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On Leadership and Creativity

I will admit that it can be challenging sometimes to find or see inspiration in government but I feel lucky in that regard leading the Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, as we’re in the business of creativity. I have just completed 21 years in public service in government arts administration and know firsthand the value of this work. This last month I was very fortunate to complete the Senior Executives in State and Local Government program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. I am extremely grateful to Harvard for the scholarship, as well as WESTAF and 4Culture for supporting this endeavor.

The Kennedy School provided an incredibly intense, educational and personally inspiring experience. My cohort of 78 included senators, state representatives, city council members, city and county managers, fire and police chiefs, union representatives and four of us who focus on arts and culture.

Immersed in the classroom, study groups, informal discussions, and a couple hours of homework every night brought a focus to many aspects of my work, and the work of the Office. We delved into areas such as public service, decision making, local government finance, religion in government and leadership. We were inspired by real world lessons delivered by leaders who made a difference in their work, such as Dan Fenn, staff assistant to John F. Kennedy at a time with the White House staff numbered 74; Joel Burns, a Fort Worth,  city council member who spoke out in the wake of homosexual teen suicides on the danger of bullying and brought about legislation to protect youth; and Dr. Yang Jianli, who survived the Tiananmen Square Massacre and served five years in prison rather than give up his Chinese citizenship, and who continues to work towards peaceful transition to democratic governance in China.

It’s challenging to transition from the intense days that I experienced at the Kennedy School where we focused on big ideas and big-picture thinking back to working on day-to-day details in my role as director of the Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs here in Seattle. Yet, the transition is improved in that I’m truly inspired, and proud of the work we all collectively do on behalf of our community and I am honored to be part of this great creative city. Most people don’t associate city government with being creative but I’m excited about the work our office is doing.  From Art Interruptions our Public Art team has developed on Greenwood and the Waterfront to the Arts and Social Change Symposium October 12-13 to new funding programs for Cultural Facilities and Arts Mean Business, the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs staff is supporting artists and the community. I feel tremendously fortunate to be in this position, in this organization, and in this city.

Overall the experience was humbling and enlightening and something I think about every day since I’ve been back. In many ways, I am still trying to process the experience and wrap my brain around bringing those lessons back to our Office. One thing that I keep coming back to is that everyone can engage in leadership and by doing so, some great contributions can be made to society. Marty Linsky said that in leadership, one needs to be brutally realistic while remaining eternally optimistic, and with that one could change the world. This is such a moving and completely applicable reflection on our field. How is it that arts and culture has for so long made the very most from every situation (the last few years being particularly difficult) and continued to impact our communities and the world? It is the resilience and creativity of artists and cultural organizations and their ability to transcend boundaries. And that is truly inspiring.

 – Vincent Kitch, director