Arts Commission Chairs Resign Amid Furor Over Durkan’s “Surprise” Arts Director Appointment

By Erica C. Barnett

On Tuesday, the two co-chairs of the Seattle Arts Commission abruptly resigned, citing “grave concern surrounding Mayor Durkan’s lack of process in the recent appointment of the Acting Director for the Office of Arts and Culture, superseding both community and Council.”

“After meeting with the Mayor’s Office this past Friday and in their subsequent decisions, it was very apparent to us that they had an ulterior motive that did not include any input or involvement  from the Arts Commission or arts and cultural community members,” the co-chairs’ resignation letter continued.

Office of Arts and Culture logoEarlier this month, Durkan appointed former Center on Contemporary Arts (CoCA) director Royal Alley-Barnes to serve as interim director for the office, which has lacked a permanent leader since December 2020, when longtime director Randy Engstrom resigned. She’ll replace Calandra Childers, whom Durkan appointed to serve as interim director when Engstrom left.

Alley-Barnes is the former head of the then-city-funded Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, which is now an independent nonprofit known as LANGSTON.

LANGSTON’s current director, Tim Lennon, wrote a letter to council members expressing his opposition “not to the candidate selected but rather to the total apparent lack of consultation with our sector [and] the utter lack of an articulated strategy for ARTS which necessitates this leadership change 4 months before the end of this administration.”

Members of the ARTS Director Search Committee, including artists, curators, and academics, also wrote a letter to the Arts Commission expressing their disappointment in the process and the “surprise appointment” of Alley-Barnes. The committee convened in early 2021 to begin the process of appointing a permanent, not interim, director, according to the letter.

“The work of this Committee was initiated and overseen by Deputy Director Calandra Childers who was serving as acting Director of ARTS since February,” the letter says. “Her deep commitment and wide-ranging expertise in directing the ARTS office throughout this challenging time, while also guiding the work of this committee, is to be respected, protected, supported, and even modeled—not discarded without a conversation or any thoughtful process.”

Currently, at least eight city departments are headed by interim or acting directors.

The mayor’s office also provided a number of letters supporting the appointment. Unlike the letters of opposition, most of these focused on Alley-Barnes and her record leading arts organizations, including CoCA, over many years. Supporters of her appointment included former King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, Community Police Commission member Harriett Walden, HistoryLink director Marie McCaffrey, and CoCA board member Dr. Judith Rayl, who wrote that she “has embraced a lifetime devoted to community flourishing. Her influence is evident at all levels: regionally, locally, organizationally, and interpersonally through her excellence in leadership and mentorship.”

When a mayor appoints a new permanent department head, the city council has to vote on whether to approve the nomination. An interim appointment, in contrast, requires only the “concurrence” of the budget committee chair (currently Teresa Mosqueda) and the council president (currently Lorena González.) Both signed off on the appointment, although González said she did so only after Durkan called the question by formally announcing Alley-Barnes as the new interim 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 statement. “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.” (Emphasis González’).

Durkan’s office disputes González’s timeline and denies that the process for appointing Alley-Barnes as interim director was in any way unusual. Durkan spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower said the mayor’s office “reached out on September 8 regarding this appointment to which both offices confirmed receipt and expressed no concerns about the imminent announcement,” adding, “the Mayor’s Office has not run a stakeholder process when appointing the Interim or Acting Directors, understanding a longer stakeholder process is needed for permanent appointments.”

For example, Hightower said, the city did not outreach or stakeholder process before appointing Helen Howell (interim Human Services Department director), Rico Quirindongo (interim Office of Planning and Development director) or Pamela Banks (interim Office of Economic Development director). Currently, at least eight city departments are headed by interim or acting directors.

Given that the arts commission wanted to wait to start searching for a permanent director until later in the year (when Durkan’s term will be winding down) the “Mayor took their advice to not start the search for a permanent director and instead opted for an interim director to allow them the time they felt they needed to conduct extensive community engagement to hire a permanent director beginning this winter while also allowing the City to move forward on it Arts equity goals,” Hightower said.

Alley-Barnes has been at the center of at least one very public controversy. In 2015, the artistic director of the Langston Hughes Institute, Jacqueline Moscou, accused Alley-Barnes of rushing to the scene when Moscou’s husband died suddenly at the downtown Seattle YMCA and photographing his body against her  wishes, then attempting to force Moscue to pose with the body where it lay. Moscou sued the city (which employed both women) over the incident. According to a news report at the time, Moscou said Alley-Barnes claimed it was a “Muslim tradition” to photograph bodies, and “began making unspecified ‘upsetting remarks’ and ‘initiating unwanted physical contact’ with Moscou.”

Durkan’s announcement of the appointment highlighted the fact that Alley-Barnes will be the first Black woman to head the arts office, calling her (in a press release titled “Elevating Black Artists and Recovery With Appointment of Royal Alley-Barnes”) the “right person to lead ARTS as we focus on helping BIPOC and underrepresented artists recovery from the significant impacts of COVID-19.” “We should all celebrate our new Arts Director Royal Alley-Barnes,” Hightower added in a statement.

It’s unclear whether the Arts Commission or search committee will continue their efforts to look for a permanent director before next year, when Seattle will have a new mayor. Several people who raised objections to the appointment declined to speak to PubliCola on the record.

3 thoughts on “Arts Commission Chairs Resign Amid Furor Over Durkan’s “Surprise” Arts Director Appointment”

  1. The statement that the Mayor “failed to engage the broader arts community,” is ludicrous, and shows the lack of understanding and respect for grass-roots arts organizations and the arts community at large, which for the most part have no real voice at arts commission meetings.

    Quinton Morris thinks a little too highly of himself. He’s so entrenched in the establishment, that he feels his authority should supersede the Mayor’s. His complaint that the Mayor didn’t “consult the arts community leaders,” is ludicrous; as if these un-elected commissioners were the sole voice of Seattle artists.

    I’m sorry Quinton, but you don’t speak for me or for most of the artists that I know…

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