After nine years that began with a dramatic financial rescue, the executive director of one of Seattle's most cherished arts institutions...

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After nine years that began with a dramatic financial rescue, the executive director of one of Seattle’s most cherished arts institutions is stepping down.

Michael Herschensohn, who took the helm of Northwest Folklife in 1998, is leaving at the end of the year. His replacement, Robert Townsend, begins in January.

Northwest Folklife produces the free Northwest Folklife Festival at Seattle Center over four days on Memorial Day weekend.

“I decided last spring that I was 66, and that was old enough,” said Herschensohn. “Time to pass the baton and let Folklife go into the 21st century with new blood.”

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Herschensohn was originally hired on a one-year contract to help the organization pay off a $450,000 debt. After the first year, he was asked to stay on.

Through intense fundraising and programming cuts, Herschensohn helped retire the debt, though it took several years. One of his other lasting legacies is the enhancement of revenues from “donation stations” established at Seattle Center gates the year before he came on. Under his direction, proceeds rose from $20,000 to $340,000 per festival.

To save money and focus the organization, Herschensohn also eliminated Folklife’s education in the schools programs; the festival directory; and the World Market, a holiday sales event.

“I sometimes think my legacy will be, ‘Look at all the things he canceled,’ ” Herschensohn quipped.

In 2006, he and the festival received the Mayor’s Arts Award.

Because much of Folklife’s $1.5 million budget derives from four days each year, the organization still finds itself on something of a financial roller coaster. Thanks to three days of rain last Memorial Day weekend, Herschensohn is leaving Folklife with $167,000 of new debt, according to board President Margo Reich.

The failure to institute year-round programs to compensate for such potential losses had become a growing source of conflict between Herschensohn and the board and remains a challenge for the organization.

Herschensohn says his plans at the moment include no new job, but lots of travel — to Hawaii, China, Korea and France.

Townsend, his successor, directed a free community Shakespeare festival in St. Louis and has an arts management background. He has never attended the Northwest Folklife Festival.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or

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