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.
Earlier 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.” Continue reading “Arts Commission Chairs Resign Amid Furor Over Durkan’s “Surprise” Arts Director Appointment”