After more than 20 years, SIFF artistic director Carl Spence steps down

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After more than 20 years with the Seattle International Film Festival, artistic director Carl Spence is stepping down. SIFF announced Tuesday morning that he will begin transitioning out of his role but will continue in an advisory capacity through spring 2017. Beth Barrett, SIFF’s director of programming, will assume the role of interim artistic director.

During Spence’s time with SIFF, the festival has transformed from a once-a-year event to a year-round arts organization, with daily programming at three local theaters (SIFF Uptown, SIFF Egyptian, and SIFF Film Center). Its centerpiece is still the three-and-a-half week festival, which brings hundreds of films to movie-crazed Seattleites every spring.

Spence began his career with the festival when he was barely out of college; he was initially hired on a three-month contract in 1994. “I was one of two full-time year-round employees,” not counting then-artistic director Darryl Macdonald, he remembered, in a telephone interview Tuesday. He had discovered SIFF while he was a student at the University of Washington and immediately decided that he wanted to work there — it seemed like a dream job. “It turned out to be true. Best job I ever had.”

Of his departure, Spence said, “I feel good. The organization is in a great place.” He said the plans for his transition began earlier this year: “I just started thinking about what’s next — do I want to continue doing this? How can I  maybe rethink what my role might be in film and in the arts?” In addition to continuing to advise SIFF, Spence said he’ll be doing some consulting work with other film festivals (he curated the Orcas Island Film Festival, coming this week) and arts organizations.

Spence’s departure comes during a time of change for SIFF: Executive director Mary Bacarella left the organization last December; and a permanent hire for that job has not been announced. (Interim executive director Christine Martin has held the position since January.) Spence said that a nationwide search has been underway and several candidates identified, and “I think [an announcement] will be happening very soon.”

He’s confident that Barrett, a SIFF veteran since 2003, will excel in her new role. “We’ve worked well and closely together. She’s learned a lot and taught me things.” And he’ll be happily attending SIFF next year.  “The board has given me lifetime platinum passes to the festival, so I can just come and enjoy the festival, like when I first discovered it and realized that I loved it,” he said. “I was energized by seeing a movie with a full house and having the director there — it’s palpable, I could feel the excitement in the air. I’m looking forward to doing that.”