At the beginning of this month Push/Pull, the beloved Ballard art gallery/zine shop/weirdo art community/event space, put out a call for help. On a GoFundMe page, Push/Pull organizers admitted that though the gallery is "going strong this year," the organization's first few lean years left them "behind on paying our taxes." Though Push/Pull was in talks with Washington state to set up a payment plan, they suddenly discovered that the state "had withdrawn all of our money out of our checking account," leaving Push/Pull unable to pay this month's rent.
In a matter of hours, the community came together and raised the $6000 that Push/Pull needed to survive. "We did meet the goal of our campaign and paid rent without our landlords noticing anything, which was all good," Push/Pull Director Maxx Follis-Goodkind told us over email. Additionally, Follis-Goodkind says, Push/Pull "paid off the oldest of our tax debt to the state and should be able to manage the rest."
It's a happy ending, but it's not the whole story. "Essentially, our business is doing OK now," Follis-Goodkind explains, "but hasn't been making quite enough surplus to catch up to when we weren't doing OK." The six thousand dollars raised in the GoFundMe, she explains, "was about half of the debt we had, so extra funds are still going directly to that."
Seattle is a virtual graveyard of failed attempts to create artistic communities. Push/Pull is a rare success story — a community of cartoonists and artists and zinemakers and assorted freaks and nerds and romantics who came together to claim a piece of Seattle as their own. "When we opened in Ballard, almost 4 years ago now, we had one modest rack of artist published comic-zines," Follis-Goodkind says. "Now we carry hundreds of indie comics from all over the world. At our board meetings we talk about being not just a part of the local community, but also being a part of the global community."
She says Push/Pull has achieved relative stability through an equal mixture of "careful planning" and "jumping into the unknown."
During Push/Pull's first two years, Follis-Goodkind explains, "our monthly sales rarely, if ever, reached a 'sustainable' point." Most entrepreneurs, she thinks, "would have abandoned things" during those first lean years.
But by tinkering with commission rates, acquiring small loans, and figuring out the right mix of art classes and events, the gallery began to find its people. By Push/Pull's third year, she says, "things started to dramatically turn around. Partnerships with Emerald Comics Distro, Silver Sprocket, and other community leaders has been a key to building the support system that we needed," and as a result "we finally achieved the magic number we needed to break even with sales last year."
This year, Push/Pull's sales will likely surpass its expenses. But nobody's making millions off the endeavor, Follis-Goodkind warns. "We still don't have paid employees and if we did, we wouldn't be here. Artists are members and work the desk because they are committed to the mission," she says. It's a co-op model that requires volunteers to keep the lights on — a virtuous cycle of artists helping artists.
"It sounds discouraging, but at the same time I've been able to work full-time in arts since the beginning of the year, directly due to my work at Push/Pull," Follis-Goodkind says. "We've also had many success stories for artists that have been and currently are members."
So though the crisis has been averted, Follis-Goodkind says, Push/Pull would welcome your contributions to the GoFundMe. "Anything else we raise will go to the debt and helps us stabilize. We'll get started on a payment plan with the state next month and paying off more now means that we won't be quite so stretched thin," she explains.
But the rent has been paid, so "in the meantime, we're operating as usual," she says. Push/Pull is preparing for a fall launch of the first of seven titles from Push/Pull Press; the full program of classes and events is happening as usual, including a robust schedule of education for teens; and the usual mix of comics and art is available for sale.
At a time when arts organizations are struggling to keep the lights on, Follis-Goodkind says Push/Pull was "really amazed at the quick support that we got from the community" when the gallery sent up a warning flare. It was a real-life It's a Wonderful Life moment, when the community that Push/Pull fostered was more than happy to return the favor. After four years of consistent growth, the gallery is now preparing to build toward a more sustainable future.