How to Seattle: Arts & Culture

Only in Seattle can you scream in a museum and dance to Robyn at church.

by Stranger Staff

Amazon. Grunge. Weed. Coffee. Visual art is probably pretty low on the list of things for which Seattle is known. And what a shame. Because Seattle’s art scene isn’t under a spotlight like New York or Los Angeles, artists here aren’t afraid to get a little weird, to take risks. Seattle’s best art spaces and installations are immersive and interactive. They invite you to join in—to touch, explore, gather, and scream your face off. (In more than one instance, actually!)

Stop Sleeping on Seattle’s Best Art Collection at the Seattle Asian Art Museum

Capitol Hill

The Seattle Asian Art Museum is one of the city’s most underrated assets. Previously closed for a three-year restoration, they set their reopening date just in time for the world to collapse into a pandemic. Since society is (sort of) back up and running, it’s time to visit this must-see collection. The gallery features a wide range of historic to contemporary art that is expertly curated, intermingling art from across different regions and time periods to compare and contrast overarching themes. There are countless brilliant and moving pieces in their permanent and rotating collections. See it now, lest it close again for upcoming seismic reasons. (NICO SWENSON)

Scream Your Fucking Face Off at the Seattle Art Museum

Downtown

When strolling through the Seattle Art Museum, you’ll likely hear bloodcurdling screams echoing throughout the galleries. As you make your way past the startled docents through the museum’s new “recontextualized” American art collection, you’ll find those screams emanating from a little room featuring big neon letters that read: “I’VE COMPOSED A NEW AMERICAN NATIONAL ANTHEM / TAKE A KNEE AND SCREAM UNTIL YOU CAN’T BREATHE.” On the floor, a grid of “Daisy Doormats” provides an ironic pad for your knees. The score and padding come courtesy of Nicholas Galanin’s Neon American Anthem (white). In the piece, Galanin, a multidisciplinary artist with Tlingit and Unangax̂ ancestry who works out of Alaska, ironically pairs the last words of so many Black victims of police brutality with the sunny products of capitalism and patriotism, offering viewers a chance to scream in defiance of those systems and, for some, prove loud and clear that they’re still here despite the odds this country stacks against them. (RICH SMITH)

Don’t Kick the Pigeons at Pioneer Square’s First Thursday Art Walk

Pioneer Square

Once a month, Seattleites flock to the streets in Pioneer Square for a chance to stroll, sip on booze, and attend as many art openings as possible at First Thursday. It’s the city’s central and oldest art walk and takes place in a historic neighborhood known for its abundance of galleries. Free wine, cheese, and hobnobbing steal the scene for some, but at its core, it’s an impressive communal unveiling of new artwork. A few favorites include Greg Kucera Gallery, J. Rinehart Gallery, Stonington Gallery, SOIL, and Railspur, a “micro-district” specializing in contemporary pop art. A warning to first-timers: Pioneer Square’s pigeons DO NOT GIVE A FUCK. Those dummies prioritize whatever garbage they’re pecking at over their safety, and they have, through generations of pigeon evolution, adapted to humans walking around them. Watch where you step. (STRANGER STAFF)

Investigate Neukom Vivarium with a Magnifying Glass at Olympic Sculpture Park

Belltown

Mark Dion’s Neukom Vivarium. Courtesy of Olympic Sculpture Park

At the corner of Broad Street and Elliott Avenue in Belltown, a low-lit glass greenhouse shelters a living installation. Mark Dion’s biosystem Neukom Vivarium is built on the foundation of a Western hemlock “nurse log,” a fallen tree from the Green River watershed that now serves as a growing site for young native plants. Sword ferns, deciduous huckleberry, and even spruce trees have sprouted from the log, creating an intricate ecosphere. The entire project emphasizes just how complicated it is to support natural life, and it’s not necessarily meant to evoke warm fuzzies. It’s more of a memento mori work. (Dion told Art21, “This piece is in some way perverse. It shows that, despite all of our technology Neukom Vivarium and money, when we destroy a natural system, it’s virtually impossible to get it back.”) (LINDSAY COSTELLO)

Soak in Seattle’s History at the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center

North Delridge

The history of the Duwamish people is the history of Seattle, and it’s an essential one. Duwamish Tribal Services, which has fought for the Duwamish people to be recognized as a tribe at both federal and state levels for decades, runs the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center at the mouth of the Duwamish River in South Seattle. The space was a collaboration between the Duwamish and architect Byron Barnes of Montana’s Blackfeet tribe in the style of a traditional Puget Salish longhouse. A gathering space, cultural center, and gallery, the Longhouse serves as a hub for the indigenous community that does incredible work for its members and for the Duwamish River Valley, where Duwamish Tribal Services lead environmental restoration, education initiatives, and so much more. (KATHLEEN TARRANT)

Spend a Whole Day Exploring the Central Library

Downtown

Central Library’s Red Floor. CODY MARTIN

There’s a free museum downtown boasting works by George Tsutakawa, Ann Hamilton, Tony Oursler, Lynne Yamamoto, and Frank Okada, and you can explore it floor by floor with a self-guided tour map. Thing is, the museum is actually Central Library, which is better, in my opinion, because you can leave with free books. Culture!!! If I were you, I’d make a day of it—start on level 1 to scope Tsutakawa and Hamilton’s works, then move up to level 4 for a truly eerie experience on the Red Floor, which is bloodied with 13 shades of red paint on the walls, ceiling, floors, and stairs. Jump up to level 10, the highest public viewpoint in the library, to spot Yamamoto and Okada pieces among collections of local Seattle history. (LINDSAY COSTELLO)

Ask “Is the Room Spinning or Is She?” at the Pink Door

Pike Place Market

The Pink Door is a classy Italian restaurant tucked into Pike Place Market. There is no signage, just a (you guessed it) pink door in an alley. I’m convinced that a table at the Pink Door is the hardest reservation to get in this town—especially on Saturdays and Tuesdays. Saturdays make sense, but Tuesdays?? It’s because there are aerialists who perform basically right above the tables on Saturdays and Tuesdays. It’s incredible. You can sip a negroni, eat clam pasta, and watch a sexy performance happening IN THE AIR. All of it feels like you’re in a time when circus performers were celebrities and the best party in town was at a table directly below a woman spinning in a large ring. (RACHEL STEVENS)

Play With Pop Culture at MoPOP

Seattle Center

Star Trek Central at MoPOP. COURTESY OF MOPOP

Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP, formerly known as the Experience Music Project) is filled with interesting nerd matters about rock ‘n’ roll music (the only major art form that routinely denies being an art form), science fiction, games, and such like. In any other city, MoPOP would be a cherished weirdo sanctuary. In Seattle, it’s a problem because it was started by Paul Allen, who was a local billionaire. Don’t be deterred. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll like it a lot. (SEAN NELSON)

See a Show—Literally Any Show—at On the Boards

Uptown

The city’s home for all things contemporary performance is basically never a bad idea—forward thinkers like Nia-Amina Minor, Anna Luisa Petrisko, Jaha Koo, Will Rawls, and Takahiro Yamamoto have woven liminal narratives there in recent years, and the performance roster is always stacked. With modest beginnings renting space at Washington Hall from then-owners the Sons of Haiti, OtB has expanded into the Behnke Center for Contemporary Performance, its current Uptown location, with consistently sold-out spectacles of improvisational dance, experimental drag, and more. Head there to stretch your perceptions. (LINDSAY COSTELLO) 

Sweat It Out at Dance Church

Various locations

Dance Church immediately inspires curiosity with its culty name, which was coined when Seattle dancers Kate Wallich and Lavinia Vago started a small Sunday morning dance party in 2010. Today, that humble gathering has blossomed into a full-fledged movement with a presence in six cities and an online streaming platform. A professional dancer leads the group in loose choreography to an upbeat pop soundtrack, and participants are encouraged to move their bodies joyfully. There’s just something ineffably cathartic about being crammed in a room with 200 sweaty strangers, grooving your heart out to “Call Your Girlfriend”—devotees report being moved to tears, especially at the end when the collective clasps hands together in a circle. Frankly, I can’t imagine a better endorphin-fueled start to a weekend morning. (JULIANNE BELL)

Prioritize the Chocolate Popcorn at SIFF Cinema Downtown

Downtown

Chocolate popcorn! Ashley Kim

Seattle’s Cinerama theater—one of the only Cinerama theaters left in the country—finally reopened its doors in December after abruptly closing in February 2020. Late billionaire Paul Allen famously saved the theater from demolition in the late ’90s and spent millions of bucks restoring it to its mid-century glory. Local film org SIFF bought the theater from Allen’s estate in 2023, and while rights to the Cinerama name were not a part of the sale—hence the new basic bitch moniker—SIFF was at least able to bring back the famous chocolate popcorn, for which Cinerama was loved. It makes the whole theater smell like hot Cocoa Puffs! Get a 50/50 mix of chocolate and buttered popcorn and swear off seeing movies in any other chocolate-popcornless theater again. (MEGAN SELING)

Worship, You Heathens, at St. Mark’s Cathedral

Capitol Hill

Seattle is thankfully the least religious “large metro area in the US,” and I count myself among its godless horde. But I do know beauty and pleasure when I see it and hear it, and watching robed choristers singing ancient songs of devotion into the echoing chambers of St. Mark’s Cathedral counts as one of the more beautiful and pleasurable experiences this city—and this life—has to offer. The Compline Choir, as they’re called, sings for half an hour every Sunday at 9:30 pm, unless that Sunday falls on Christmas. Despite its holy environs, it’s a real casual community affair. People lay out blankets on the altar, stare up at the huge timber pillars holding up the gorgeous and accidentally postmodern building, and listen to the voices of heaven quiet the week. (RICH SMITH)

Educate the Masses All Over the City

Various locations

On a hot girl walk around a neighborhood of single-family homes you’ll never be able to afford, you will likely stumble across a Little Free Library. Personally, I have never borrowed from such a library, not because I don’t want to, but because it’s always some Nora Roberts shit. Start putting communist propaganda in those things! I want to see handmade zines and pamphlets and annotated copies of The Communist Manifesto. (HANNAH KRIEG)

Then Educate Yourself at Town Hall

First Hill

I’ve lost count of how many events I’ve seen at Town Hall over the years, but one thing I do know: Every time I leave, I leave smarter than when I arrived. Just this year, I heard the brilliant Hanif Abdurraqib discuss his approach to pop culture criticism (be curious, not cynical!) and listened in while Sloane Crosley talked about life and death and her latest book, Grief Is for People, with Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie. Town Hall’s summer calendar is stacked with intellectual superstars, too, including Miranda July, the Bushwick Book Club performing music inspired by Moby Dick, and Kathleen Hanna in conversation with celebrated local author (and former Stranger writer!) Lindy West. (MEGAN SELING)

Shut Up at Read at a Silent Reading Party

First Hill

Shut up and read. COURTESY OF the SILENT READING PARTY

Invented by a former editor at The Stranger, the reading party takes place every first and third Wednesday of the month at 7:30 pm. The Fireside Room at the Sorrento Hotel goes quiet and fills with people. Everyone brings whatever they feel like reading and sits there and reads, silently, to themselves, while waiters bring them things and Paul Matthew Moore plays piano softly and exquisitely. He’s amazing. You can reserve a seat at silentreadingparty.com. (RICH SMITH)

Find Your Inner Pinball Wizard at the Seattle Pinball Museum

Chinatown–International District

 

 
 

 
 

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Twenty-three bucks gets you unlimited play at the best all-ages gaming space in all of Seattle, and its 50-plus pins spread the wealth between historical relics, flashy ‘80s tables, and the modern-day pinball resurgence. I recommend the rock ‘n’ roll table playlist: Guns N’ Roses, KISS, Wizard! (featuring The Who), and not one but two Elton John tables. Tip: The SPM is kind of cramped, so don’t be afraid to take a break after 30–45 minutes, enjoy nearby International District delights (boba tea, dim sum, those amazing Korean hot dogs on a stick), and come back (re-entry is free) refreshed and ready for more Elton-themed pinball. If you’re over 21, you have additional options with drinks and games at Seattle’s four best arcade bars: Coindexter’s (Greenwood), Jupiter Bar (Belltown), Add-a-Ball (Fremont), and Time Warp (Capitol Hill). Each has unique, cool shit to play; if you need our prodding, we’re big fans of the weird Bishi Bashi cabs at Coindexter’s. (SAM MACHKOVECH)

Bliss Out (Or Have an Existential Crisis) in the James Turrell Skyspace at the Henry Art Gallery

University District

Light Reign by James Turrell. Photo by Lara Swimmer

Light Reign was unveiled to the public more than 20 years ago, so if you haven’t spent a few moments meditating in the Henry’s permanent illuminated work, you’re long overdue. Everyone from Quakers to artists and performers have made use of the space, which the light-loving artist James Turrell designed with minimalist bench seating and an aperture-like oculus in the ceiling, revealing a hint of sky. When there’s rain or snow in the forecast, a dome rolls into place over the oculus and emits a celestial glow. The Skyspace’s frosted glass perimeter is also programmed with LED lights that shift in color throughout the day. For heightened effect, Light Reign is a piece to form a relationship with—I recommend visiting once a season to see how your experience shifts. (LINDSAY COSTELLO)

Catch an Indie Flick at One of Seattle’s Many Art House Theaters

Various locations

Seattle is truly a bounty of riches if you’re wanting to go see a film that you likely wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else. The Northwest Film Forum (NWFF) has a whole bunch of thoughtful programming, films both old and new, and some lovely little theaters in which to experience these exciting cinematic visions. The historic Grand Illusion is still kicking ass on a single screen while navigating tough times—they show everything from inventive new works to classic genre fare and beyond. Then there is the Beacon, which also operates with a single screen and boundless imagination, often showing films that fit week- or month-long themes. You truly can’t go wrong with any of these distinct gems. (CHASE HUTCHINSON)

How many things on our list have you done? Download a free PDF of our checklist to keep track!


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