Seattle has long served as an incubator for artistic expression, birthing new musical genres and cultivating artists who have left indelible marks on pop culture. The city owes its success to intimate venues that foster local musical talent, like the arts organization Fremont Abbey, which has hosted music, visual arts, storytelling events and more at their venue for just over a decade.
The first thing you notice about Fremont Abbey is that it still looks like a church, complete with a sloped ceiling, dramatic windows, and vintage architectural details. A decade ago, Founding Executive Director Nathan Marion was booking shows at a venue across the street when he heard its owners were purchasing the abbey. He was immediately drawn to the opportunity to bring their plan for an artistic hub to life in such an awe-inspiring space, and committed to the organization as a volunteer even before it was fully formed.
“It’s a beautiful building, and it has so much potential that it was just screaming to be used by the community — and arts and music was a great fit,” Nathan says.
When you attend an event at Fremont Abbey, you are at once struck by how familiar it seems. And it’s that familiarity that makes each of the abbey’s events such a unique experience. From the early days, when Nathan was personally carrying chairs across the street to furnish the space, to the present, when the venue puts on more than 100 events a year, the welcoming tone has served as a thread of continuity. Nathan and his team have deliberately decorated the space with candles and homey accessories to create a relaxed, intimate atmosphere for the audience and the performers.
“We really want to make sure that people walk in and feel like there is a safe space, whether they’re an artist just trying to bare their soul or a young person who’s attending a show and isn’t quite sure what’s going to happen,” Nathan says.
Keeping shows limited to 100 to 200 people also helps. Nathan bases his audience size loosely on a scientific principle which assumes that people are most likely to feel comfortable around groups of 150 or fewer, when they are best able to perceive each of their fellow concert-goers as individuals, and not as a single crowd. This fosters audiences who experience the events in the moment, rather than through their mobile screens.
“The people feel like they’re a part of it. They’re connected, and they’re in the experience with the musicians. We need those moments [of] being up close to the music and to the art,” Nathan says. “That real-life connection… that’s hard to find.”
This sense of connectedness translates to a respectful, appreciative experience for the artists as well — artists who later pass the word along to their performer friends. So far, both the abbey’s performance roster and audience have been built primarily through word of mouth, and many of the early performers have gone on to make names for themselves on the national stage after fine-tuning their acts in the sanctuary of the abbey. The organization’s evolution has been almost entirely organic – a natural outpouring of a music scene that is known for its inclusiveness in a tough industry.
But even though Fremont Abbey is the place to go for small shows, its brand of emerging and sometimes experimental talent showcased in a safe, inviting space has led to rapid growth for the organization. Abbey Arts events currently operate out of three outposts in the Seattle area, and total attendance blossomed to more than 32,000 people last year.
One of their most popular events is a recurring, multidisciplinary show called The Round. As songwriters and bands perform original songs, visual artists and other talent improvise their own art alongside the main stage, drawing audiences into a truly immersive storytelling experience. It takes the traditional notion of a concert and elevates it, giving audiences an experience that transcends the everyday and occasionally approaches the transformative.
Because out-of-the-box events like The Round have made the abbey so successful, both as an organization and a venue, the owners of other unique spaces across the country now consult Nathan and his team in the hopes of replicating their model. If mimicry is the best form of flattery, it also speaks to the value of their mission and the reach of their influence.
In that vein, Fremont Abbey is more than an arts organization. It is one of the creative undercurrents of a bustling city, inspiring and connecting the community through art.
Welcome to Seattle.
We explored the artists and art spaces of Seattle at the wheel of the 2016 Lincoln MKX, a performance space in its own right. Learn more about the MKX and its Revel audio system here.