by Beverly Aarons
After overseeing some of the most aggressive and innovative arts initiatives in Seattle’s history, Randy Engstrom is stepping down as Director of Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture (ARTS). The Emerald spoke with Engstrom in a telephone interview about his work in the department for the past eight years, his reasons for leaving, and his plans for the future.
“I think it’s time,” said Engstrom, who lives in South Seattle’s Beacon HiIl neighborhood. “I mean, I think that there were a lot of things I really wanted to do when I came into this job. And I think by and large we’ve done them. … It’s time to make room for new leadership and new voices to take the organization where it’s next great place can be.”
When Engstrom became the ARTS Director in 2012, the department had just gone through three Directors in two years – one had only remained on the job for 15 months. Engstrom was the fourth hire. Needless to say, the staff wasn’t feeling exactly confident by the time he arrived. After so much instability, they were “shell shocked,” Engstrom said. But Engstrom wasn’t deterred. He slowly earned their trust by leading with his values and giving his staff the agency to take true ownership of their work in the department.
“My leadership style is to really give people a wide berth and to give them a lot of agency to move the work forward,” Engstrom said. “I trust them to be the experts at what they do.”
That style of leadership “paid dividends,” he said. The department attracted and nurtured people who were experts in their field and they were able to move forward bold initiatives, some of which Engstrom said he had not imagined were possible before he joined the department.
Each year Engstrom would ask every staff member to choose one racial equity goal. No matter what their position in the department, he wanted them to think about how they could improve the experience of people of color who engage with the department.
“I didn’t micromanage how people did it,” Engstrom said. “And I let people do it on their own terms and in ways that felt authentic to them. … I think that led to a whole bunch of really interesting things. I mean, I never thought something like King Street Station was possible. I didn’t. That wasn’t even like a thought that had crossed my mind before I took this job. And that it would be that kind of platform for artists of color.”
ARTS at King Street Station, a 7,500-square-foot cultural space, was created to increase opportunities for artists of color to generate and present their work to the public. The space opened in 2019 after a two-year renovation. But before the renovation began, ARTS opened the space to two POC-led shows: Truth B Told by ONYX Fine Arts Collective and BorderLands, an art show that explored “nationalism and belonging.” And the first show that opened after the King Street renovation in 2019 was yəhaw̓, an exhibit featuring 200 pieces by indigenous artists working various mediums.
But ARTS at King Street Station isn’t the only ambitious initiative that Engstrom oversaw during his tenure as Director. There was Creative Advantage, which expanded arts education to all youth in Seattle Public Schools. And there was the development of a sustainable operating model for LANGSTON that allowed the Black community to lead programming efforts at the Langston Performing Arts Institute without taking on the financial burden of maintaining the building. Then there was the Cultural Space Agency, a public development authority, which is being formed this year.
“So it [the Cultural Space Agency] is basically a real estate intermediary,” Engstrom said. “So think of it as a developer with a conscience. It is chartered by the government, but it also contains a nonprofit, so it can do all the things government can do well. And all the things the nonprofit can do well. And all the things that a real estate development company can do well, but it does all of that in service of community values in service of building community.”
Once the Cultural Space Agency (the first of its kind in the country) is chartered, community members can propose arts and cultural projects to its membership, which will then review submitted projects. This membership will be comprised of Building Arts Space Equitably (BASE) graduates. Full disclosure: I was a graduate of the first year BASE cohort, so I saw firsthand the work put in to make the agency a reality. And one of the things that stood out to me was the racial, gender, cultural, and class diversity of BASE – and the fact that everyone who participated was compensated for their time and their intellectual labor. A true rarity, especially when it comes to compensating POC artists. I also know that ARTS operates through a racial equity lens, but I wanted to find out if Engstrom’s tenure at ARTS had helped him expand his personal understanding of race and its various intersections.
“Through my time at the city, because the city has a significant commitment and focus on racial equity, [I’ve come to understand] the primacy of race,” Engstrom said. “That race is almost always the determinant factor. And while class and ability and gender are all very real structures that predict the kind of lived experience people are going to have, the pervasiveness of race in the way race has been used as a vehicle to protect resources, to make laws, to govern communities. It has become more clear. … From the theft of indigenous land to the theft of slave labor to the Chinese Exclusion Act to red lining. I mean, there’s the Japanese internment. There’s just this long history of the public sector using race as a way to privilege one group of people for another. And so I think there’s an opportunity for the government to mitigate that harm that it’s caused … .”
Engstrom said that ARTS looks radically different than it did 8 years ago because more arts organizations created and run by people of color are receiving funding.
“We modified an existing program like the Cultural Facilities Fund, which used to fund about 70% white organizations,” Engstrom said. “We did a racial equity toolkit on it. We centered impacted communities and said, ‘How could we make it better?’ And now I think it funds something like 70 or 80% organizations of color the last time we ran it.”
What’s next for Engstrom? He’s going to spend more time with his family – he, his wife, and five-year-old daughter are taking a road trip to Florida. And he also plans to use what he learned at ARTS to help shape the national conversation about supporting artists
“I think that we have to prove all the ways that arts and culture can matter in people’s lives,” Engstrom said. “Beyond just like the thing you get a ticket to go see. That’s important but I think there’s a bigger story to tell about how we foster belonging and what our civic narrative is and how we harness imagination and how we advance our values like racial equity. Those are all the things that I think arts and culture does besides just being art for art’s sake.”
After his departure, Engstrom will split his time between teaching as an adjunct professor at Seattle University’s Arts Leadership program, serving on the board of LANGSTON, the Cultural Space Agency, and Grantmakers in the Arts, as well as consulting with a focus on national cultural policy and racial equity.
“It has been the honor of my career to lead the Office of Arts & Culture for the past eight years. To every artist and cultural worker in Seattle and the vast, brilliant, and resilient cultural sector in our region; you are the center of all of the work we do,” Engstrom said in a City of Seattle press release announcing his departure.
ARTS Deputy Director Calandra Childers will serve as Interim Acting Director for ARTS, effective February 1, 2021 until a permanent Director has been found.
Beverly Aarons is a writer and game developer. She works across disciplines as a copywriter, journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and short-story writer. She explores futuristic worlds in fiction but also enjoys discovering the stories of modern-day unsung heroes. She’s currently writing an immersive play about the themes of migration as well as a series of nonfiction stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their local communities and the world. In August 2018 she produced a live-action game and event where community members worked together to envision an economic future they truly desired to leave future generations.
Featured image: Randy Engstrom at the 2017 Seattle Mayor’s Awards. (Photo: Susan Fried)