Cooperation is what makes us human. We are defined by the groups that we belong to: families, nations, workplaces, hobbies.
But groups are hard to maintain. Entropy is always pushing at the edges of our relationships. People leave behind physical manifestations, but an organization can easily disappear without a trace. An immense structure like Safeco Field can seem like an eternal structure, a monument to Safeco that will last forever, but then with the exchange of some significant amount of money it becomes T-Mobile Field.
The WaMu Tower on Second Ave almost immediately lost its name when Washington Mutual disappeared in the Great Recession. Now it's the Russell Investment Center. Different groups rise and fall as people come and go. The will behind organizations fade and dissipate with time.
I've been thinking a lot about arts organizations, lately. It's amazing that they exist at all, that people join forces and dedicate huge portions of their days to supporting and fostering the arts. I know dozens of Seattleites who could be making more money working for tech companies or insurance firms or marketing agencies, but they decide instead to dedicate their lives to the arts. It's a sacrifice, but often a very happy one.
To dedicate yourself to an arts organization is to establish a very tenacious set of roadblocks in your own path. There's that organizational entropy I was discussing earlier: no organization wants to dissipate into nothingness more eagerly than an arts organization. And there's the lack of resources. And there's also the lack of local media willing or able to give the time and attention that the cause so desperately deserves. But still some of us — those sainted few! — decide to stay, and fight, and hold everything together though the whole universe at times is trying to pull them apart.
This Thanksgiving, I wanted to publicly express my gratitude for three local arts leaders who have done exceptional work on behalf of Seattle-area literary organizations. I'm grateful that we have them here in the city, and I hope they're around for many more.
First, I'm thankful for Tree Swenson, who guided the Hugo House through what could easily have been an organization-ending disaster. In the face of Capitol Hill's exponential economic growth, Swenson moved the Hugo House to a temporary location and then moved it back to a beautiful new home where it can exist for decades to come. The next few years are the fun part of the process: the organization is going to fill in the space and actually exist in it. Hopefully Swenson will stay at her post for years to come, to help the House become a home.
Second, I'm thankful for Ruth Dickey, the executive director of Seattle Arts and Lectures. It's hard to remember now, but just a few years ago, SAL was suffering from an existential distress. Attendance was way down at SAL events, and a kind of east-coast stuffiness had set into the programming. Every SAL season seemed like the same parade of New York publisher-approved grand lions of literature, and Seattle was in danger of losing interest. Dickey moved SAL's main-stage events to Town Hall for a few years, and then — with the help of curator Rebecca Hoogs — she oversaw the reading series's triumphant return to Benaroya Hall with a slate of readings as diverse and as fascinating as the world we all live in today. In addition to the high-profile readings slate, SAL does great work with its Writers in the Schools and Youth Poet Laureate program, lighting the way for a new generation of writers in Seattle.
And lastly, I'm thankful for Kelly Froh, who co-founded the Short Run Comix & Arts Festival and then shepherded it through its first great institutional crisis — the departure of founding member Eroyn Franklin. In my interviews with Short Run's board last month, everyone agreed that Froh has stepped up to the challenge and prepared Short Run for a smoother future — one that can survive the loss of any one figure. She's turned it from a happening into a real institution, and prepared it for a long life.
These three leaders have quantifiably made Seattle a better, more vibrant place. They've made their mark on the city by building communities for the rest of us to enjoy and rely on. And they've done it from behind the scenes, with no consideration for rewards or attention. On this, a day of gratitude, I wanted to wish them a Happy Thanksgiving, tell them that their work does not go unnoticed, and extend my sincerest thanks.