Monday, March 16, 2015

Vivian Phillips: new leadership for Seattle's arts commission

Vivian Phillips
Chair, Seattle Arts Commission
(Photo by Jerry and Lois Photography)

Last month, the Seattle Arts Commission announced that Vivian Phillips--director of marketing and communications for the Seattle Theatre Group--would become the 16-member commission's new Chair (click here). Ms. Phillips has an extensive background in arts management, marketing and advocacy. She agreed to respond to a few questions about what's stirring with artists, communities and arts policies in Seattle.


EYA: You have a background in media as well as marketing for arts organizations. What motivated you to become involved on a larger scale in arts advocacy and arts policy for your city?

VP: The majority of my work in media has been focused on elevating the arts. I’ve given 100% to arts advocacy, management, and support since the 1980’s. This is my second time serving on the Seattle Arts Commission, and it just happens that this time I’ve become chair. I have training as a political strategist and served a former Mayor as Director of Communications.

Policy is important to me, but assuring that a policy is implemented is often the challenge and even more important. As Chair of the Arts Commission, my experience and passion work together, and with my fellow commissioners, I advise on policy and its equitable implementation. 

The Seattle Arts Commission supports the Office of Arts and Culture as an advisory and advocacy body, so my primary responsibility is to lead the work of the Commission in ways that uphold that responsibility. This year, all of our work will be done with an eye on holding an equity lens up to all of our decisions, be it funding or community engagement. We are working closely with the Seattle Office for Civil Rights and developing a set of tools and philosophies that will help assure that we are being accountable to creating an arts environment that is more racially equitable in all areas.

In January, the entire Commission participated in two half-days of race and equity training so that we could all have a common starting place from which to move for our work together. A number of new initiatives and programs will launch in 2015, some of which could have incredible impacts on communities of color.  My job is to lead the body in a way that leads to successful outcomes.

EYA: What arts-related issues are top of mind today for Seattle's citizens?

VP: Equity! It’s not enough to be diverse. Along those lines, there is a big gentrification issue and we are in the process now of establishing the Central Area, as a Cultural Arts District. The Central Area is experiencing an enormous amount of development and gentrification and so with our capacity for applying an equity lens to all the work and investments we can make, this is a great opportunity to make a big difference. We don’t know yet how we will make it all come together, but we do know that we are willing to take a risk and do it in a way that increases not just the appearance but the true outcomes in an equitable fashion.   

Under the banner of equity, our work plan also touches on increased outreach and engagement with arts and artists from communities of color. Social justice is obviously a big part of achieving equity as well. The Office just held a #SeaArtsFem Twitter conversation yesterday, and the conversation garnered lots of participation. There are a lot of women making moves in the arts in Seattle right now. Women are expressing their leadership in the arts today in beautiful and effective ways. I think this is noticeable and also top of mind.

EYA: Do you see ways in which Seattle can model sound arts policy for other cities across the nation? What arts initiatives, resources or upcoming events are you particularly excited about this year?

VP: Seattle is already modeling. The Creative Advantage, an initiative to restore arts education to Seattle Public School classrooms, is a program out of our Office of Arts and Culture, and the Seattle Arts Commission. This initiative is unique and leading the path toward equitable arts access.

The Office just launched a Spacefinder Tool that literally documents and provides access to information on all of the cultural arts spaces in the city. And Artists Up is a program designed to support access to funding to targeted groups of artists. These are all programs are examples of sound arts policies that are of interest to arts policy-makers around the nation.  

I’m particularly excited about and focused on the successful transition of Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute into a private non-profit organization, and the designation of the Cultural Arts District for the Central Area. These are cultural assets that need to be fully supported in a thoughtful and strategic way and I’m thrilled to be in a position where I can take a more active role in shaping these two things.  

In addition to the two things listed above, Seattle will be experiencing it’s first District-based City Council elections in the coming year. Several current Council members are leaving and the field is getting quite full of potential candidates. The Commission will hold candidate forums this year so we are clear about who supports the arts and how they intend to deliver.  

It’s a very interesting moment in time, and I feel like this is where my experiences, skills, energy, contacts and history can all culminate for the benefit of the arts, artists and community I love so deeply!


Keep up with Seattle's progressive arts initiatives here.

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