[Photos by Andrew van Leeuwen]
Last June, BUILD sat down with Renaissance man Greg Lundgren to discuss art, self-expression, and Seattle’s potential.
What sparked the Museum of Museums (MoM)?
MoM was a slow burning ember that I found waiting to be fanned to life. The building is owned by Swedish Hospital and sits adjacent to the main entrance of their multi-billion dollar campus. Because Swedish has a long history of collecting art and connecting it with healing, I decided to write to them with a proposal to renovate their derelict building as an art museum—within two days they wrote back and said they’d love to start a conversation. At that time the building resembled a crack house: the windows were boarded up and people were living inside; there were over 300 used hypodermic needles on the floor; the toilets were filled with excrement; and the copper plumbing wire had been removed to sell. Swedish would have torn it down, but since they didn’t have a development plan, they were happy to turn it over to someone who was willing to rehabilitate it. We were given the keys in early 2019, and spent the summer renovating. Swedish was a wonderful partner, but from the outset we had a series of contentious conversations with the Seattle Department of Construction & Inspection (SDCI), as there were several naysayers at the agency who did not support the project and who made it very difficult to realize. We had to enlist the support of a land use attorney and permit specialist, among other consultants. I’m really proud of MoM, but it was a difficult journey to fruition.
Vital 5 Productions is the umbrella under which your projects exist, right?
Yes. The project began in 1992 or ’93 and was originally conceived as an online art gallery; instead of physical gallery space, which is hard to come by and has a limited capacity, we wanted to create an online global platform that would present the work of hundreds of artists. This was before you could see pictures on the Internet, but we knew it was possible—eventually. About five or six years ago, I was trying to find some continuity between my various projects, and decided to put them all under the Vital 5 Productions umbrella.
Part of what I’ve been trying to do has been to push the boundaries of what we consider art and who we consider artists. A lot of people who don’t call themselves artists think they are excluded from understanding or making art. But really, art in its most basic form is an act of self-expression. If you can get people to communicate and express themselves, to stand up for what they believe in, then you can change the world in significant ways. We need to stop being so exclusionary when it comes to saying who gets to be an artist—it should be less exotic and more inclusive of people from all walks of life and demographics. I’d like to live in a world that has a lot of bad artists.
Another project I worked on was called Waldon 3, which was a proposal to activate the building that the Lusty Lady used to be in on First Avenue. After they ceased operations, the owner didn’t want to sell the building, but they did offer a 100-year lease. It’s a sweet property across from the Seattle Art Museum, and would make a terrific gallery, but I couldn’t make it work financially—it would have been a $15-$20M project and I wouldn’t have owned the building.
Now I’m working on securing the former downtown Bed Bath and Beyond for a year-round Bumbershoot; it’s 66,000-sf of space owned by Al Clise, who is completely supportive of our proposed use, but once again, the building department is giving us grief because of the proposed change of use from retail to assembly. Bumbershoot is a City brand and the mayor wants this project to happen, downtown retailers want it to happen, and the Downtown Seattle Association wants it to happen because it would help to revitalize the downtown core.
I’ve done many projects, and I’ve thought of all of them as a proof of concept and showroom—I’ve had to build things to show people what’s possible, and to leverage them in the service of more work…more art. In the end, each of my projects inform the next one.
Your professional trajectory has been such a hybrid—who are the role models you’ve looked to for guidance over the years?
On a personal level my grandfather was an inspiration. He was a judge and lawyer, but also an artist, writer, and environmentalist, among other things. He wore many hats and taught me that I didn’t have to be one thing. My father was an attorney his entire life—he had one job and one career. My grandfather was all over the place. He wasn’t defined by his business card. He was a significant influence on me as a young man.
In the art world there are thousands who have inspired me. Marcel Duchamp fundamentally changed our perception of what art could be. I’m inspired by people who have tenacity, who don’t give up on their dreams and passions, and who are willing to take risks. Those who do the unpopular thing. When I was 15 I read a quote by Thomas Jefferson that I carry with me to this day: We will be soldiers, so our sons may be farmers, so their sons may be artists. The notion that our highest purpose is to be an artist is profound. We all have this capacity. It’s in our DNA.
Through MoM, The Hideout, and Vito’s you’ve created significant opportunities for lesser known artists to introduce their work to Seattle. How did this come about?
All of those lesser known artists are formidable, but they didn’t have any galleries to represent them. I wanted to provide a platform for them to gain visibility and to succeed. It was a symbiotic relationship. My thinking at the Hideout and Vito’s was to draw people in by offering them a beverage and some food, and then they would experience the art on the walls. It was a marketing tool that benefited the artists and me. More, most of the art we view in a gallery setting is lit by bright lights and there’s no incentive to sit with it for very long. At the Hideout, I wanted to create an environment where people could spend time with artwork for however long they visit; maybe they notice a piece they like, and when they return they see it again. A courtship develops between the viewer and the art; it’s a seduction that doesn’t happen in a gallery setting. I’m a proponent of experimentation and this one succeeded.
Does the fact that Seattle has so much money to fund projects and social services, yet it can’t seem to match the dollars with the work frustrate you?
It’s incredibly frustrating. Amazon’s annual marketing budget is $22 billion and Microsoft’s is $21 billion; our two biggest technology companies collectively spend $43 billion dollars every year to make themselves look good and sell more stuff. They could easily give $200-$500M to support worthwhile projects and valuable social services. And then there’s the $650 billion in private wealth in this region…
Producing Bumbershoot is the ultimate act of curation—what is your process for deciding which performers will be promoted to thousands of hungry fans?
It’s very organic. I have a team, including Joe Paganelli and Steven Severin, both of whom are in the music space. I was the last of the three to be brought on, and they gave me a lot of creative freedom due to my experience with contemporary art and galleries. It’s a lot of work, but I consider it an extension of what I’m already doing. The beauty of Bumbershoot is that it has the capacity to be a crowbar that can change the city in fundamental ways. It has the potential to unlock a lot of money that could be directed toward the arts. It’s a conduit for inspiring, educating, and highlighting under-celebrated art forms. For example, when thinking about Art with a capital A, a lot of people think of painting, sculpture, photography, maybe a little modern dance. The art world I see, love, and want to be a part of has chain saw carvers, nail artists, strippers, roller skaters, wrestlers, BMX bike riders, pastry chefs, makeup artists, tattoo artists, fashion designers; people who choose different ways to express themselves and spend a lot of energy and time honing their craft—their art. I want to expand the definition of who gets to be included under the artist moniker, and I think it will be a lot more fun for the consumer. This is the secret sauce of Bumbershoot.
Where do you draw the line? Is there a point at which something is no longer art and just a day job? Is it about how you perform your job rather than what it is?
I think there are people who do their day jobs passionlessly and without creativity. But you can also be a lawyer or cashier and introduce art into your practice. For example, there’s a guy at the South Gate dump who has worked there for a decade or more, and in the summer, when you check out he gives you an ice pop and makes a sweet quip; and in the winter he hands out lollypops along with some warm words. With each 30 second encounter he engages in a dialogue that is an expression of himself and he makes people feel happy. He’s made his job — taking credit cards and giving receipts — into a vehicle for expressing himself that is good for the business and allows him to connect with humanity
What has been your secret to sanity throughout the pandemic?
The truth is that I didn’t do a very good job of retaining my sanity. It was the hardest chapter of my life — not just because I’m a bar, restaurant, and museum owner who had to deal with major calamities in all of my businesses — but I was deeply affected by social justice issues, and I struggled with finding a meaningful way to respond as a privileged white male. On the positive side, I directed a lot of energy at MoM, which it benefited from, as did my mental health. I also spent a lot of time at my place in Joshua Tree, and I adopted a kitten from a thrift store there; if there’s a god, they put that kitten in front of me at a pivotal moment. My place is really a form of glamping, without running water, but it’s very special to me. It connects me to nature…the silence actually wakes me up sometimes—the absence of white noise.
You grew up in Bellevue—how was this as a formative environment?
I think there’s a lot of misconception about Bellevue. The reality is that it was a great place to grow up, with many opportunities to be creative, explore, and to make. A lot of my early experiences included building tree forts, go-karts, skateboards and bongs. I had wonderful access to tools and was casting aluminum at 13—the ability to learn trades and to make things was fantastic. Reflecting back as an adult, Bellevue’s focus on wealth as the definition of how successful, smart, and important one is poisoned the well for me, and it took a long time to get past this. I went from wanting to be Howard Hughes to Marcel Duchamp.
Some very creative people have come from the Eastside—you, Chase Jarvis, and Alex Calderwood, to name a few. Why do you think that is?
One of the commonalities between us was that we were all privileged, not just from a wealth standpoint, but we all had safety nets. To this day I can afford to take risks because I know if whatever I’m doing fails, I can live with my mother or sister. A lot of people don’t have familial parachutes. In order to take risks, in order to be an artist or a real entrepreneur, you have to be comfortable with the idea of failure and the possibility of losing everything. If you don’t have a community or family who have your back, you’re less likely to take risks.
Are there any projects in beta mode that you can talk about?
Not in beta, but I’m currently building a 2000 pound kaleidoscope for Meta that will be completed in late July. It was inspired by an old kaleidoscope I found in a thrift shop in Georgetown. It was so magical, and it stimulated my brain in a cool way, and as a glass designer, it inspired me to make one. I went down a kaleidoscope rabbit hole and started creating them at a large-scale. The one I’m currently making is made of stainless steel and bronze, it has beautiful mechanics and a micro and macro experience, and the largest wheel is six-feet in diameter. The materials are next level. It was an opportunity that I couldn’t say no to, and I’m super excited about it.
What are you watching, reading or absorbing lately?
As a curator and artist, I think it’s really important to read the news, in its myriad manifestations and perspectives, to understand public opinion and the world around us. If I could choose a word of the year, it would be nuance. We live in a 280-character era that lacks nuance. But we also live in an exceptional time in American history and in the history of humanity.
What else are you thinking about?
Starting in the mid-90s I’ve continually recognized the potential of Seattle; it has all of the ingredients for a Paris in the ‘20s, New York in the ‘50s, or LA in the ‘70s moment. It has a what’s there to lose mentality that allows room for experimentation. I’ve been waiting a long time for Seattle to pop, to recognize its capacity to be a world class arts and culture leader. Remember Land of the Lost and its glowing rocks? When the rocks glowed, which was rare, they became portals back to the future. To my mind, at this time in Seattle, all the rocks are glowing. There’s so much opportunity and we need to seize it; it’s imperative that we take advantage of this moment.
Also, I believe that there are two worlds: one with magic and one without. In the last couple of years I’ve started to want to lay a foundation for a personal belief system, and my first step was to decide that I’d rather live in a world with magic. So, I made an internal proclamation that I believe in magic. I also believe in manifestation, and so a year ago, with a black Sharpie I wrote on a piece of paper “Make me an offer I can’t refuse” and stuck it on my refrigerator. It’s a message that guides every aspect in my life.
On June 12, five days before this conversation took place, a fire in the Madison Apartment building — home of Greg Lundgren’s Vito’s Seattle — caused catastrophic water damage to the restaurant, which is temporarily shuttered as a result. Essentially everything needs to be replaced, including the delicate velvet ceiling. Vito’s made it through the storm of the pandemic, retained all staff, and had just installed a new grand piano a week before. The restaurant was firing on all cylinders and was busier than they had ever been with reservations all summer until this devastating event. Contributions to the relief fund can be made here.
Greg Lundgren is a Seattle-based artist, author, filmmaker and entrepreneur. He founded Vital 5 Productions in 1995 as a vehicle to produce non-traditional art exhibition, theater, and film. His funeral monument business, Lundgren Monuments, was founded in 2004 and he later went on to start the Hideout, and Vitos. Lundgren has directed a film, has authored three books and won a Stranger Genius award in 2003.
[Photo by Chase Jarvis]