by Lauryn Bray
The Cultural Space Agency, a real estate development company that helps BIPOC communities and artists purchase cultural spaces, recently announced the employment of two new directors. Olisa Enrico, former codirector of education at Arts Corps, has been hired as the new executive director of the Cultural Space Agency. Former urban planner, manager, and affordable housing developer Quanlin Hu has also joined the Cultural Space Agency as the new director of real estate. Despite the differences in their roles, Enrico and Hu say they look forward to working collaboratively to further the organization’s goals.
“This is a collaborative effort to figure out who we are, what we do, and how we’re going to do it and do it well in service of community,” said Enrico. “How do we serve the arts and cultural community in holding space with and for them so they can be rooted here where they belong?”
The Cultural Space Agency was formed in 2020 after then-Mayor Jenny Durkan signed the Cultural Space Agency Public Development Authority (PDA) charter, establishing the first public development authority in almost 40 years. According to its website, the agency has implemented several strategies to assist clients in the purchasing and development of property. These include: owning entire buildings or portions of buildings that share equity with community partners; partnering with housing providers to create affordable housing, commercial and cultural spaces, and new buildings centered in cultural communities; serving as a leasing intermediary; and managing and curating sites for owners who maintain site control themselves.
The agency operates under the authority of a group of BIPOC stakeholders called the Constituency. According to its website, the Constituency is responsible for driving three crucial areas of decision-making for the agency: nominating people for Governing Council membership, reviewing property investment opportunities, and vetting cultural and community partnership proposals. Members of the Constituency must either be a graduate of the City of Seattle’s Build Art Space Equitably (BASE) certification cohort or be voted into the Constituency. When asked to explain the motivations behind this organizational structure, Enrico simply said, “Nothing about us without us.”
Members of the agency’s Governing Council represent the communities most affected by “the disproportionate effects of institutional racism, and other forms of institutional marginalization.” The Cultural Space Agency website also says that to be considered for Council membership, nominees must be “engaged in the fight for equitable cultural development.”
Enrico, who was born and raised in Seattle, has a background in arts, music, theater, and education. “I was brought into Cultural Space Agency by way of the BASE program,” she said. Enrico says that after she finished the program, she “just kind of stuck around.”
“I learned a lot, and I was really enjoying this idea of envisioning what cultural space looks like in Seattle, specifically under gentrification. So I joined the constituency and started showing up to the racial equity committee,” explained Enrico.
Enrico applied for the Governing Council and was accepted at around the same time she was offered the role of executive director. However, due to her new role as executive director, she is unable to sit on the Governing Council.
Hu is from China and has been living in Seattle’s Central District for the past 11 years. Over the past 15 years, she has worked as an urban planner with the City of Seattle, as an affordable housing developer with Mt. Baker Housing Association, and as a development manager with SRM Development.
“I got involved in real estate seven years ago after realizing that a lot of government agencies place regulations that don’t have the capacity to support real estate development, and I wanted to know more so that I could advocate for the right policy choices,” explained Hu. “The hope is that my experience with understanding government processes and the obstacles communities face [while navigating them] will be helpful for the organization.”
In addition to Enrico and Hu’s employment, the agency’s Constituency appointed four new members to its Governing Council: author Ching-In Chen; co-founder of SKL Architects Gladys Ly-Au Young; Black, queer, nonbinary, and multiply disabled organizer ChrisTiana ObeySumner; and Indigenous activist Ixtli White Hawk.
Prior to Enrico and Hu’s employment, staff reported to interim Executive Director Matthew Richter, who founded the organization, and community liaison Ebony Arunga. Now, with two new directors, Richter will be transitioning into a new position within the agency as senior adviser.
“The day-to-day functions were on Matthew and Ebony. Now, there’s two of us, and we’re in the process of hiring a third,” said Enrico. “We are currently hiring for a director of fund development. The community liaison position that is currently held by Ebony will also be filled, because that is also an interim kind of position. So there will be four of us by, hopefully, the next six weeks.”
In addition to completing its hiring process, Enrico and Hu say the Cultural Space Agency is currently working on a few projects. The Columbia City Theater in partnership with Rainier Avenue Radio, and South Park Hall in partnership with Cultivate South Park are both in the process of becoming wheelchair accessible. South Park Hall is to become “El Barrio,” and is intended to exist as a permanent cultural space.
“The potential of what South Park Hall could be and what it could do for the community really excites me,” said Hu.
The Cultural Space Agency is also developing a multi-use interdisciplinary arts space in King Street Station that will be shared with the youth development arts organizations Totem Star, Red Eagle Soaring, Wh!psmart, The Rhapsody Project, and the Jackson Street Music Program, as well as a pop-up shop on Rainier Avenue.
“It [will be] a permanent pop-up space. [We’ll be] partnering with organizations and individuals throughout the area so that they can utilize the space and keep it active so that there’s always something to go to and be at,” explained Enrico.
With their first week on the job down, Enrico and Hu say they are figuring it out. “Not just the two of us as humans, but in community — we’re figuring it out,” said Enrico. “So if folks want to be a part of that and share their thoughts and feelings, we’re here for that.”
This article is published under a Seattle Human Services Department grant, “Resilience Amidst Hate,” in response to anti-Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander violence.
Lauryn Bray is a writer and reporter for the South Seattle Emerald. She has a degree in English with a concentration in creative writing from CUNY Hunter College. She is from Sacramento, California, and has been living in King County since June 2022.
📸 Featured Image: Station Space is one of the new spaces that is being stewarded by the Cultural Space Agency. Pictured are youth served by programs from Station Space’s anchor organizations and Deputy Mayor Greg Wong during the campaign launch event at King Street Station on Oct. 13, 2022. Wong said, “Accessible arts and cultural spaces create vibrant communities and shape the social character of our neighborhoods. This new hub at King Street Station in the heart of our city will give aspiring young artists a place to learn, grow, and thrive.” (Photo: Vee Hua)
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