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When Randy Engstrom and Andy Fife start talking about Seattle arts and culture you can almost feel the air around them vibrate. Artists in the Northwest are “like a natural resource,” enthuses Engstrom. Fife chimes in: “This is a place where nature is abundant and provides so much. Likewise culture.”

You get the sense you’re face to face with the contemporary versions of Frederick Weyerhaeuser or Bill Boeing, adventurers who came west to seek their fortunes more than a century ago. Instead of harvesting trees, though, Fife and Engstrom migrated from the Midwest with an eye toward harnessing culture to expand Seattle’s economic vibrancy.

Culture and community-building are subjects these two men toss around on a regular basis — Engstrom as the interim head of the city’s Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs and Fife as the executive director of the artist-support organization Shunpike. They are cohorts and friends, who have known each other since 2005 when Fife was operations director at Consolidated Works (or ConWorks), a now-defunct arts and performance venue once located in South Lake Union. At the time, Engstrom ran a bar and multimedia company called Static Factory. When his business lost its Capitol Hill home, Engstrom took up temporary residence at ConWorks, helping Fife produce events. “We’ve been in touch since then,” says Engstrom. “Around different projects, but also just to hang out.”

Casual and entrepreneurial, Fife, 35, and Engstrom, 36, represent a generational shift in local arts leadership, according to longtime arts insiders. This new wave is more activist — eager to change what they see as outdated attitudes about the arts. Observers such as Fidelma McGinn, who formerly directed the grant-making organization Artist Trust and is now a vice president of The Seattle Foundation, have a word to describe Fife and Engstrom: “Instigators,” she calls them.

They want art to do more than beautify and entertain — they want it to foster social change, lure kids away from gang involvement, create community and, perhaps most radically, figure out how to pay its own way.

West, from Chicago

Engstrom moved to the Northwest from Chicago in 1995 to study public affairs and nonprofit management at The Evergreen State College. To him, art and performance were, and still are, primarily avenues for community organizing and social justice. Engstrom wanted to do his organizing work in Seattle rather than his hometown, which he calls entrenched in its social stratification.

“Seattle is a more entrepreneurial city,” he explains. “I’m an aspirational person, I think there’s always more we can do, and this city really rewards that spirit.”

That sense of possibility also lured Fife to the Pacific Northwest. Like Engstrom, Fife grew up near Chicago. He studied music, theater and writing at Northwestern University, but says he’s really more entrepreneur than artist. He estimates he’s launched 15 businesses since high school.

He moved to Seattle eight years ago, and since then, he’s become an unapologetic civic booster.

“The world is looking at us as one of the top five cities in the country where creative enterprise, artistry and culture are at their peak, where new things are made.” Fife points to the industries that now define Seattle: Microsoft, Amazon, Boeing and Starbucks, as well as pop music and the city’s nationally known theater scene.

Fife sees creativity as a potential bridge between the arts and every other city sector, from the public schools to the business community. He’s worked to build those bridges at the nonprofit Shunpike, where he’s been executive director for the past five years. Shunpike’s main mission is to provide business and technical support to artists and small arts groups. But it’s perhaps best known for the Storefronts Project, an ongoing program that installs artists in empty commercial buildings for rotating three-month residencies. The Storefronts program strives to meld artists’ needs for affordable work space with the business community’s desire to enliven downtown buildings left vacant during the Great Recession.

Although Fife and Engstrom are friendly colleagues, one arts insider describes them as competitors. In fact, Fife was a finalist for the city’s Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs (OACA) job that Engstrom has been tapped to fill.

“Anyplace that has become as calcified and institutional as the arts over the last 30 years needs a shake-up from time to time,” Fife says. At Shunpike, he and his staff push small arts groups to come up with new business models, to think beyond the arts’ financial reliance on public grants and private philanthropy to augment ticket sales.

“I would say we have to get away from the constant conversation about needing money,” Fife says. “Most businesses would agree that more money is better, but the way they get there is to design healthy products that people like.” It’s an attitude one observer describes as brash, as well as unfair to arts leaders who’ve been laboring in the nonprofit trenches for years.

From Delridge to downtown

As the new, interim head of Seattle’s OACA, Engstrom knows the money shortage firsthand. Public arts funding is extremely tight and isn’t likely to increase anytime soon. Engstrom says if there’s been any silver lining in the recent economic downturn, it’s that the arts community has been pushed to think outside the box; he welcomes risk-taking with open arms.

After his business Static Factory closed, Engstrom found a different outlet for his entrepreneurial impulses in West Seattle’s Delridge neighborhood. In 2006, as the founding director, he oversaw the opening of the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, in an old public school building.

Youngstown provides affordable live/work space for artists, as well as office space for youth and environmental programs. Engstrom calls Youngstown his proudest achievement to date, a sustainable model for the kind of community-development work he wants to do at OACA.

“My question is still how do we create value and impact? How do we make our work accessible and relevant to every citizen in the city?” City Councilmember Nick Licata, who chairs the committee that oversees Seattle’s cultural programs, says under Engstrom’s leadership he expects OACA to broaden its base of constituents and supporters. Licata says Engstrom is the right person for this job, and he’ll vote to make the interim position permanent when the full council considers the appointment in March.

Engstrom’s predecessor, Vincent Kitch, left the post abruptly last summer. City Hall insiders say he strongly disagreed with Mayor Mike McGinn’s proposal to move operations of the Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center from the Parks & Recreation Department’s purview to the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs. In a recent interview, the mayor didn’t mention Langston Hughes, but he did have high praise for Engstrom’s success in Delridge, calling it a model of community-building. Observers believe Engstrom will be more open than Kitch to using public arts money to support Langston Hughes.

Like Engstrom, Fife would love to see more cross-pollination between creative thinkers in business and the arts. To help jump-start that dialogue, Fife will leave his job at Shunpike at the end of February. He plans to set up shop as a private consultant.

Kris Tucker, executive director of the Washington State Arts Commission, has known Fife since 2009. Fife is now first vice chair of the commission’s board of directors.

“Andy and I have had many conversations about building support for the arts,” says Tucker, “including what the arts sectors can learn from other efforts.” She says Fife has “big ideas,” including expanding the definition of arts to encompass private for-profit startups, in addition to the traditional not-for-profit arts-organization model.

Fife and Engstrom are not without their detractors. Former Artist Trust director McGinn thinks the two men have been too quick to overlook incremental changes that have taken place in the past five years or to overlook leaders who aren’t as outspoken as them. That said, McGinn believes Engstrom has what it takes to hold his own with the establishment.

“He’s an authentic guy, you know where you stand with him,” McGinn explains. “I really admire his ability to say it as it is and then follow through.”

One City Hall staffer says Engstrom’s appointment has reinvigorated a long-stalled City Hall plan to create incentives for the development of arts and culture facilities in Capitol Hill’s Pike/Pine corridor.

Even though he didn’t get the job, Fife fully endorses Engstrom’s ascension to the directorship of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs. Fife says Engstrom is poised to guide Seattle into a leadership position when it comes to cultural innovations, but the community needs to buy into the vision.

True to his reputation as a brash spokesman for a new generation, Fife doesn’t pull any punches.“Arts and culture have had troubles. The answer is not to repeat the same thing, but to do something different, and then tell everybody how we did it differently.”

Marcie Sillman: