… So why is our marvelous maven under attack?
What should have been a celebrated appointment to the top spot at
the Office of Arts & Culture (OAC), has instead divided the Seattle
arts community; with establishment elites attacking the choice, while
grass-roots artists praise it.
At the center of the hostilities is Mayor Durkan’s installation of Royal
Alley-Barnes as Interim-Director of OAC, replacing recently departed
Randy Engstrom, who served in the role for over a decade. The complaint
from high-profile voices of the Arts Commission and two City
Council members is that the Mayor didn’t consult with the “right” people
prior to making her hiring decision. Sadly, the story is much more volatile
than that. At issue, that Royal Alley-Barnes will be the first African
American to hold the position, which lends to the controversy.
The Office of Arts & Culture is an off-shoot of the Arts Commission,
which was formed in 1971, having emerged from the shadow of the
Municipal Arts Commission. The original charter had a goal of supporting
historic preservation, resident performance groups, and the
creation of opera and ballet companies. Over the years the office continued
to evolve until it eventually grew large enough that it needed
better funding and management.
On November 18, 2002, Mayor Greg Nickels essentially split the Arts Commission, keeping the original volunteer committee, but adding
a new, heavily funded department called the Mayor’s Office of Arts &
Cultural Affairs (revised in 2013 to Office of Arts & Culture). As with
most government programs, the new department came with a hefty paycheck for the new Director position (currently $12,666.00 per month,
$152,000 per year).
HOW WE GOT HERE
In July 2020, as Seattle approached 50 years since the founding of the
Arts Commission, VIBRANT Entertainment & Arts Magazine began
planning our coverage of the momentous occasion. But as we looked
into the history of the Arts Commission and the Office of Arts & Culture,
we became concerned with what we discovered.
Unbelievably, VIBRANT found that in its 20-year existence, the Office of
Arts & Culture had never had a nonwhite Director. As we looked at the
July 2020 OAC staffing make-up, we discovered a tradition of only white-men holding the position.
As shocking as this revelation was, we were equally concerned to find
a lack of African-American men in OAC management positions anywhere
in the office. Our investigation concluded that as of July 2020, of
the 35 staff members, there was not a single African-American male in a
management-level/decision making role. When we questioned the office,
we were pointed to one African-American staffer who was listed as a
project-manager. As we all know, a project manager is not the same as
a department manager.
Armed with that info, VIBRANT Editor in Chief, David Toledo made an
appearance at the Arts Commission meeting; using the public comment
time to make a case for more diversity at the OAC executive level. Toledo made a public request that Randy Engstrom consider resigning his position, and that the Arts Commission join Toledo in petitioning the Mayor to appoint a BIPOC to fill the seat. The response from the Arts Commission was less than welcoming, culminating in a private (attempted) reprimand of
Toledo by Arts Commission co-Chairs. Toledo stood by his statement
that OAC leadership should reflect the city’s diversity.
Several months went by, and seeing no action on the subject, Toledo
wrote and submitted a resolution to the 34th District Dems, asking
for support in his call for a more diverse executive board at OAC.
With the help of 34th LD superstar Jordan Crawley, Toledo’s resolution
passed and was sent to Mayor Durkan. Additional supporters included
individual community leaders, arts advocates, and artists. Shortly after,
Engstrom resigned, leaving the seat open for a new appointment.
This resignation did not sit well with the cultural elites, who lashed out at those involved in the promotion of change in the office; furious that
outsiders would dare question their authority. This leads us to where we
are currently at ~ Arts Commissioners so entrenched in the establishment,
that they feel their authority should supersede the Mayor’s. Undoubtedly, it’s these same elitists who are now protesting the appointment
of Alley-Barnes, stating that the Mayor didn’t “consult the
arts community leaders,” as if these un-elected commissioners were the
sole voice of Seattle artists.
I’m sorry Commissioners, but you don’t speak for me or for most of
the artists that I know…
THE RIGHT CHOICE
Now that we’ve covered how the position became available, let’s talk
about why Royal Alley-Barnes is the right choice.
A simple look at her resume, and you know that Mayor Durkan made
an excellent decision in selecting Alley-Barnes as the Interim-Director
for the Offi ce of Arts & Culture.Alley-Barnes has served as the Executive Director of Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, as well as Acting-Director at the Woodland Park Zoo; along with mentoring and guiding many grassroots organizations and individuals.
Marie McCaffrey, Executive Director and founder of HistoryLink, said, “We could not have a better leader for the Offi ce of Arts and Culture than Royal Alley-Barnes. She brings a lifetime of commitment to the arts, culture, social justice, education, and the civic health of our community. Congratulations to Royal, and congratulations to us.”
Former King County Councilman Larry Gossett released a statement
saying, “There could not have been a more timely and superb selection
than Royal Alley-Barnes. She is an extremely talented and giving
artist in her own right. She has also managed a wide variety of major
City Projects for the Parks Department–Business and Contracts, Central Region Administration and assumed the duty of Directing the Woodland Park Zoo,” Gossett continued, “The words innovative managing consultant do not do justice to the number of local government agencies she has helped prepare for audits and/or helped develop unique budgeting strategies to save them large sums of money. Her middle name could be changed to “Innovator” and no one would blink an eye.”
Unfortunately, not everyone was as positive. As previously mentioned,
some of the loudest voices were in opposition of Alley-Barnes; two Seattle
Councilmembers, urged on by Arts Commission co-chair Clinton
Morris, issued statements critical of the appointment.The objections
by Morris seem to be based on bruised egos and emotions, and
totally disregard the skill set and resume that Alley-Barnes brings to
the table. Councilmember Teresa Morales stated, “I have been contacted by
many community members (Clinton Morris) who are very frustrated
by the lack of inclusion in the process.” Morales also said it
was her understanding that Mayor Durkan had not reached out to
the Arts Commission or the larger arts community before appointing
Royal Alley-Barnes, and that the appointment “runs the risk of
disrupting existing relationships and projects underway at Arts
This comment raised some eyebrows. What sort of backroom deals are being disrupted by the appointment of a new Director?
Council member Lorena Gonzalez added, “It would have been my hope that the Mayor would have fulfilled the commitments made to the Commission and broader arts community, in taking time to thoughtfully engage with commissioners and the broader arts community.”
VIBRANT readers would like to know which “commitments
will not be met,” and wonder if these council members are aware of the
previous interim director’s refusal to meet with some BIPOC lead art organizations, including Unified Outreach, whose request for a meeting in early 2021 was denied.
As we pointed out earlier, the hubris of the Arts Commission borders on
the absurd. The statement that the Mayor “failed to engage the broader
arts community,” is ludicrous, and shows the lack of understanding
and respect for grassroots arts organizations and the arts community
at large, which for the most part have no real voice at arts commission
Unified Outreach and VIBRANT Entertainment & Arts Magazine
enthusiastically stand behind Mayor Durkan’s decision to appoint Royal
Alley-Barnes to the Director seat at the Office of Arts & Culture. If you
agree that a city department with the word “Culture” in the title should
welcome the idea of diversity and equity in their leadership roles, then
we encourage you to call, email, or write to the Office of Arts & Culture,
and the offices of Council member Teresa Morales and Lorena Gonzalez.
Tell them that you are standing with Mayor Durkan, Royal Alley-
Barnes, and the REAL broader artist community of Greater Seattle
and King County.
We stand with you Royal Alley-Barnes! Make this your greatest