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Updated Sunday, November 11, 2012 at 10:01 PM

Emails reveal rocky end to Kitch's tenure as city's arts director

By Emily Heffter
Seattle Times staff reporter

In the weeks leading up to his sudden resignation this summer, Vincent Kitch, the director of Seattle's Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, was frustrating the mayor's staff members as they tried to set up a conference call.

They couldn't seem to nail him down on a time to discuss a sensitive budget proposal: his department's takeover of the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center.

"I am not quite sure how we tell the mayor one of his directors is refusing to take his call," Julie Tobin wrote in an email among several top advisers to Mayor Mike McGinn.

Kitch moved from Texas to take the Seattle position amid a lot of excitement about raising the profile of the city's arts office. He resigned Aug. 17 after a year and four months.

The mayor's office won't say why, and in his resignation letter, Kitch didn't say why he was quitting. Just two days before he resigned, his emails show he was working on a blog post about his plans in Seattle.

Kitch did not return repeated calls or emails for this story.

Emails released to The Seattle Times under a Public Records Act request reveal a rocky end to Kitch's tenure, as he clashed with the budget office over use of admissions taxes and prepared to surprise directors at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center with what one member of his staff called "drastic changes" to its mission, vision and funding structure.

"From Kitch's point of view, he ended up getting into a job that was not what he expected," said Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata, who spoke to Kitch about his resignation.

At the center of Kitch's disagreement with the mayor is Langston Hughes, a historic, African-American-focused theater and community center in the Central Area. It is the only Seattle theater with an operating budget funded entirely with city money. It is to receive $740,000 in 2013.

Two years ago, the mayor redirected about $1 million a year in admissions-tax money away from Kitch's department so the parks department could use it to fund Langston Hughes and other programs. In 2013, Kitch's department was scheduled to get back its admissions-tax money, but the mayor's staff decided that along with the money, Kitch's department would take over Langston Hughes.

That was the plan the mayor wanted to talk to Kitch about while Kitch was at Harvard University this summer, getting a certificate from the Kennedy School of Government in a program paid for in part by the city. But Kitch was too busy.

"I'm out and normally would do but I'm actually in class at that time," Kitch wrote to a scheduler July 10. "Unfortunately not much I can do. Sorry."

A day later, Michele Scoleri, a top McGinn staffer, wrote: "Ironically, the point of the meeting is for the mayor to reinforce that Vincent is going to need to step up to the plate and show some leadership on the issue ... "

They ended up having the meeting without Kitch. Five weeks later, he was gone.

This fall, the mayor hired Randy Engstrom, a local and founder of the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, to take Kitch's place. He started work Oct. 3.

Emails among Kitch and his top staff members during the last month Kitch worked for the city make it clear they opposed the Langston Hughes move. They wrote that the administrative and communication needs of the theater would be a burden, questioned the size of its staff, and said they thought the center should become more self-funding. One email said the mission needed to be "revamped."

Kitch and his staff spent a week marking up a communications plan prepared by Langston Hughes Executive Director Royal Alley-Barnes, and there was a lot of red ink.

In one example, they took a sentence that said the theater's mission was to infuse grass-roots African-American art into the Seattle artistic landscape, crossed out "African-American" and added "representative of all communities of color."

Those changes aren't reflective of the mayor's plans for Langston Hughes, said Aaron Pickus, a spokesman for McGinn. They were scrapped after Kitch left.

"The mayor's plan is very, very clear," said Royal Alley-Barnes, the executive director of Langston Hughes. "Emails, to me, are emails. I think reality and emails can be very far apart. I think the reality is the mission's intact."

Engstrom, the new director, said it's natural for staff members to be concerned about change. Despite that, he said: "I can say pretty confidently that the staff is supportive of the move."

That would be a change of heart for his staff. In August, his cultural partnerships director, Kathy Hsieh, expressed that she was offended by Langston Hughes' mission and frustrated with the whole process: "My biggest issue is, that if I don't buy the main premise — that moving LHPAC to our office is the best thing, then all the points supporting it seem false to me."

The Seattle City Council is voting on the plan to move Langston Hughes as part of its 2013 budget vote later this month. Their plan would require Langston Hughes to become more independent, either by providing more of its own funding or by becoming a nonprofit separate from the city.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @EmilyHeffter.


DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Vincent Kitch




ELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Plans for the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center seem to be at the center of Vincent Kitch's resignation as director of Seattle's Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs.




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