Randy Engstrom and Andy Fife, Seattle Art Instigators

Feb 1, 2013

Randy Engstrom and Andy Fife.
Randy Engstrom and Andy Fife.
Credit Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times

When Randy Engstrom and Andy Fife start talking about Seattle arts and culture you can almost feel the air around them vibrate. "It’s like a natural resource," enthuses Engstrom. Fife chimes in. "This is a place where nature is abundant and provides so much. Likewise culture."

You get the sense you’re face to face with the contemporary versions of Frederick Weyerhauser or Bill Boeing, adventurers who came West to seek their fortunes more than a century ago. Instead of harvesting trees, though, Fife and Engstrom plan to harness culture to expand Seattle’s economic vibrancy.

Culture and community building are subjects these two men toss around on a regular basis. They’ve known each other since 2005 when Fife was operations director at Consolidated Works (Conworks), a now-defunct arts and performance venue once located in South Lake Union. At the time, Engstrom ran a bar and multi-media company called Static Factory. When his business lost its Capitol Hill home, Engstrom took up temporary residence at Conworks, helping Fife produce events. "We’ve been in touch since then," says Engstrom, "around different projects, but also just to hang out."

Casual and entrepreneurial, Fife, 35, and Engstrom, 36, represent a generational shift in local arts leadership, according to longtime arts insiders. This new wave is more activist — eager to change what they see as outdated attitudes about the arts. Observers such as Fidelma McGinn, who formerly directed the grant-making organization Artist Trust and is now a vice president of The Seattle Foundation, have a word to describe Fife and Engstrom: "Instigators," she calls them.

"I'm an aspirational person; I think there's always more we can do, and this city really rewards that spirit."

They want art to do more than beautify and entertain — they want it to foster social change, lure kids away from gang involvement, create community and, perhaps most radically, figure out how to pay its own way.

Tonight Engstrom and Fife chat over beers and happy hour sushi. It’s a brief respite before each man has to dash off to his respective evening meeting. Meetings are a fact of life. Last fall, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn appointed Engstrom to his first public sector job, interim directorship of the city’s Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs. McGinn acknowledges Engstrom doesn’t have the hands-on administrative experience he’d normally look for in a potential city department head. But, "he has the aptitude and the attitude to do great things, so you want to take the chance," says McGinn. It didn’t hurt that Engstrom shares the mayor’s belief in art as a tool to foster social change. Both men are keen to expand access to arts education into low-income neighborhoods, and to provide cultural activities as potential deterrents to gang involvement.

Randy Engstrom moved to the Northwest from Chicago in 1995 to study public affairs and nonprofit management at Evergreen State College. To him, art and performance were, and still are, primarily avenues for community organizing and social justice. Engstrom wanted to do his organizing work in Seattle rather than his hometown, which he calls entrenched in its social stratification. "Seattle is a more entrepreneurial city," he explains. "I’m an aspirational person; I think there’s always more we can do, and this city really rewards that spirit."

That sense of possibility also lured Andy Fife to the Pacific Northwest. Like Engstrom, Fife grew up near Chicago. He studied music, theater and writing at Northwestern University, but says he’s really more entrepreneur than artist. Fife estimates he’s launched 15 businesses since high school. He moved to Seattle eight years ago, and since then, Fife’s become an unapologetic civic booster. "The world is looking at us as one of the top five cities in the country where creative enterprise, artistry and culture are at their peak, where new things are made." Fife points to the industries that now define Seattle: Microsoft, Amazon.com, Boeing and Starbucks, as well as pop music and the city’s nationally known theater scene.

Fife sees creativity as a potential bridge between the arts and every other city sector, from the public schools to the business community. He’s worked to build those bridges at the nonprofit organization Shunpike, where he’s been executive director for the last five years. Shunpike’s main mission is to provide business and technical support to artists and small arts groups. But it’s better known for the Storefronts Project, an ongoing program that installs artists in empty commercial buildings for rotating three-month residencies. The Storefronts program strives to meld artists’ needs for affordable work space with the business community’s desire to enliven downtown buildings left vacant during the Great Recession.

Although Andy Fife and Randy Engstrom are friendly colleagues, one arts insider describes them as competitors. In fact, Fife was a finalist for the city position that ultimately went to Engstrom. What the two men share is a dedication to change.

"I would say we have to get away from the constant conversation about needing money. Most businesses would agree that more money is better, but the way they get there is to design healthy products that people like."

"Anyplace that has become as calcified and institutional as the arts over the last 30 years needs a shakeup from time to time," Fife says. At Shunpike, Fife and his staff push small arts groups to come up with new business models, to think beyond the arts’ financial reliance on public grants and private philanthropy to augment ticket sales. "I would say we have to get away from the constant conversation about needing money," Fife says. "Most businesses would agree that more money is better, but the way they get there is to design healthy products that people like." It’s an attitude one observer describes as brash and unfair to arts leaders who’ve been laboring in the nonprofit trenches for years.

As the new head of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs (OACA), Randy Engstrom knows the money shortage first hand. Public arts funding is extremely tight and isn’t likely to increase anytime soon. Engstrom says if there’s been any silver lining in the recent economic downturn, it’s pushed the arts community to think outside the box. Engstrom welcomes risk-taking with open arms. After his business Static Factory closed, Engstrom found a different outlet for his entrepreneurial impulses in West Seattle’s Delridge neighborhood. In 2006, as the founding director, he oversaw the opening of the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, in an old public school building.

Youngstown provides affordable live/work space for artists, as well as office space for youth and environmental programs. Engstrom calls Youngstown his proudest achievement to date, a sustainable model for the kind of community development work he wants to do at OACA. "My question is still how do we create value and impact? How do we make our work accessible and relevant to every citizen in the city?" City Councilmember Nick Licata, who chairs the committee that oversees Seattle’s cultural programs, says under Engstrom’s leadership he expects OACA to broaden its base of constituents and supporters. Licata says Engstrom is the right person for this job and will vote to make the interim position permanent when the full council considers the appointment in March.

Like Randy Engstrom, Andy Fife would love to see more cross pollination between creative thinkers in business and the arts. To help jumpstart that dialogue, Fife will leave his job at Shunpike at the end of February. He plans to set up shop as a private consultant.

Kris Tucker, executive director of the Washington State Arts Commission, has known Fife since 2009. Fife is now first vice-chair of the commission’s board of directors. "Andy and I have had many conversations about building support for the arts," says Tucker, "including what the arts sectors can learn from other efforts." She says Fife has "big ideas," including expanding the definition of arts to encompass private for-profit startups, in addition to the traditional not-for-profit arts organization model.

Fife and Engstrom are not without their detractors. Former Artist Trust Director Fidelma McGinn thinks the two men have been too quick to overlook incremental changes that have taken place in the last five years, or to overlook leaders who aren’t as outspoken as them. That said, McGinn believes Engstrom has what it takes to hold his own with the establishment. "He’s an authentic guy, you know where you stand with him," McGinn explains. "I really admire his ability to say it as it is and then follow through." One City Hall staffer says Engstrom’s appointment has reinvigorated a long-stalled City Hall plan to create incentives for the development of arts and culture facilities in Capitol Hill’s Pike/Pine corridor.

Even though he didn’t get the job, Andy Fife fully endorses Randy Engstrom’s ascension to the directorship of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs. Fife says Engstrom is poised to guide Seattle into a leadership position when it comes to cultural innovations, but the community needs to buy into the vision. True to his reputation as a brash spokesman for a new generation, Fife doesn’t pull any punches.

"Arts and culture have had troubles. The answer is not to repeat the same thing, but to do something different, and then tell everybody how we did it differently."

KUOW related series: Culture Shock, on redefining the role of government in the arts and what it means to make art in the 21st century. Reported by Marcie Sillman, Feb. 2011.

In 2013 KUOW presents “13 for '13”, in partnership with the Seattle Times.  This 12-part series profiles 13 members of the Seattle-area’s diverse cultural community, people who have had an impact and are poised to shape the cultural landscape in the decade to come.