Among the laundry list of ideas and goals in Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell’s “Downtown Activation Plan,” the city’s arts and culture scene is intended to play a major role in making the city’s core a place where people want to spend time.
James Miles plans to help with that.
Miles is the new creative economy manager for Seattle’s Office of Economic Development. The creative economy features jobs across a number of industries, from film and television, to theater and music, to digital arts and tech.
In a 2019 report, the latest year available, the OED said Seattle’s creative economy employs nearly 70,000 creative workers and contributed 18% of Seattle’s gross regional product. Tech workers make up a big chunk of those creatives, with OED listing software publishers as tops in creative industry earnings as of 2017.
A longtime teaching artist and professor in New York City, Miles now teaches arts management courses as an assistant professor at Seattle University. He previously served as executive director of Arts Corp and MENTOR Washington, and was most recently executive director of Third Stone, which helped bring back the beloved Bumbershoot arts and music festival.
GeekWire caught up with Miles to discuss Seattle’s creative economy, how art and tech can coexist and what his initial goals are in his new role. Our Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Is this a role you were looking for, or did it come looking for you?
“The answer to that question is yes. It was both a role I was kind of looking for and also it was looking for me. I think based on my experiences as both an artist and as a person that works with artists and supports artists, whether on boards or on commissions, it was directly aligned to everything I’ve wanted to do in my career.”
What’s your overall impression of the economic vitality of Seattle’s arts and culture scene compared to where you’ve been and what you’ve seen?
“It’s hard to compare the creative economy of Seattle to New York, just to be frank. However, there’s so much potential here because of the amount of creatives that are working together. And I think that’s what really draws me. The vivacity alone grabs me, the potential is also exciting. If creatives can work together, especially across sector and across discipline, there’s a lot of opportunity for exploration. I’m thinking about the Downtown Activation Plan and how you get people to reignite a city. It’s through the arts.”
When it comes to Seattle’s creative economy, the Office of Economic Development includes tech workers in that mix — software developers, designers, etc. Does that provide a creative boost other cities don’t get considering that Seattle is a tech hub?
“It is a tech hub, and I’m excited for us to embrace that. Once we embrace our technology, and our artistry and our creativity, then we will see not only communities come together, but we’ll see where they overlap. A person making video games is like, ‘I have an idea. I want to tell this story. I can only speak digitally, because that’s the world I know. I’m gonna tell my story through video games in ones and zeros.’ That person’s cousin can tell a story through a play, or through music or through a poem. I think we often get distracted by, ‘Oh, you’re an artist, so you’re creative, and you’re not an artist so you’re not creative,’ when in fact, if you can move you can dance, if you can talk, you can sing. We’re all creatives. We just tend we tamp it down because society tells us to, and I don’t think we need to. I think we should let that creativity blossom within all of us.”
Do you find that conversation — tech = arts — is tough to have because the traditional arts community has a negative perception about what tech has done to affordability and so forth in Seattle?
“Yes. It’s a tough conversation, but I think it’s a conversation worth having. And it’s a conversation that when I’ve had it in the past, they’ve said, ‘OK, if we connect to the cultural fabric of the region, there’s a place for all of us to be woven together.’ It just takes some outside-the-box thinking. I’ve worked as an artist in healthcare, worked as an artist in law firms. Those are not typically creative industries, but they’re all learning different things that impact their ability to make work happen. There’s a variety of things creativity can fit into, and that’s what excites me.”
What are your objectives out of the gate with this role?
“One is to support people entering a [creative] career. When I moved here, a lot of people that were artists said, ‘OK, I think I’ve made my time as an artist, I’m moving to New York or moving to L.A.’ I was like, ‘Why? There’s a creative city here, stay here.’ So that’s one, to see Seattle as a viable creative community in which you can not only live but thrive.
“And then opportunities. When I went to Amazon, not a single person from Amazon was from Seattle, yet you had all these creatives — audio designers, graphic designers, video game designers, digital creatives — and I was like, ‘Great, all these crazy creative gigs here. Let’s put some young people and some people that have been felt like they’ve been marginalized, into these jobs.
“And then most importantly, I’m just talking to people in the community to see what they need. I just want to make sure that our office is actually listening to the city of Seattle, its residents, the people that work here, live here, love it here.”
As far as revitalizing downtown, do you have big ideas around that, related to arts and culture, that you like to think about?
“I think first we have to get started and get people talking. Talking to me, talking to each other, and then we can start dreaming. I think there’s a tendency to move quickly. There’s a West African saying, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’ I’d rather go far with people. So I won’t say anything yet about what we’re going to do downtown, but I will say we’ll do it together. And we’ll go very far.”
It is a challenge coming out of COVID.
“People just have to come out. They need a reason to come out. And we need to talk to them and find out what that reason is. And there we go. Then you have the creativity. It’s literally thinking outside the box.”
How does Bumbershoot illustrate your approach? Is there anything you learned that made you say, “Let’s keep doing more of this”?
“The biggest thing I learned from Bumbershoot is that people want it to happen. They wanted to be there. We wouldn’t have done anything successful if we weren’t out in the community every single day talking to people about what they want, engaging them like, ‘Hey, Bumbershoot’s going to be cool this year. It’s going to be different. It’s going to be the revitalization of the Seattle arts and music festival. You want to be a part of it. It’s going to be a thing not to miss.’ And people showed up. We had about three times the number of people that came in 2019. The people wanted to be present and they wanted to be in community.”
Are there areas right now where you think Seattle excels in the creative economy and areas that could use a boost?
“Yeah, I think there’s pockets of excellence in the creative economy everywhere. Whether it’s music, theater, dance, poetry, writing, AI, design, I think it’s more about a creative community. And I think that’s what the creative economy can help build. It can help connect those people so they can see we can work together and have a creative economic city, versus a creative economic bubble. I think Seattle’s rife with a lot of creatives, from the nonprofit side to the for-profit side.”
What are your views on AI and how you might utilize it, how you might teach artists and creatives to not be afraid of it?
“I think it’s definitely a tool. If people understand how to use it, we could use it to benefit all of us. A great example is a screenwriter who has a great idea for a movie and needs someone to help put it together. In years past you’d have to hire someone to storyboard that movie. That was a costly thing. To put that idea [to AI] and say, ‘Can you storyboard this idea so I can pitch it to a cinematographer or producer and get this film made?’ — that provides an opportunity for a person to open doors and enter that workforce and become a filmmaker. I just think it’s a great tool. The hammer and the nail is not gonna take over your life, it just makes things a little bit easier. That’s how I view AI.”