Vincent Kitch is starting his job as director of the city's Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs at a particularly difficult time, with arts funding plummeting and many arts groups in trouble.

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If not for the trombone, Seattle’s new arts czar says, he might not have gone to college.

Vincent Kitch, the newly arrived director of the city’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, grew up in a blue-collar family in Quincy, Ill. College wasn’t something he thought much about.

But he had started playing trombone in fourth grade — mainly because “I had long enough arms and big lips,” he quips. And it was the chance to study trombone performance that spurred him to attend college and even get a master’s degree.

It is this personal experience, in part, that fuels his passion for one of the main missions of his office: ensuring that people at all income levels have access to the arts.

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With a $7 million budget this year and a staff of about 20, the agency carries out that mission through a variety of programs, commissioning public art like the “Hammering Man” and “Waiting for the Interurban” sculptures and helping to fund individual artists, arts organizations and local cultural events.

The 45-year-old Kitch is described as having a solid understanding of the role of the arts in communities and a straight-shooting personality that helps him work well with artists, politicians and bureaucrats alike.

Those skills are going to be particularly needed at a time when funding for the arts — historically hard to come by even in good times — is nose-diving.

To save the city money, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is even considering merging the arts office with four other city agencies — a move arts advocates fear could drive the arts agency’s interests even lower on the priority list. Just as arts organizations are having to rethink how they do business, so, too, is the city’s arts agency.

“It’s a crazy time to step into the job,” said Randy Engstrom, chairman of the city’s Arts Commission, which advises the Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs.

Success in Austin

In Austin, Texas, where Kitch served for seven years as the city’s cultural arts programs manager, he overhauled an arts-funding process that had gotten so complicated it was all but impossible to understand.

“It started out with a policy, and when someone had an extenuating circumstance, they created a policy for that,” said Cookie Ruiz, executive director of Ballet Austin. Over time, that accumulation of policies became “like kinks in a garden hose.”

A good project manager who could see “the entire architecture of the process” without losing sight of the goal, Kitch was able to revamp the system, Ruiz says. He also gained credibility with arts groups by being refreshingly honest, she said. “He doesn’t spin things. … (For instance), he would let us know as soon as possible if hotel occupancy tax receipts are down, because he wants us to be able to budget.”

Since arriving in late March, Kitch has been attending several cultural events a week, getting to know the local arts community.

He’s also bracing for tougher times.

Just this week the arts office announced that, due to budget uncertainty, it was postponing taking applications for a program that funds individual artists.

And a study requested by the mayor is under way on the feasibility of merging five city departments: the arts, neighborhoods, housing, economic-development and environmental offices. The recommendations are due to the mayor in June.

“Nothing has been decided or determined,” Kitch said. “We’re just looking at a range of possibilities.”

Becoming a priority

In the meantime, Engstrom, the Arts Commission chairman, says he would like to see the office and commission build a stronger relationship with the mayor, who thus far has connected less with the arts than with other issues such as improving the city for children and families.

That said, the mayor has expressed enthusiasm about cultural projects that dovetail with his overall priorities, such as walkable communities and enlivening neighborhoods, Engstrom noted.

For instance, the mayor has been supportive of Storefronts Seattle, a partnership between the arts office and other organizations that temporarily installs art in otherwise unoccupied buildings, in essence making them temporary galleries. The exhibits create a sense of vibrancy in the neighborhoods, supporters say.

More such innovative programs are needed, says Andy Fife, executive director of Shunpike, one of the partners in Storefronts Seattle. Shunpike helps small and mid-sized arts groups better manage the business aspects of art.

“We have a crisis in the arts,” and what’s worked for the agency before may no longer be enough, said Fife.”We have an opportunity at the moment to work with the city, to experiment with innovation.”

Kitch doesn’t disagree, saying as arts organizations both public and private reinvent themselves, so, too, must his agency. “Challenging times present opportunities,” he said.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or

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