by Alexa Peters
Over the last 10 days, tensions between Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, the City Council, Seattle Arts Commission (Commission), the Office of Arts and Culture (ARTS), and local Black arts community members have mounted following the mayor’s early September appointment of Royal Alley-Barnes as interim director of ARTS. The mayor made the appointment with a little more than 100 days left in her term and without having consulted with local arts community stakeholders about her decision.
Following the resignation of permanent ARTS Director Randy Engstrom in December 2020, the mayor agreed to a plan in which then Deputy Director of ARTS Calandra Childers would step in as interim director and oversee a committee of staff members and arts community members, called the Seattle Arts Director Advisory Committee, with the objective of centering community voices in the process of selecting a new permanent ARTS director.
“The Office of Arts and Culture [asked] me to co-chair the Seattle Arts Director Search Advisory Committee in early 2021, in hopes of ensuring there would be community input in the process [of finding] the new director of the Office of Arts and Culture,” said Sharon Nyree Williams, a storyteller and executive director of the Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas. “So that process began and … the mayor, at that time, had said that she would not be searching for a new director during her term.”
But, according to Williams and confirmed by the minutes of a June 8, 2021, meeting, the mayor switched her position in late spring 2021, telling the Commission and ARTS staff that selecting a new director while she was still in office would be in the best interest of the city. When the Commission pushed back against the mayor’s change of opinion, saying the rushed timeline would not allow for sufficient community input on the next director, the mayor agreed to wait, according to Williams.
“So, at that point, because she was still for an open community process, we thought that we would continue to move forward with the committee and that Calandra Childers would continue to be the acting director,” said Williams.
Then, on Sept. 9, Mayor Durkan transmitted Alley-Barnes’ appointment to the council, and Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington sent an email notice of the mayor’s plans to replace Childers to select members of the Commission, ARTS staff, and the arts community. Before City Council and local arts stakeholders were able to take formal action to concur or engage with the mayor about her interim appointment, the mayor’s office announced the appointment in a Sept. 15 blog post.
“We were shocked,” Williams said. “Had Calandra done something wrong? What is the reasoning, with only a short amount [of time] left in the mayor’s term, to all of a sudden come up with an interim? What was the rationale for that?”
According to an email statement from Kamaria Hightower, a spokesperson for Mayor Durkan, the mayor’s actions were her way of delivering on the request of arts community stakeholders, who’d expressed a desire to “delay the search for a permanent director in order to do stakeholder work, assess COVID impacts, design a search process, and center artists of color to ensure an equitable recovery and resurgence in the arts” in previous meetings.
“The Mayor agreed to their request and found the right person to lead the work needed now,” Hightower said.
Likewise, in the blog post about the appointment, the mayor highlighted the urgency of selecting a leader for ARTS that understands the “significant curveballs” that have been thrown at creators, in particular BIPOC artists, in Seattle since the pandemic.
Despite the mayor’s desire to elevate BIPOC artists, BIPOC arts community leaders have expressed shock and uneasiness at their lack of inclusion in the process of selecting Royal Alley-Barnes, who previously served as the executive director of Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center and held various leadership roles within Seattle Parks & Recreation, including Woodland Park Zoo director.
“Critically, Mayor Durkan decided to appoint a second acting director with zero consultation from the Black-led Seattle Arts Commission, the Black-led Arts Director Search Committee, any of the Black-led arts organizations or businesses in Seattle, or apparently any arts or culture workers period. That’s insulting, and Mayor Durkan should be embarrassed,” said Tim Lennon, executive director of Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute.
While it is the mayor’s prerogative to make interim and acting appointments without running a selection process, per the City Charter, arts community leaders like Williams say that the mayor had no reason to so blatantly disregard ARTS staff and other arts community stakeholders only to replace one interim with another.
“We thought the Office of Arts and Culture was operating well, knowing that it had an acting leader. And with only less than 100 days left, why shake up that system?” Williams said. “But we were informed that it was the mayor’s prerogative to do that and that the staff should know this is what it means to work for the City and that at any time things can change. That was disheartening. Yes, any time things can change, but if there’s open dialogue and communication, it doesn’t have to be such a shock. I feel as though [ARTS employees] were just disregarded as worker bees.”
With that in mind, Williams and other members of ARTS and the Search Advisory Committee sent a letter to the Seattle Arts Commission expressing how the “lack of process, acknowledgement, and consultation in appointing a new acting director with little more than 100 days left in the current administration is not only disrespectful to Deputy Childers but to the ARTS staff, to the Seattle Arts Commission, to the members of this Committee, and ultimately to all of the Seattle residents served by the works of these agents.”
Williams emphasized that the letter was sent to address the lack of process and transparency, not due to any specific objection to Alley-Barnes in particular.
“[The letter] didn’t attack Royal Alley-Barnes at all, we kept it about the process, like what was the process? What was the rationale? And how would this affect the search [for a permanent department director] going forward?” Williams said.
Following the letter, the co-chairs of the Commission reached out to members of the City Council asking councilmembers to wait before taking action on the appointment until the concerns of the Commission, and wider arts community, could be addressed. Per Seattle’s Charter, in order for the mayor’s interim appointment to be confirmed, Budget Chair Teresa Mosqueda and City Council President M. Lorena González must concur on the appointment.
On the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 21, after spending several days hearing the concerns of community members, González concurred with Mosqueda about the appointment, with the caveat that the Commission be involved in the selection of the permanent director.
“It would have been my hope that the mayor would have fulfilled the commitments made to the Commission and broader arts community,” González said in a press release announcing the concurrence. “In taking time to thoughtfully engage with commissioners and the broader arts community, it was my goal to put the City, the Arts community, and Ms. Alley-Barnes on a path towards establishing a shared vision for the future leadership of the Office of Arts and Culture. I believe that Ms. Alley-Barnes’ previous years of service can bring great value to the priorities expressed by the Arts Commission. With an interim director in place, the City will be able to search for a permanent director via a process that includes and honors input from commissioners and community members, whose role it is to advise elected officials in decisions such as these.”
Later on Tuesday, Dr. Quintin Morris and Sarah Wilke resigned as co-chairs and members of the Seattle Arts Commission stating that, after meeting with City Council and the mayor’s office about the surprise appointment, they felt “the Executive Office disrespected the role and integrity of the Arts Commission by effectively undoing the joint governing of structures in our city.”
For her part, Williams is worried about the effects of undermining committees and advisory boards, and the precedent this behavior sets for leadership in Seattle.
“If the Commission can’t ask questions [about appointments] to the mayor’s office and they’re an advisory board to the office of Arts and Culture, then what does that mean for the future of commissions and how we hold mayors accountable?” she asked.
According to Hightower, Royal Alley-Barnes will begin as interim ARTS director on Sept. 27 and ARTS will continue their search for a new permanent director under her leadership.
Alexa Peters is a freelance journalist and copywriter living in the Seattle area. Her work has appeared in The Seattle Times, The Washington Post, Leafly, Downbeat Magazine, Healthline, and more. Her Twitter is @ItsAllWriteByMe and her Instagram is @AlexaPetersWrites.
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