State of the arts

Behind the scenes at 4Culture, three UW alumni are helping artists and cultural organizations across King County to thrive — with racial equity as their North Star.

See “Learn more about the artists,” below, for details about these artworks.

In early March 2020, Brian J. Carter, ’08, leaned forward in his office chair at 4Culture to do some quick back-of-the-napkin math. The loss of revenue facing the nation’s arts-and-culture industry was staggering: nearly half a billion dollars.

Joshua Heim, ’10

4Culture Deputy Director

Brian J. Carter, ’08

4Culture Executive Director

As executive director of King County’s cultural funding agency, Carter knew that arts and culture would face devastating losses as one of the pandemic’s first victims. By the time the statewide stay-home order was issued in late March, Carter saw his initial estimates balloon as theaters went dark, museums shuttered their doors and many artists had no foreseeable income. He knew 4Culture had a monumental task ahead.

4Culture is a driving force in the region’s creative landscape — supporting everything from the Seattle Shakespeare Company’s performances of “Hamlet” to up-and-coming multimedia artists, with tax dollars earmarked for arts and culture. From downtown Seattle to unincorporated rural communities, King County residents encounter 4Culture’s influence every time they step inside a museum, read poetry on a Metro bus poster or stroll past a colorful mural.

Historically, philanthropists who’ve donated to arts and culture have often overlooked and underfunded marginalized communities. 4Culture aims to reverse that trend. When Carter, a UW museology program graduate, took on the executive director role in 2018, he renewed the agency’s mission — to fund, support and advocate for culture in King County — with racial equity at its core.

“I want to position 4Culture as an innovative, experimental place,” says Carter, a dynamic speaker and advocate who believes deeply in pushing for change. “To do that, we had to make a commitment to racial equity as a featured focus of the way we work and see ourselves.”

Behind the scenes, you’ll find him working with two other UW graduates to make the cultural ecosystem more equitable, accessible and inclusive: Joshua Heim, ’10, and Chieko Phillips, ’11. One way they’re putting equity first is by giving grants to help organizations in underserved communities build or renovate their physical spaces.

It’s a commitment to equity that brought these three Husky alums to 4Culture in the first place — and that has remained the agency’s North Star in their pandemic response. On this epic quest, Carter, Phillips and Heim each bring unique skills and perspective, shaped by their time at the UW and a devotion to the idea that arts and culture are the key to making our society a better place.

Chieko Phillips, ’11

4Culture Heritage Lead

Fulfilling a public good

Growing up in Yakima, Carter was painfully aware how rarely museums reflected the lives of people like him, the biracial son of an African American father and Hispanic mother.

Armed with an undergraduate history degree and an insatiable curiosity, he faced a professional crossroads — and realized he wanted to create something he’d never seen: a Black history museum. The UW’s Museology Master of Arts program came along at exactly the right moment.

At the UW, Carter discovered that the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle not only shared his dream but was making it come true: By the time the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) opened its doors two years later, Carter was a full-time staff member.

Over the next 14 years, Carter was frustrated at how infrequently marginalized communities were represented in the staff, programming and exhibits of most mainstream museums. Change was slow because organizations worried about losing donors — so Carter saw how powerful funders could be in advocating for increased diversity and equity through financial support. He was especially drawn to the community-wide reach of 4Culture.

“There’s something fascinating about a public funding agency, because public dollars should fulfill the highest public good,” Carter explains. “When you get lost, you can ask, ‘Is this in the best interests of as many people as possible?’”

It’s a question he has returned to many times, and it became more relevant than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reflecting all stories

At the Northwest African American Museum, Carter met an eager intern named Chieko Phillips, who had moved across the country to attend the UW’s museology graduate program. Her love of museums and history was built on fond childhood memories of foundational learnings on family vacations to the National Museum of Civil Rights in Memphis — where she learned about segregation — and Colonial Williamsburg, where reenactors brought the country’s Colonial past to life.

“The topics that can be explored in a museum don’t just have to be things that happened in the past,” says Phillips, who identifies as Black and Japanese and grew up near Atlanta. Over time, she realized museums also reflect what is important to society. And when Phillips looked for how people of color showed up in the narratives, she often found their stories relegated to the side.

NAAM was different from other history museums, bridging the gap between the past and the present. One of Phillips’ first projects was assisting with an exhibit on health disparities that disproportionately affect African Americans, offering both historical context and preventive tips from health-care professionals.

The museology program not only landed her the NAAM internship — open only to UW students — but gave her an inside look at the varied “forces that work around museums and give them power.”

Funding, Phillips knew, was one of those forces that could empower museums to become more inclusive. So she saw 4Culture as an ideal place to help solve broad problems that many cultural institutions struggled with, such as acknowledging and addressing their own histories of racism and exclusion.

“4Culture has all the ingredients that feed my curiosity as to how to better serve all of the public, the heritage field and the cultural sector,” says Phillips, who leads 4Culture’s heritage department. “It’s the curiosity that’s followed me throughout my career. Why is this happening? Can this be different? Where are people of color in this?”

Story continues below.

“There’s something fascinating about a public funding agency, because public dollars should fulfill the highest public good. When you get lost, you can ask, ‘Is this in the best interests of as many people as possible?’”
Brian J. Carter, ‘084Culture Executive Director

Building a cultural ecosystem

Like his colleagues, Joshua Heim found his calling — and his place at 4Culture — thanks to his lifelong natural curiosity.

Growing up in Hawaii, Heim was fascinated by hula, an Indigenous dance form whose ancient drumbeats and chants are the soundtrack of the islands. Learning hula sparked something bigger in Heim, who is Asian American; he admired hula’s active role in Native Hawaiian activism for sovereignty and self-determination.

Understanding culture as a tool of community empowerment — not just a relic of the past —inspired Heim to earn a master’s degree in cultural studies from UW Bothell and an international development certificate through the Evans School of Public Policy & Governance.

Arts and culture “are significant to our society and critical in helping us become better versions of ourselves,” says Heim, who worked for Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, as well as for the cities of Bellevue and Redmond. “With COVID, we’re starting to understand what it means when we can’t be together and have shared experiences.”

Drawn to 4Culture for its regional influence and Carter’s leadership on equity, Heim joined the team in late 2019. It’s his dream job, working at the crossroads of arts, culture and community to build a more equitable cultural ecosystem in which all communities are represented.

“The good things most people like about their communities are cultural, whether it’s a festival, a local civic organization or an old building that anchors your main street,” says Heim, who as deputy director is leading the agency’s COVID-19 recovery task force. He believes 4Culture’s mission, to create opportunities for all people to help shape that cultural legacy for future generations, is even more critical as the agency helps artists and organizations recover from the pandemic.

Dancer Andrew McShea and company dancers, Whim W’Him Summer Pop-Up performance at Myrtle Edwards. Photo: Stefano AltamuraSteve Brown, Joe Gobin and Andy Wilbur-Peterson, “Welcoming Figure,” 1997. Cast bronze. Richmond Beach Saltwater Park, Shoreline, WA. King County Public Art Collection. Photo: Joe FreemanPerformance of Skeleton Flower, Degenerate Art Ensemble, 2019. Photo: Bruce Tom

Equity in a global crisis — and beyond

The pandemic has transformed the way 4Culture supports the creative community, but it hasn’t altered that central commitment to equity.

With programs canceled and physical spaces closed, cultural workers faced a significant loss of income and opportunity. Creatives in marginalized communities, which are bearing a disproportionate burden of COVID-19, were especially vulnerable.

Carter looked at 4Culture’s original 2020 plan and returned to his guiding-light question: “Is this in the best interests of the public at this moment?”

Switching gears, 4Culture began issuing emergency grants to artists and organizations — and it’s distributed more than $4 million in relief funding from the federal CARES Act. They’ve helped organizations install plexiglass barriers to reopen under state guidelines, supported virtual programming like online art classes for refugee youth and seniors, and helped cultural workers afford necessities like groceries and child care. They built equity into that process by earmarking additional funding for communities outside Seattle and neighborhoods in King County with the lowest incomes and highest need.

At the same time, Carter, Phillips and Heim are looking past the pandemic and brainstorming ways to continue their work with a smaller budget. One of 4Culture’s revenue sources is the county’s lodging tax — levied each time someone stays at a hotel or motel. Fewer visitors during the pandemic means less money for grants.

“Many people want me to predict what the future of culture is going to look like post-COVID,” says Carter. “I am much more interested in how we use this opportunity to create a significant policy change that brings us to more racially equitable outcomes. If we have not moved the needle on where the money goes and who it goes to, then we have not succeeded.”

The illustrated portraits of Carter, Phillips and Heim were created by Teddy “Stat the Artist” Phillips, a Seattle-based digital artist, based on photos taken by Sunita Martini.

About the illustrator

Teddy “Stat the Artist” Phillips is a cybersecurity engineer and digital illustrator whose vibrant, pop art–style portraits are centered in activism. His nickname is an homage to his grandfather Statcher, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and inspired Phillips to use his talents to make a difference.

In summer 2020, Phillips helped paint the Black Lives Matter street mural in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, where he lives. He was also one of 10 local artists selected by 4Culture in partnership with Amplifier, a Seattle-based nonprofit, to create a series of posters in response to COVID-19.

Learn more about the artists

Header image (L to R):

Whim W’Him Summer Pop-Up, 2020. Myrtle Edwards Park, Seattle, WA. Photo: Stefano Altamura.

Gonsango African Music and Dance, Summer Park Pop-Up, 2020. University Heights Center, Seattle, WA. Photo: Soumita Bhattacharya.

Ann Leda Shapiro, “Diagnosing Disasters,” 2019. Gallery 4Culture, Seattle, WA. Photo: Joe Freeman.

Alfredo Arreguín, “Birds of Paradise,” 2012. Photo: Joe Freeman.

Akira Ohiso, “New Worlds Are Possible,” 2020.

RSHP, “Rise Above,” 2020.

Leo Saul Berk, “Claim Stakes,” 2019. Colman Dock, Seattle, WA. Photo: Joe Freeman.

Circle images (L to R or top to bottom):

Andrew McShea and company dancers, Whim W’Him Summer Pop-Up, 2020. Myrtle Edwards Park, Seattle, WA. Photo: Stefano Altamura.

Andy Wilbur, Joe Gobin and Steven C. Brown, “Welcoming Figure,” 1997. Richmond Beach Saltwater Park, Shoreline, WA. Photo: Joe Freeman.

Degenerate Art Ensemble, “Skeleton Flower,” 2019. Photo: Bruce Tom.


David de la Mano, “About Memory,” 2018. SODO Track, Seattle, WA.

Originally published March 2021

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