Townsend, 65, began his tenure just as the economy tanked in 2008. His time was marked by a diminished budget and staff but also by resourceful management. An interim director will be named in September.
Robert Townsend has resigned as executive director of the nonprofit arts organization Northwest Folklife, which draws more than 200,000 people to Seattle Center on Memorial Day weekend for the Northwest Folklife Festival.
Townsend’s tenure, which began just as the economy tanked in 2008, has been marked by diminishing budget and staff but also by resourceful management and even some growth, according to those who worked with him.
“He streamlined a lot of the work that was being done by the staff and he worked on efficiency,” said Devon Leger, who served as program director from 2008-10. “The festival changed under him. It became more professional.”
Townsend, 65, will stay until the end of September, at which time an interim executive director — as yet unnamed — will take the helm. He said the interim position will last at least through the 2017 festival, as the organization crafts “a road map for the future” and conducts a national search for a new director.
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Townsend plans to move to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where he and his wife have family.
“I think that anybody that sits in a position like this for any length of time, it wears on you,” said Townsend. “I’m tired.”
A former actor with a wealth of nonprofit arts management, including a job directing a Shakespeare festival in St. Louis, Townsend shepherded Folklife through difficult times. That started immediately, when he discovered a $167,000 deficit no one had mentioned when he was hired.
“Then the economy changed,” he recalled. “Welcome to Folklife.”
Already dependent on good weather for vendor income on the festival weekend, the organization faced a decline in grant funding, major gifts and patron donations. The annual budget shrank from $1.8 million in 2008 to $1.2 million in 2016, said Townsend, and participation — by performers and other volunteers — declined from 7,000 to 6,000. Full-time, year-round staff was reduced to six from a high of 12.
Despite these challenges, Townsend’s legacy has nevertheless been “so positive,” said Luther Black, board member since 1987, including a stint as president. “He has really taken us into a new situation.”
In particular, said Black, Townsend moved Folklife closer to being a full-time, year-round organization by introducing the one-day Seattle Children’s Festival at Seattle Center last year. In 2016, Townsend also secured Folklife’s first, full-festival sponsor, the Cancer Care Alliance. He digitized the application process, which used to consume hours of data-entry time, and created a community council to guide the festival’s annual cultural focus.
This year’s focus was The Power of the Human Voice.
Townsend described his departure from Folklife as “bittersweet.”
“I feel very positive about the future,” he said. “The continuity of the staff is fabulous. But they need a new breath of air.”
Northwest Folklife will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2021.