Independent Venue Week: Tacoma

Features, Local Music
Martin Douglas
Real Art Tacoma // photo by Abby J Kok

Overlooked in the past as a viable stop for national touring groups, Seattle’s sister city to the south has in the past few years become not only a growing epicenter for live music in the Northwest but has remained the home turf for a slew of remarkable South Sound bands. Its long-running spots such as Jazzbones and New Frontier are joined by newer venues like Alma Mater Tacoma to keep the city bustling with great musical acts. Tacoma has always been a proud city with a rich music and arts culture, and the fact there are more spaces being opened every year to support it only helps the city as a whole.

“Tacoma’s growing every day. I think the live music scene is going to continue to get better,” says Rachel Hogan, Manager of Jazzbones.

2803 6th Avenue, Tacoma, WA 98406

Alma Mater Tacoma
1322 Fawcett Avenue, Tacoma, WA 98402

Real Art Tacoma
5412 South Tacoma Way, Tacoma, WA 98409

A short interview with Jean-Pierre Garcia, Program Director for Real Art Presents

KEXP: What was the impetus of opening Real Art Tacoma? Do you think there was a void in the city's music scene before you opened your doors?

Jean-Pierre Garcia: Tom Long, the sole remaining original leaseholder, says the five original leaseholders wanted to bring all ages music back to Tacoma. 

When Red Room closed -- house venues were often the only options for young fans to play and enjoy music. There wasn't much else that was accessible to all ages events. From 2007-2010, the venue was called The Viaduct which hosted many all ages DIY hardcore & punk shows and was helmed by organizers of Rainfest: a hardcore festival that was nationally recognized. When the original space for Viaduct was available to rent, the leaseholders considered it a no-brainer to return to 5412 S. Tacoma Way. The current business license still uses the Viaduct name.  

Real Art's namesake is a movie theatre (built in 1919, open in 1920) until 1961 when it was converted into a dance hall across the street. Our logo is based on the marquee. Every step of the way each of the five leaseholders had a specific intention in mind: "Give young people space to exist." Each brought their own expertise from booking and promoting shows on the festival scale and within house venues, clothing retail, screen printing, business and tax law. Each person on the project either performed or was involved with local music and art in Tacoma within some capacity. To build community and maintain a steady exchange of experience and expertise passed down from each generation of artists, bills were booked intentionally to include new artists -- often from marginalized groups including but not limited to womxn, young artists of color, artists from the LGBTQ+ community. All ages events did have a void within city limits. Real Art opened its doors to serve that need of providing access and experience for the next generation of artists. 

What was the best show you've seen at the venue?

Our best shows embody our values of providing space for young people to exist right alongside experienced acts. Bills that have done this include:

1. Car Seat Headrest w/ Naked Giants 
2. Tacocat w/ Black Belt Eagle Scout, Cat Puke, Baja Boy
3. Caspar Babypants
4. Kimya Dawson’s screening of the film Torrey Pines. (Dawson was also on the soundtrack.)
5. Tres Leches, The Hugs, Another Perfect Crime, Forest Dogs, Still January
6. Blueface
7. KGRG FM Benefit Show: Marrowstone, The Home Team, Honest Iago, Regress, Dream Ring
8. Tacoma Girls Rock Camp Benefit Show: Dummy, Cool Schmool, The Morning After, Cape Nowhere
9. Beyond Thunderdome: Mangchi
10. Blue Avenue, Merivida, Dream Ring, Long Distance Operator
With many Seattle artists moving to its sister city to the south, do you think Tacoma is a growing environment for people to see great live music?

We think Tacoma is a growing environment for live music, regardless of where the residents are from. The measure that was passed by taxpayers last November for Tacoma Creates is a good indicator for what's to come when a city decides to fund arts programming. We have benefited from artists and promoters who want to book beyond Seattle. Tours have consistently emailed us since the very beginning. However, that shift in focus and pressure for gentrification is something in which we are very concerned -- there is a campaign that can be heard from Tacoma residents "keep Tacoma feared" so as not to displace low-income residents. It becomes almost a double-edged sword. We do want to remain attractive and make room for marginalized groups so no one is crowded out.  

There is a lot of history and culture regarding this city and its neighborhoods which is why when we tell our story and book acts we have a strong focus on keeping it local to the city itself. 

With other venues contributing to this scene as well we have noticed an uptick in representation from touring agencies that no longer treat this city simply as a tertiary market but part of the overall greater Seattle-Tacoma market. We do get a lot of volunteers who have recently moved to the city looking for a new place to meet like-minded creatives and fans of music and art. Not all are artists themselves. 

What does Real Art do differently from other venues in the city that you've noticed?
Everyone from door volunteers, to sound tech, to leaseholders, to artists we book are on the same page because we have maintained a specific mission. 

We have built a culture where it is largely understood that we have no tolerance for hate, bigotry or harassment.   

When we do orientations when we email our policies to acts we are very clear about our expectations in how to provide a safer space for everyone to enjoy. Its a large reason why we are drug and alcohol-free.  
When we say we serve all ages, we truly mean it. We get whole families in the audience from grandparents to toddlers. 

We also bookend in-town locals. We are very clear about having Tacoma artists opening and/or closing for one compelling reason: proximity.

When it comes to playing to the home crowd, we want artists from here in town. We want people to show up and people to stick around. Our biggest task is to encourage would-be music fans to venture out. Instead of commuting to Seattle, finding parking and then having to come back, we make it that much easier for locals to enjoy work by locals. Practically speaking this also helps a ton with our load-in and sound checks so "I was stuck in traffic" can't be used as an excuse. We all know how terrible I-5 is.

Real Art Tacoma is supported by businesses within the building. There are multiple stores and services that contribute to our revenue stream. There has been a recent change with new leaseholder Ron Pittman with Makin' Music on board. Pittman's contributions have completely restructured and remodeled the place to be much more successful. In the beginning, we had a few other businesses like screen printing and record sales but now -- finally implementing the coffee shop (a dream from the beginning) and a barbershop -- with each stakeholder contributing to the success of the building brings overhead costs down immensely. Without it we struggled immensely. 

We also have a big focus on training internships. From Northwest College of Art and Design, SOTA, Next Move Tacoma, PLU, Charles Wright Academy, and more, we work closely one-on-one with each of our volunteers.   

Lastly we ask for feedback. Each artist and volunteer tells us what went well and what we can do better, every night. This is a welcome relief when some artists and volunteers [at other venues] are kicked to the curb without so much as a thank you for coming. This has helped artist and volunteer retention greatly. Everyone wants to be a part of a community that values their input.  

Where do you see Tacoma's live music scene in five years?

The original lease was a five-year lease in 2015. Working with young locals and seeing a concentrated effort from City Hall, we can hope that the mechanisms to keep this music scene sustainable are enacted and maintained. We see more workshops and community gatherings to make this more a priority with everyone contributing to a better future rather than just wishful thinking. 

We hope to continue having mixed media events. Moving beyond music but also hands-on activities, poster-making, printing, poetry readings and more. We want to invite more non-profits and causes to table our events to specifically fill needs we have within the city. Even more music camp partnerships, internships and training. The biggest opportunity is also pairing with mental health resources. There is a lot of hurt in our community and not a whole lot of access. By offering space, we hope we can make even bigger strides for healing and catharsis. 

Having a do-it-yourself mentality applies to all aspects of our lives. The more we realize what we are able to offer this scene, the more we all benefit and flourish. 

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