Ruth Dickey, head of Seattle Arts and Lectures (SAL) since 2013, has been chosen as the new executive director of the National Book Foundation (NBF), presenter of one of the most prestigious awards in the literary world, the National Book Awards.
The new role is one of national prominence in the book world, and Dickey will become the fourth executive director of the NBF, which was founded in the late 1980s as a nonprofit to administer the National Book Awards. The NBF also presents educational and public programming around the country, in line with its vision to celebrate and expand the audience for the best literature in America.
An “excited and overwhelmed” Dickey, reached by phone Thursday, said her work at NBF will be focused on the same questions that are central to SAL: “How do we build community around books, how do we make really welcoming spaces for readers, how to connect readers and writers?”
The idea of doing this on a national scale, she said, was “irresistible.” The two organizations have frequently partnered before, for SAL’s Writers in the Schools program and for specific author events (for example, NBF sponsored community tickets for author Min Jin Lee’s virtual appearance last summer).
“Ruth Dickey brings the ideal combination of expertise and experience to lead the Foundation and advance our unique mission,” David Steinberger, chair of the NBF’s board of directors, wrote in a statement. “We were looking for a proven literary leader with a track record of engaging with a broad range of communities from all across our nation, and Ruth brings that and more to this role.”
The role had most recently been filled by Lisa Lucas, who left the position last year to become a senior vice president at the publisher Knopf Doubleday.
Dickey, who will manage a staff of eight at NBF, said she was eager to learn more from her new colleagues about the work they have been doing. She’s especially interested in building on the NBF’s work in distributing funding “to support the ecosystem of literary organizations all over the country, which is so critical for readers and writers, supporting books in our culture. I think that’s very exciting work to lean into.”
In the course of Dickey’s eight years at SAL, the organization tripled attendance at its events and doubled its subscriber base, according to Dickey. It also increased the number of students served through its Writers in the Schools and other programs.
Prior to joining SAL, she was founding executive director of the Clifton Cultural Arts Center (CCAC) in Cincinnati, and executive director of New Futures, an organization in Burien that works to create communities for families in low-income apartment complexes. Dickey is a writer whose first published collection of poetry, “Mud Blooms,” was selected for the MURA Award, won a 2019 Silver Nautilus, and was a finalist for the National Poetry Series.
Dickey will stay with SAL through the end of April, to ensure a smooth transition and to help plan the organization’s annual fundraising gala scheduled for April 23. She’ll begin to work for NBF remotely in mid-May, and plans to move to New York in the fall. SAL will soon begin a national search for her successor.