A couple of weeks ago at Seattle City Hall, Kathleen O’Toole was being grilled by city officials on her background, her beliefs and what exactly would make her a good police chief.
But across the street, Kate Becker was happily ensconced as the new head of Seattle’s Office of Film and Music (OFM) — a job she received with little scrutiny.
Becker is, as they say, a known quantity.
She was already on the city payroll, having been hired by former Mayor Mike McGinn in April 2013 to work on nightlife, marijuana and I-502 implementation policy.
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And before that, she was a familiar face in the arts community, as director of development at the Seattle Theatre Group (STG). She came to STG after running The Vera Project and founding the Old Fire House Teen Center in Redmond — two places where the region’s kids learned to create, perform and produce music.
So everyone knew what they were getting with Becker — and why her Twitter handle is @downtownkate.
“I’m running a mile a minute,” Becker said recently, sitting in her favorite conference room on the Seattle Municipal Tower’s 52nd floor. “There are lots of familiar faces and lots of new faces, and everyone has been so welcoming.”
Out the window, you could see the north face of Mount Rainier, and on a huge poster behind Becker, the face of Aberdeen, Kurt Cobain.
But we couldn’t talk about Becker’s new job without talking about James Keblas, the man who held the office before her, and who was dismissed by Mayor Ed Murray in February, shortly after he took office.
It was Murray’s right, but the move kicked up a storm of protest in the film and music communities, who went as far as petitioning the mayor to reinstate Keblas.
What most people didn’t know is that Becker had been asked to apply for the job years before but was dealing with a family crisis. She wrote a letter recommending Keblas to Mayor Greg Nickels.
Nine years later, and 48 hours after Keblas’ ouster, Becker was in.
Not long after, some 200 music and film folks gathered at the St. John’s Bar and Eatery on Pike Street to voice their concerns about Keblas’ departure. Though she hadn’t been invited, Becker made her way through the capacity crowd to tell them that all would be well and that she was listening.
It seems to have calmed jangled nerves.
“They have laid down their pitchforks and been so embracing,” she said of local producers and editors. “There’s not a lot of negative feedback.”
Rather, there is an agenda in place to build up the film and music community to compete with Vancouver, B.C., and Oregon for business through something called Commercial Seattle (started by Keblas), and a partnership with Washington Film Works.
“We are surrounded by hard competition,” she said. “Vancouver has sound stages and is handsomely supported by the Canadian government. Portland has sound stages and a $10 million state incentive.”
In other words, Becker’s work is cut out for her.
“We are interested in fortifying the film and music industry to ensure filmmakers and musicians can succeed in the city,” Becker said. “Our scenery and our creative class are often enough to pull production here.”
It’s been sporadic, at best, since “Northern Exposure” was filmed here some 20 years ago.
That is changing already. This summer, Seattle is hosting its first big feature production in several years. “Captain Fantastic,” directed by Matt Ross, stars Viggo Mortensen as a father who has raised his six children off the grid in the Pacific Northwest wilderness and has to assimilate them into society.
The production comes just after the city celebrated the Seattle International Film Festival and the premiere of local director Megan Griffiths’ latest, “Lucky Them,” an independent film starring Toni Collette — and employing plenty of locals.
Becker relished it not only as the new head of the Office of Film and Music, but as someone who has worked and socialized in these circles for decades. She’s a bright-eyed, smiling booster, a woman who once dreamed of being a filmmaker (among her favorite movies are “Mask,” “Contact” and “Man on Wire”), but instead has helped others’ artistic dreams come true.
“I’m so delighted for everyone involved,” she said. “And I don’t think there are many cities in the country where the three lead filmmakers are women,” she said, name-checking Griffiths, Lynn Shelton and Lacey Leavitt.
A New Jersey native, Becker moved to Washington state in 1992 to become the founding executive director of the Old Fire House Teen Center in Redmond, where kids were able to not only play, but produce shows. Those kids have grown up; some have stayed in music, others have moved on but hold happy memories of what Becker did.
“I’ll be walking down the street and someone I don’t recognize with say, ‘Kate!’ and it will be a kid from the Fire House,” she said. “We started it in 1992, so those kids are now in their mid-30!”
In 1999 she started all over again in Seattle, becoming the co-founder and artistic director of The Vera Project, where teens learned to play and produce music shows. She left for a year to found the New Art Center, and then returned to Vera, first as executive director and then as head of its capital campaign. There was a one-year move to Los Angeles, to head Art Share L.A., before she returned to Seattle to be the director of development at STG.
All of it helped develop Becker’s eye for the impact and support arts and music can give young people.
Which explains her fresh focus on the Creative Advantage initiative, which gives an hour of arts and music education to Seattle Public Schools students each week.
“It is horrible what is happening in underserved neighborhoods with arts education,” Becker said.
Becker is in the process of moving to Seattle, where her 11-year-old daughter, Trinity, will enter sixth grade. Her husband, Michael Compton, is the executive director of The Recording Academy’s — the folks in charge of The Grammys — Pacific Northwest Chapter.
“He’s also a musician who has been in about 15 bands,” she said with a laugh. “No exaggeration.”
That raised the inevitable subject of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, who won four Grammys earlier this year: Best New Artist, Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance (for “Thrift Shop”) and Best Rap Album (for “The Heist”).
“To see them walk out on the stage and accept the Grammy …,” Becker said, smiling at the memory. “I was so proud of Seattle and so proud of our music scene.”
To help future musicians and filmmakers reach such success, Becker is trying to be everywhere, engaged and working in the best interest of the city’s artistic heart.
“I try to be very candid and forthright,” she said. “Maybe that doesn’t serve well in all politics, but … “
In art, it should serve us all just fine.
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org