SEATTLE SO WHITE – 50 Years of Anglo-Saxon Leadership at the Office of Arts & Culture

In just a few months, Seattle will celebrate 50 years of arts advocacy.  In 1971 Seattle established the Seattle Arts Commission, and later the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture; a tax-payer funded department with a “commitment to anti-racist work practice that centers the creativity and leadership of people of color – those most impacted by structural racism…” The irony is that since establishing a salaried Director position, the Office of Arts & Culture has never been led by a person of color.

“How can I leave, when so many people of color are asking me to stay?”

Today, as in the past, the Director is an Anglo-Saxon European male, as was the previous Director and the Director before him; all white and all male. The Deputy Director is also white, as well as the Racial Equity Manager.  What’s more surprising ~ as of July 2020 the office does not appear to have a single African American male holding the title of Manager.  And no, project manager is not the same thing. We’re asking why there are no African American males in positions with manager-level authority. We’re asking if the commitment to equity only applies to front-line, entry-level jobs; or will there be an opportunity for African American males to rise to true leadership positions at the Office of Arts & Culture?

Directors OOAC

On the positive side, there are several women of color holding supervisory positions in the department. But it’s the lack of black males in positions of authority that have people questioning whether or not there is a systemic effort to remand these kings to lesser roles, as if giving them decision making ability might jeopardize the established hierarchy.

Outside of the curious employee situation, I think it is important to recognize the good that the current Director, Randy Engstrom, has done at the office.  Engstrom’s experience serving at the Arts Commission prior to taking the Director job, shows a history of community involvement and partnership building.  I’ve no doubt that Engstrom has great support in diverse communities throughout Seattle.  However, the same talent and experience that makes Engstrom successful can also work against his own commitment to racial equity.

The problem for many white executives, is that it’s easy to justify holding on to a position when they work within diverse communities. There is a white savior mentality that says “if I step down, the department will fall apart. How can I leave when so many people of color are asking me to stay?” This is the type of soft racism that keeps good intentioned people in positions of power far too long, while unintentionally blocking qualified candidates from rising to leadership positions.

“As of July 2020 the Office of Arts & Culture does not appear to have a single African American male holding the title of Manager”

And then there’s the money.  At $152,000 per year, Engstrom has cashed-in well over a million dollars in salary since taking the job.  That’s a lot of money to walk away from. On the other hand, isn’t it time someone else had the opportunity to earn such a salary? Do we honestly believe that the office can only be viable when there is a white man at the helm?

The Seattle Arts Commission was formed in 1971, having emerged from the shadow of the Municipal Arts Commission. The original charter had a goal of supporting historic preservation, resident performance groups, and the creation of opera and ballet companies. Over the years the office continued to evolve, until it eventually grew large enough that it needed better funding and management.

On November 18, 2002, Mayor Greg Nickels essentially split the Arts Commission, keeping the original volunteer committee, but adding a new, heavily funded department called the Mayor’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs (revised in 2013 to Office of Arts & Culture). As with most government programs, the new department came with a fat paycheck for the new Director position (as mentioned, current Director Randy Engstrom receives around $12,666.00 per month, $152,000 per year).  Imagine one of our community leaders, those that work with kids and are in the habit of paying out of pocket to keep programs running, having this type of disposable income? I can think of at least a half dozen persons of color who are easily qualified, and I’m sure you can too.

As Seattle approaches 50 years of arts advocacy, join me in calling upon Mayor Durkan to appoint a Director who exemplifies the city’s commitment to racial equality and equity. Thank you, Randy Engstrom, for your commitment to arts & culture in Seattle. We ask that now you show that same commitment to bringing equity to the office.

If you agree that it’s time for change at the Office of Arts & Culture, please sign the online petition at

July 20, 2020


  • Michael Killoren photo
  • Vincent Kitch photo
  • Randy Engstrom photo

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