RR Anderson, DIY Cultural Arts Specialist

May. 14, 2009 at 10:09pm

Tacoma's Identity Crisis: Collective Identity, Art, and Revitalization in Tacoma, Washington

Everything You Wanted to Know about ART in Tacoma but were afraid to ask

PHOTO: Ady Olson, UPS student 2009


The art community in Tacoma, Washington plays an active role in many aspects of city life. My research questions included: How is the identity of Tacoma shaped by the art created within the city, and how does it help to shape that art? What is the role of art in fostering a sense of community? How is the conception of the purpose of art in the eyes of Tacoma artists a significant factor in shaping the artistic community in Tacoma?

What is the Tacoma art community's role in the process of urban revitalization, and what are the implications of this in how Tacoma's identity is perceived? For my research, I conducted nine interviews with ten Tacomans who self-identify as artists. I found that for many artists in Tacoma, one major purpose of art is as a means of building community and creating a collective identity. Other artists feel that the conflation of art and community is problematic, and therefore criticism of art cannot be openly discussed. The identity of Tacoma is compromised by the cycle of urban revitalization and gentrification as these artists make areas desirable and are consequently displaced by the upper classes.


My informants were strategically selected. I joined a Tacoma art listserv administrated by the Tacoma Arts Commission, on which postings about art events in Tacoma are regularly disseminated. I posted a request to speak to artists, and upon receipt of responses, I gathered a snowball sample, asking the artists I interviewed to refer me to others. I also contacted people in the city with whom I already had an established relationship, asking if they might put me in contact with any acquaintances. Included in my subject population were: artists who were born in Tacoma and those who moved to Tacoma from elsewhere; artists who rely on their artwork as their main source of income and those who hold other jobs as their primary source of income; and artists who create art about Tacoma and those who do not. Among my informants were

ink artists,
a graphic illustrator,
a graffiti artist,
a clothing designer,
Daniel Blue
a gallery owner,
letterpress poster artists
beautiful angle,
an abstract artist,
and a political cartoonist.

What united this diverse group is that each individual self-identified as an artist or as part of the artistic community.

Table of Contents

Review of the Literature
Building Community and Creating Collective Identity through Art
The Purpose of Art
The Role of Art in Urban Renewal and Gentrification
Research Questions
Research Methods
Findings and Discussion
Art's Role in Shaping Identity and Community
Criticism of Tacoma Art
The Tacoma Art Community and Urban Revitalization

RR's Favorite Parts Taken out of Context:

When Daniel moved to Tacoma six years ago, the story he heard about the city
was that of:
A dusty jewel, discarded by the fancy merchant as common ore, found by the peasant with a special eye for that sort of thing and polished into the perfect jewel for the queen's new crown. In that story every one [sic] praises the peasant for the wisdom to look beneath the surface, and everyone regards the perfect jewel as even more special since it was almost lost to the heap. (Blue, 2009)

* * *

Sean, the co-owner of The Helm Gallery, told me that most of the art shown at The Helm comes from outside Tacoma, and the gallery is currently going out of business because local art sells; non-Tacoma art does not. He said that most galleries in town show only local artists because local buyers want contact with the artists from whom they are buying. They support community by purchasing art. A piece of local art on the wall makes possible a conversation about the artist and his or her work, and it encourages pride in the local art scene.

* * *

There is a common critique, however, of art that self-consciously focuses of Tacoma or promotes the community in some way. While most artists in Tacoma are passionate about the community that is built through and around their artwork, some artists are critical of this focus on community and the fact that many Tacoma artists are unwilling to extract art from its context within the local community.
Sean is one such critic. He believes that the majority of the art being produced in this city would not hold up to the standards of quality set by the major art centers of the world. Frustrated with the insularity of the Tacoma art scene and what he saw as a deterioration of the quality of Tacoma art, he and Peter Lynn opened The Helm. They committed themselves to providing a gallery that would bring in art from the outside world that was, in their eyes, more complex and of a higher quality than most Tacoma art. Their focus was more on the art itself than on the context in which the art is shown. They thought this would open Tacoma's eyes to the higher level of skill that goes into art created elsewhere. Sean and Peter believe that by comparing art in Tacoma to art from elsewhere, Tacoma art would increase in quality because there would be more
competition which would breed survival of the fittest. They hoped they could challenge Tacoma artists and spur them to focus on the skill of creating their art, rather than just on the message or community-centric aspect of their artwork.

* * *

When I asked Beautiful Angle what they thought of Sean's criticism, they recognized some validity in it. While their purpose and intent is embedded in the message of their posters, Lance acknowledged that Tacoma's art scene is: A little self-absorbed. We're like an awkward teenager. We want to do great things, but we don't quite know how to do them yet [so] we end up looking at the way our art looks compared to the guy right next to us [and] not the guy in
Paris. Tom admitted that they only occasionally reach the level of what I would consider art.

* * *

footnote: In future research, I would suggest focusing more on the economic implications of the art community's creativity. It would also be interesting to compare Tacoma to other peripheral cities that are overshadowed by bigger cities like Seattle, whose artists might focus more on being held to a universal standard. A direct comparison to Seattle might also provide new insights. It would be interesting to find out if the Tacoma art community has a stronger community focus than do other cities like Seattle. This could be a strength for the area. Tacoma might benefit from a serious art critic, but the role of critic in Tacoma would be a difficult one given the strong sense of community among Tacoma artists. Pushing their art into universal molds might also raise the price of Tacoma's art, thereby causing more gentrification. The community focus of Tacoma's artists might be a factor in guarding the city from gentrification.

download the full document:

Tacoma's Identity Crisis: Collective Identity, Art, and Revitalization in Tacoma, Washington
Ady Olson, University of Puget Sound

comments [4]  |  posted under art, community, culture, reality, tacoma


by Erik on 5/15/2009 @ 1:43am
The identity of Tacoma is compromised by the cycle of urban revitalization and gentrification as these artists make areas desirable and are consequently displaced by the upper classes.


If Tacoma could only be so lucky to attract someone of the "upper classes" to locate here. To the contrary, the city is flush with a seemingly endless supply of empty buildings and swaths of dead zones. Take a drive on Tacoma Avenue.

Art sells and artists flourish to the extent they produce art that is desired. Yet, they are free to produce marketable art or "Ars gratia artis" (Art for Art's sake) if they wish.

by NineInchNachos on 5/15/2009 @ 10:35am
a new email!

Hey R.R.,
I saw your Chalk-Off email -- Cool!
I don't know if it can be added anywhere, but people wanting to retaliate can send rotten tomatoes to me at

ady.olson [at] gmail.com


by FunkomaVintage on 5/17/2009 @ 1:37pm
well, sure, the cycle of gentrification can be extremely negative on artists, but my main concern is that the "improvements" to Tacoma went off the rails with Condomania.
Refurbishing Union Station and locating UWTac here was brilliant and so perfectly Tacoma.
Nothing wrong with being Tacoma-centric, and Big City perspectives are welcome....if, if, the suppliers of Big City perspectives arrive here with an inclusive attitude.
The promoters of the Condo-Love shafted Tacoma, and hurt Tacoma. If development was Tacoma-centric, then this much desired growth.....in income, in liveability, in a greater variety of art and artful enterprises would flourish...
As long as a barely concealed hatred of Tacoma bubbles up to dominate local politics, Tacoma will continue to go through this UpDownUpDown cycle.
I think it's telling and a bad move for Tacoma when she lost her law school, and gained an MBA school......Monetizing every blessed thing is not the answer. Thank goodness for TESC.
Tacoma is not in the shadow of anyone or anything. She exists in her own right...and she is lovely....she's a tomboy so quit trying to make her into Grace Kelly.

by thriceallamerican on 5/18/2009 @ 9:12am
....she's a tomboy so quit trying to make her into Grace Kelly.

...insert Red Kelly reference here...


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RR Anderson is one of the most curious characters in the UFO lore and the history of underground cartooning. He fought bizarre underground beings in the caves of Alaska, was wounded by a laser before it was invented, and had a background with the clandestine branch of the Tacoma Cartoonists Society.

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