In 2019, Seattle Arts & Lectures was riding high. The storied local literary nonprofit, which has for more than three decades brought prestigious authors like John Updike, Joan Didion and Colson Whitehead to adoring crowds of thousands, was enjoying “the biggest sales we ever had,” explains Alison Stagner, SAL’s director of events and outreach. At the time, she says, events were “selling out regularly,” but that “incredible, honestly sometimes shocking, momentum” came to a lurching halt with the arrival of the pandemic.

Over the past two years, SAL strained to transition what it does best — smart, meaningful events showcasing the brightest names in literature and the arts — into the digital realm through online-only and hybrid online-and-in-person events. Like many arts nonprofits, “we are struggling right now,” Stagner admits. “Our subscriptions and ticket sale numbers are cut maybe by 50%, which is a really dramatic decrease.”

This summer, after what Stagner characterizes as “a few years of transition and change and learning,” SAL announced the slate of authors appearing at Town Hall Seattle for its 2022 and 2023 season. With names drawn from SAL supporter surveys and local bookseller suggestions, it’s one of the most ambitious, diverse lineups in the organization’s 35-year history, featuring world-famous icons like the musician Patti Smith and celebrity chef Nigella Lawson; beloved, critically acclaimed bestselling novelists including Amor Towles, Maggie O’Farrell, Celeste Ng, Louise Penny and John Irving; and celebrated journalists, historians and cultural critics including Masha Gessen, Jon Meacham and Reginald Dwayne Betts. 

While Stagner acknowledges that “the feeling and vibrancy of a crowd sitting in a room together is its own kind of transformative experience,” SAL has emerged from the pandemic with a new commitment to presenting all of its events both online and in person. “Digital programming makes SAL so much more accessible to people with disabilities, people with children and people in rural communities,” she says.

The Literary Arts Series, which is the crown jewel of SAL’s programming, continues to offer some of the biggest names in global literature, including 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature winner Abdulrazak Gurnah, who will present his latest novel, “Afterlives.” And Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson, whose historical exploration “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” became a centerpiece in the American conversation about race during the summer of 2020, will appear onstage for a special taping of Krista Tippett’s popular “On Being” podcast.

To celebrate the organization’s 35th anniversary, SAL invited some of the all-time most popular authors in its history — including Towles, novelist and Zen Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki, and travel writer Pico Iyer — for return engagements as part of the Encore Series. And SAL’s Poetry Series has broadened its appeal with bestselling poet Kate Baer and multihyphenate author Chris Abani.

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But Seattle audiences have come to expect the biggest names in literature from SAL as a matter of course. Stagner says the organization is now intentionally trying to branch out to “showcase special literary delights that hit a different note” in its mainstream SAL Presents series, including “a musical performance with Patti Smith, a one-man performance piece that’s a critique of the prison system with Reginald Dwayne Betts, an evening about travel with Rick Steves, and a murder mystery with Louise Penny.”

Perennial bestseller Penny, young adult novelist Jason Reynolds and podcaster Connie Walker, the host of “Stolen: The Search for Jermain,” fill out a blockbuster season that reflects the bookshelves and interests of all Seattle — not just the serious, straight, white men who have historically guarded the gates of literature. Part of that curatorial shift comes from the fact that the literary world’s distinction between critically acclaimed authors and popular ones has gradually eroded. But the change is one SAL has worked on for years and formalized in a 2020-2024 strategic plan published in 2020

Series tickets are on sale now for in-person and online readings at lectures.org, including four-ticket “Create Your Own” series and SAL Presents individual tickets. Subscription prices start at $529 for “Grand Patron” tiers to $279 for general admission, along with $149 digital-only subscription packages and a more inclusive “Pay-What-You-Can” tier that allows anyone on the lower end of the income scale to attend SAL events.

In a new development, Pay-What-You-Can tickets are now available to anyone who needs them — not just young students, as was the rule at SAL for the last three decades — and Pay-What-You-Can attendees will for the first time receive copies of the presenting author’s book with the ticket price, like every other ticketing tier.

Ultimately, SAL has decided to bet big on accessibility because “we want people to gather with us in the format that works for them — financially and physically,” Stagner says. “We’re committed to making SAL into a place of belonging, a gathering space where real transformation can happen.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly suggested it would be “unthinkable” for SAL to invite “genre” authors like Louise Penny to speak at a SAL event. In fact, “genre” authors have had events at SAL in the past for decades. The story has also been updated to reflect that Penny is both popular and critically acclaimed, and that SAL orchestrated a curatorial shift in 2020, not in response to the pandemic.