Interview with the Department of Safety

Outside the Department of Safety, 2005. Courtesy the Department of Safety.

Outside the Department of Safety, 2005. Courtesy the Department of Safety.

The Department of Safety is an artist run center in Anacortes, Washington, a small town on an island midway between Seattle and Vancouver. Housed in the town’s former police and fire station, DoS maintains a music venue, art gallery, recording studio, and residency program. I corresponded with Azure Akamay who, with Laura Wing and Matthew Spencer, answered my questions about life at the DoS.

Bryce Dwyer: Can you describe the relationship between residents and administrators at the Department of Safety?

Department of Safety: The Department of Safety is run by the volunteer resident workers who live in the building. At any time, there are between 4 and 8 workers administering the programming and generally taking care of business. The DoS was founded as an artist-run organization in 2002 and continues to operate in this way. There is no paid staff. The workers subsidize the Artist in Residence (AIR) program with their own rent and volunteer efforts. The selected resident artist lives and works alongside the other people who live and run the DoS. Some residents have chosen to become very involved in other aspects of DoS. Some have been more focused only on their specific creative project. Participation in the community is inevitable and delightful, especially since Anacortes is a small town and there aren’t many people in town who are interested in weird and contemporary creative projects. The artists-in-residence definitely become integrated into the overall project that is the Department of Safety and some artists, after their residencies, have continued to be involved in the DoS (though, this is not an all an expectation).

BD: What is the physical facility like?

DoS: The Department of Safety is housed in Anacortes’ old police and fire station. It is a big concrete building that was built in 1952 and the architecture is very much of that era. The plumbing is temperamental. The venue is cold in the winter. The building is powerful in both magical and harsh, always. We are always fixing it. There are mysterious artifacts left over from the years when it was inhabited by police officers and firefighters. We love the building. The hallway’s acoustics are incredible and some important albums have been recorded in them.

The downstairs of the building is where most of the public activities take place—it includes an all-ages music venue, an art gallery, a recording studio, a zine and small press library, screen printing facilities, a media screening room, and personal studio spaces. The upstairs is the more domestic/private part of the building—it includes the bedrooms of the resident-workers who run the DoS, a living room and dining area, as well as a shared kitchen and bathroom facilities. Artists-in-residence are provided a furnished bedroom as well as a private studio space.

The building is located on the only main intersection of downtown Anacortes and is in walking distance to basically the entire town, including grocery stores, hardware stores, thrift stores, restaurants, and the Pacific Ocean.

BD: In general, what kinds of work do residents make?

DoS: Emerging artists practicing in all media are encouraged to apply. We are interested in installation and performance and tangible art objects and documentation and ideas. Artists who are chosen as residents at the Department of Safety, at the end of their 3-month residency will exhibit their work in some way. AIRs are encouraged to create work within the confines of the gallery in a site-specific installation and/or work in the adjacent spaces. Any thoughtful use of space will be considered and it is important for applicants to understand the context for which they are creating. This is not to discourage traditional art practitioners from applying, but we want individuals to think about context.

BD: Have many of your residents done residencies before? What kind of “professional” experiences have they had before coming to the Department of Safety?

DoS: Some have had extensive professional experience with residencies and international exhibitions, etc., and some have never done a residency before. We think of our program as an opportunity for artists who are pre- and post-MFA, but we are also interested in artists who have taken different approaches. We love weird new ideas. We are more interested in compelling and original proposals than impressive art resumes but also, our program is relatively selective and successful applicants have been artists whose portfolios demonstrate a certain amount of self-awareness of practice.

BD: Can you describe Anacortes and how the DoS functions within it?

DoS: Anacortes is a small town on a small island in Skagit County in northwest Washington state. There are miles of trails through forests. Orca whales live here and there is the best lake swimming in the entire world. There is a rope factory and a 24-hour donut house. Living here, you sometimes feel like you are inside Twin Peaks. You have to love that kind of romance to love living here. When you are downtown, you are almost always in view of two epic oil refineries. The culture is a combination of maritime, small town, and retiree. There are very few young people here, and the audience for the kind of music and art programming we do at the DoS is minimal. It is honestly a miracle that the Department of Safety has continued to thrive here for 7+ years. It is always a struggle. But there is something vital and relevant in the attempt.

Anacortes is known as an “arty” town and is proud of its support of the arts. The Department of Safety doesn’t quite know how it fits into this. We have worked hard to develop a positive relationship with city officials. We are constantly working on how to translate what we are doing to the culture of the town. There are good people here. The DoS has gone through periods of being very meaningful to local high school students and the way we relate to high schoolers in town is something we think about. In some ways, the DoS is more well-known in London than it is in the Skagit Valley.

Applications for the Department of Safety’s next residency period, beginning next February, are due October 22nd. For more information on applying, see their website.

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