famously dismissed the town as "an aesthetic dustbin." That is no more. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, the symphony, under the guidance of beloved bandleader Vilem Sokol, followed Leonard Bernsteins lead in rediscovering Mahler, and it became a rather good ensemble. In the 1980s, New York import Gerard Schwarz took over and whipped the symphony into national-caliber shape, recording Grammy-winning compact discs and giving contemporary composers such as Alan Hovhaness wider exposure.
The symphony just moved into its new, acoustically crisp home at downtowns Benaroya Hall, which also provides much-needed concert space for the excellent Northwest Chamber Orchestra, the Seattle Mens Chorus and other harmonious classical groups. The 1990s have also seen the rise of an early-music movement, with several period ensembles garnering acclaim and audiences under the aegis of the Early Music Guild. Churches around town and the Seattle Art Museum often stage lovely chamber music concerts, so keep an ear out.
The Seattle Opera is internationally famous today for its Wagner productions, most notably its four-day Ring cycle (the next one is due to shatter eardrums in the summer of 2001). The company was actually founded in the 1960s specifically to present Wagners war horses. Under the steady guidance of erudite Texan Speight Jenkins, the opera has broadened its range considerably, from sparkling Mozart (a 1997 Marriage of Figaro was a sellout hit) to serious Prokofiev (the production of War and Peace, for the 1990 Goodwill Games, was a surprising hit). The much-used Opera House is due for a renovation, and with the increasing popularity of operas music-acting-costume-razzmatazz combination, the future looks bright for the company.
There are dozens of choral groups in Seattle, most of them enthusiastic amateur ensembles. Two of the better groups are the Seattle Mens Chorus, which puts on a perennially popular holiday concert, and the Tudor Choir, which has capitalized on the early-music movement to bring shape-note music and mystical texts to new audiences.
Okay, so grunge is dead. But that doesn't mean that the local rock scene is dead with it. The scene is just a bit more upbeat, with international groups finding a warmer welcome. Experimental rock groups and other combinations of world, funk and pop music play most frequently at the Showbox, Sit 'n' Spin, Art Bar, the Bohemian Cafe and the Crocodile Cafe.
Jazzmen and blues masters hold down regular gigs at Dimitrious Jazz Alley, Tulas, the New Orleans, the Tractor Tavern and the Baltic Room. Theres also a lively Irish scene in town, with live traditional and modern music at Conor Byrnes, the Owl 'n' Thistle, Tir na Nog and Kells Irish Pub. For those who prefer to sit and listen to sophisticated tunes, the elegant Pampas Room or the down-at-the-heels but fervid Sorry Charlies may be the place.
If moving more than listening is your thing, there are plenty of dance houses to choose from. ARO.space, The Last Supper Club and Re-bar are numbers one, two and three, respectively, in the hearts of cool house-music aficionados, while The Vogue rules the gothic-industrial scene. Swingers head for the Century Ballroom and the 2218 Restaurant and Night Club, while unregenerate 80s music fans head for Neighbours and the Culture Club. There are even a few temples to country music, including the Timberline and the Riverside. Downunder offers late-night dancing for a young, energetic crowd in Belltown.
Seattle has long been known as an incubator of new plays--the Kentucky Cycle played here before heading to Broadway to win a Pulitzer--and as a nurturing home for regional theater. Mainstream houses include the Seattle Repertory Theater, the Intiman, A Contemporary Theater and the Empty Space Theater. These companies put on strong seasons every year, usually comprised of modern classics and premieres.
Fringe theater groups, such as the Annex Theater, the Book-It Repertory Theatre and Theater Schmeater, provide well-produced, eclectic alternatives. Theres also a manic fringe fest in early spring, when dozens of groups suddenly materialize out of nowhere to put on shows. In the niche bracket, Seattle Childrens Theatre presents extremely professional, creative productions for kids aged 4-14, while the 5th Avenue Theatre brings Broadway musicals to town.
Pioneer Square is the one area of downtown that stays alive and kicking after 6pm. The tourist shops shut down and the restaurants, bars and nightclubs light up. The scene rages into the early hours, catering to a mixed crowd of beer-swilling college kids, jazz-loving career types and devoted rock fans.
Capitol Hill can be divided into two sections: Broadway and the Pike/Pine area. Broadway, of course, is the main shopping drag, with restaurants, cinemas, shops and a few clubs. Just strolling its length can provide an evenings amusement. The Pike/Pine region, on the western slope of the hill heading towards downtown Seattle, is home to a slightly hipper array of shops, restaurants, cafes and clubs. The chic Bauhaus and Baltic Room are here. Capitol Hill is Seattles gay and lesbian neighborhood, and the tolerant nightlife here reflects it.
Ballard and Fremont are two separate but adjacent neighborhoods. Fremont bills itself as "the Center of the Universe," and promotes everything--Elvis miniature golf tournaments, outdoor movies and solstice festivals--with tongue in cheek. The Triangle Lounge, the Still Life Coffeehouse and the Lenin statue are but a few of the areas beloved attractions.
Ballard, formerly derided for its predominantly Scandinavian and elderly population, has seen a recent influx of younger, artier inhabitants, and the bar, shop, cafe and restaurant scenes have changed to reflect that. Hipper haunts include Market Street Wine and Cheese, Hatties Hat and the Tractor Tavern.
The University District is not quite the hippie heaven it was back in the 1960s and 70s, and the narrow sidewalks of the Ave, its main drag, are sadly crowded with panhandlers. But the college feel exerts a pleasant nostalgic pull on anyone who was once in college; the University of Washington campus is lush and beautiful, and the University Bookstore, one of the biggest bookstores in the country, is a treat for literature lovers. The nightlife is largely limited to cinemas, restaurants and student cafes.