October 30, 2019

Randy Engstrom (EMPA ’09) on Seattle’s Creative Ecology

Randy Engstrom (EMPA ’09) has served as the Director of the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture since 2012 and in that time he has felt the impact of a shift in Federal Government priorities that has put more pressure and emphasis on interventions from local government. He is still determined and inspired and to explore solutions in promoting racial equality, educational access, climate and income equality.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

As the Director of the Office of Arts & Culture (ARTS) in the City of Seattle, I have been tasked with promoting the creative ecology of the city. In a climate where racial equality, educational access, climate, and income equality are at the forefront of issues in the public sector, I have led the ARTS through developments in public art programming, new programs and policies in arts education and racial equity through the arts.

The race and equity work promoted by ARTS led to great collaboration and innovation here across the city. ARTS shares and embeds staff positions within many departments to advance the department’s goals using arts as a vehicle. For example, the Office for Civil Rights has integrated arts and culture to advance racial justice and have used it to define and deploy changes, in addition to how they create artist’s stories. ARTS has also recently co-produced the Shape of Trust Program to advance racial justice. The goal of the project is to build a practice of racial equity within the workplace using experiential, arts-integrated learning for employees who supervise, manage and advise on human resources issues. To realize the project we commissioned a local theater artist to write a show based on feedback from the Citywide Race and Social Justice Initiative survey, using real stories about experiences with racial and sexual harassment. We then casted a team of actors and staged three readings, reaching over 1,200 City Staff. It was very powerful and very well received and a good example of arts-based strategies.

I am excited by ARTS’ increased focus on our creative economy and growing the creative industry in Seattle. The creative economy is the intersection between cultural development and economic development; investing in creative skills and understanding their role in the wider economy is more important now than ever.  With technological advances like automation and artificial intelligence gaining momentum and investment, it is equally important to invest in jobs that humans are uniquely qualified to do. Jobs that are not easily replaced by machines are those grounded in creativity, empathy, and storytelling. Our focus is on fields that center creativity, the human experience, and the creation and preservation of culture.

At the Evans School, I learned to emphasize strategy, frame my arguments, and communicate concisely. The Evans School taught me to think about organizational management by getting on the balcony, imagining the future, and mapping out a system with a plan.  To minimize room for interpretation, I learned to set up a framing narrative to add power to my proposals and improve their effectiveness in legislation or execution. I learned to communicate effectively, quickly, and briefly on incredibly detailed and intense issues.   

I feel an urgency to provide pathways for people to serve the public and the community. We need nurture and include everyone who wants to contribute. I personally hope to continue contributing to the city, and I hope people can hear – and answer- the call of public service.