After eight years leading Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture, Randy Engstrom is stepping down to teach in Seattle University’s arts-leadership program and focus on culture-policy work at the national level.
When Engstrom walked into the job in 2012, the office had a staff of 18 and he was the fifth director in two years.
Since that time, the staff has grown to 42 and has made some big moves, including its work to carve out and preserve cultural space in an increasingly expensive city and the Creative Advantage arts-education initiative. “Our goal in 2013 was to have arts access in every school by 2020,” Engstrom said. “We were on track to do that, but COVID hit — and now there’s no more school.”
Since 2012, the office has also conducted research (the Creative Economy reports, demonstrating the aggregate economic power of Seattle’s arts, culture and creative sector), stewarded infrastructure (bringing the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute from the city’s parks department to Office of Arts & Culture) and spearheaded rapid-response relief to cultural workers who felt the immediate hit of the coronavirus pandemic.
“So much work got done,” said Vivian Phillips, an arts leader and advocate who worked with Engstrom on the Seattle Arts Commission from 2012 to 2017. “All the equity work we did, the development of arts-and-cultural districts, the creative economy work and the push for actually elevating the class of arts and culture within our local economy.”
She also applauded the work Engstrom and the department did to put itself on more secure footing by locking in dedicated, long-term revenue through the city’s admissions tax and moving its offices to the third floor of King Street Station. The once-abandoned space in the Chinatown International District now houses a massive art gallery, a studio for artists-in-residence, public meeting rooms, and restrooms and common areas for use by all.
“I love that guy,” said Sharon Williams, executive director of the Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas, who also worked with Engstrom on the Seattle Arts Commission from 2014 to 2019.
Engstrom is a big thinker, she said — but also makes room for others to develop their own ideas, which partly explains the successes of the department during the past eight years.
“He’s helped shape a lot of people and processes that others may not recognize he had an impact on,” Williams said, and gave a personal example: In 2017, she was on the board of Cornish College of the Arts, which was looking for a new president. “I was waiting for somebody else to say it, but nobody did, so I raised my hand and asked: ‘How are we going to bring equity into this process?’ ” The response, Williams said, was bewilderment. Another board member suggested they should wait for the new president to lead them through equity work.
Williams insisted the equity work begin with them — and as a result, she said, Cornish wound up hiring its first Black president: “If it weren’t for all those conversations about equity in those Arts Commission meetings with Randy and Vivian [Phillips], I would not have had the foundation when I was in another room to bring that up and say: ‘We have to do this now.’ ”
That equity work has informed all the Office of Arts & Culture’s work, including its grant programs. Over the past few years, a team led by Kathy Hsieh, the office’s cultural partnerships and grants manager, has begun reallocating some of its grant money from the city’s largest organizations (like the opera and ballet, for whom the office’s funds are a relatively tiny part of their budgets) to smaller and midsized organizations, where a $10,000-$100,000 check can go much further.
This month, the office launched the Cultural Space Agency, a public-development authority to further leverage real estate for cultural space (for example, buying, developing, managing and/or renting out property in ways that are beneficial to Seattle arts and culture organizations), the result of a yearslong process. “It’s like a real estate agency with a conscience,” Engstrom said. “It can do the things that government does, like issue bonds against future revenues, and do things that nonprofits do, like grant-writing and fundraising.” (Mayor Jenny Durkan received the Cultural Space Agency proposal in early November; Engstrom expects her to approve it later this month.)
Engstrom entered pre-pandemic 2020 with three goals: get through this year’s election cycle (“because I knew how scary it would be”), get through the city’s budget process and see the Cultural Space Agency proposal to completion.
“All three got done in November, which is fantastic,” he said. “I’m proud of what this office has done and I’m sure it will continue. This is such an intense moment for the city, the country and the world — I hope we’re able to see the value in the creative.”
Engstrom will remain at the department through January. Calandra Childers, who joined the office in 2012, will serve as interim acting director while the city conducts a search for Engstrom’s successor.