Seattle's Brand-New Arts Director Randy Engstrom
Randy Engstrom is the newly minted director of Seattle’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs. A longtime local arts leader (City Arts dubbed him "the Advocate" on our Future List last January), Engstrom's previous arts gigs include chair of the Seattle Arts Commission, executive director of Youngstown Cultural Arts Center and consultant to Capitol Hill Housing’s 12th Avenue arts project, 4Culture’s Washington Hall and the CD Forum for Arts & Ideas. If you’ve ever met Engstrom out and about, you will agree that he appears to know everyone. (Conversely, his predecessor at OACA came to Seattle from Austin and never really attached to the local arts community before his departure in August.)
I spoke to Engstrom last Wednesday—his first day on the job—to get a glimpse of what he plans to do in his new role.
It’s your first day. Are you having whiplash?
I'm definitely drinking from the fire hose, but it feels awesome.
What are the big opportunities you want to tackle right off the bat?
The first thing is working with staff to amplify our story. We need to get the word out there, be everywhere, be in conversation with people.
What do you think that story is?
Well, it's really supporting the work the programs already do. In addition to that, I think we need to hone a narrative that I sort of couch as, “Arts as a How: Leveraging Creativity in Seattle." That'll be the title of my book.
I can see the book jacket now.
Yes! I Am America and So Can You. For me, it's about how we utilize arts and culture as a way to leverage and harness other things that are important to civic identity. It's about economic development, it's about community development, and it's about youth development.
Arts and culture employ more than 10,000 people and generate hundreds of millions of dollars of economic activity in Seattle—just based on the 50 organizations that were surveyed in the last economic impact study. The historic downtown theater district could be an absolute boom for cultural tourism. We haven't even scratched the surface of what that program can do.
Economic development is about helping the business community to tell the story of the impact of creative economy on our region. It's pretty undeniable the reach that creativity has in our software sector, in our restaurant industry, in our creative sector, in our urban agriculture, our architecture, you name it. It's a huge part of the engine of the city.
How do you think telling this story will help?
I am hopeful that we could see growth in arts funding as a result of better demonstrating our economic development impact. They there’s community development—how do we do place-making as a city?—whether that's the waterfront or light rail station areas, a robust cultural facilities program or partnerships with housing. We're just at the beginning.
We do a lot of good stuff already, but there are areas where we could or should do more work, like around cultural space, cultural facilities and a cultural plan for the region. How do we begin to think about doing that in a way that's thoughtful, inclusive and strategic? I want to empower ambassadors and help everyone who cares about arts and culture in Seattle become an advocate and evangelist for the arts community.
You describe the ways in which art can benefit the community itself, the economy, the region, etc. What do you say to the people who say art for art's sake?
The thing about our Office is that we're charged with distributing millions of dollars of taxpayer money. So we have to be able to measure impact and measure benefit for the public. That doesn't mean we can't support good art, but it means we have to look at multiple bottom lines when we're thinking about what to do with limited resources. I personally haven't been a studio artist. My background as an artist and an administrator and an advocate has been about how we serve the community and how we create public value, and public benefit. That's the lens I look at and work through.
What do you think is going to be the biggest difference about this role from what you’ve done before?
The landscape is different. I have a cabinet position with the City, so I'm going to be able to work directly with 27 other department directors and a really great staff in the Mayor's office. It's also a big department and a big budget. I've run organizations of half a million dollars up to $750,000, but this is a bigger budget than I've managed before, so that takes a different sort of budget management and accounting and financial management. That doesn't intimidate me; it’s just a bigger scale.
I'm not working for one institution in one neighborhood or several institutions in several neighborhoods, I'm working for all institutions in all neighborhoods.
On a personal level, how do you feel about being entrusted to fill this post?
Incredibly honored and really, really excited. It's an unbelievable opportunity. I have been such an advocate for the arts community of this city for the entire time I've lived here. I believe it to the core of my being. I believe in the power of the impact of the work. And to be asked to steward such an important resource as the City's arts department—it's equal parts exciting and humbling.
I want to help people see how the arts are a strategy for empowering youth development. This Mayor takes youth development and youth anti-violence really seriously—and youth arts education shouldn't ever be considered off to the side. Investing in the creative growth of our young people is a massive priority.
Photo by Kyle Johnson.