After 17 years as executive director of Town Hall Seattle, Wier Harman, 55, is planning to step down by Christmas this year.
Harman has served as Town Hall’s second executive director, succeeding founder David Brewster. Operating out of the former home to the Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist on Eighth Avenue and Seneca Street on First Hill, Town Hall opened to the public on March 17, 1999, as a music performance venue and community center. Today, Town Hall hosts more than 450 community events a year from author events and lectures to concerts and even a writers festival.
Under Harman’s leadership, Town Hall has grown its membership to 4,000 members, been preserved as a historic Seattle landmark, undergone a $35.7 million building renovation and survived a pandemic. Among Harman’s proudest accomplishments: attracting a younger audience and making the venue more affordable, inclusive and accessible.
Town Hall’s 22 & Under initiative, which offers free tickets for youth, “completely revolutionized the nature of what our audience looks like,” bringing more middle and high school-aged kids to science lectures, said Harman. Town Hall’s Saturday Family Concert series made the venue a destination for youth and families, and the membership program (ranging from $30 to $1,500-plus a year) helps sustain its $5 tickets for Town Hall-produced programming.
Planning for a national search for Harman’s successor is underway, with a job description expected to be posted by early October. The search committee hopes a new executive director will start by February or March, said Kate Nagle-Caraluzzo, advancement director of Town Hall Seattle.
In an emotional interview, Harman talked about his love for Town Hall, his favorite memories, his 2017 lung cancer diagnosis and his legacy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why do you plan to step down?
I can’t imagine a job that would have been better for me. In my past time, I was a theater director and I kind of stumbled into this work when I was at a career crossroads and not sure if directing plays felt like enough for me anymore and wanting to satisfy the part of me that was curious about politics and part of me that missed music. So all of that is to say that this job has been great. At the same time, I have an almost-16-year-old and just-turned-14-year-old at home. I’ve begun to count the time I have left with them in our house in days, and not years anymore, and it just felt like a good moment for me to really redirect my energy toward them and toward my family.
Tell me about Town Hall and what initially drew you in in 2005?
I came back to Seattle because I always had it — even after I left — I always had it still in my heart. I still had it in my mind as a place I might want to come back to and my wife, when we were figuring out where we could transplant to from New York, sort of blurted out that she wouldn’t mind coming back to Seattle and then this opportunity appeared like literally in the middle of that conversation.
We’re not curing cancer here, but in a small way, I think we shine a light on things that are great in this community and we invite people to share that stuff. And I think there is so much centrifugal force spinning us away from each other right now and this place, at its best, can be pulling us back together.
It’s really important to me right now that, along with other cultural institutions downtown, that we are creating and helping bring downtown back to life, helping restore this sort of engine of the city and reminding people [of] the joy of living together in a city. At Town Hall, we don’t do it at the scale as the Paramount [Theatre] or the 5th [Avenue Theatre] or you know, the Symphony or Benaroya or any of those places do, but I think we add a really critical element. If you imagine all those organizations as notes in a musical chord, we’re a really important piece in the chord that really empowers people in the community to have their own voice. There really isn’t anywhere else in the country that is structured like we are in terms of hosting so many avocational community organizations and ensembles alongside major international and national figures.
What’s a favorite moment of joy?
I won’t ever forget the moment that Al Gore was backstage and he was looking at one of our print calendars and he said, “You mean to tell me that there was a spelling bee here yesterday? That’s really cool.” And you know, that sort of aspect of Town Hall kind of locked in for me of being very local and very community-oriented, but then also hosting — at the time he had just made “An Inconvenient Truth” and he had just released his book as well and was touring to promote greater awareness of climate change. His reminding me that that aspect of Town Hall is cool is something that I won’t ever forget.
You were diagnosed with lung cancer in 2017. How has that affected or changed your outlook on life?
I think the way I’ve talked about it with a lot of people — and it might sound corny — is that I used to be the type of person that lived very much in the future and a little bit in the present and I now live very much in the present and a little bit in the past. I don’t really think about the future very much because like most people who go through the experience of a cancer diagnosis or a serious grave threat to your life, you come to realize how just utterly fragile it all is and how futile it is to think that you can control it, right? So it’s not like that I don’t plan anything, but it’s like I prepare for multiple scenarios and then I kind of let go, right, and stay in the present and make the best decision as I can.
And the living more in the past part is just about slowing down a little longer to appreciate where I’ve been — like old friends and music that I’ve loved for a long time and to make sure I’m revisiting places that I’ve been with people that I love and focusing less on racing toward new things and more toward celebrating how lucky I feel to have had the life that I had.
What do want your legacy to be?
I hope my legacy is that our community will continue to gather at Town Hall for years and years and years to come. I used to talk about this building process as we were guaranteeing another 100 years for this building, right, because it’s been almost 100 years since it was completed, and what I really want is another 100 years of Seattleites feeling at home and feeling heard and feeling honored and engaged here through this place.