A decade ago, the Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association started working to preserve the Youngstown School, built in 1907 to educate the children of steelworkers at the nearby plant. Unlike Capitol Hill or Queen Anne, Delridge isn't exactly known as a place where people walk freely about. It's a sometimes-rugged lower-income stretch connecting West Seattle to Burien through White Center. The Association envisioned turning the former school into a gathering place with housing for artists and classes for kids. By 2005, the Association had acquired the building and come up with a vision, they just needed someone to implement it.
At the time, Randy Engstrom was running a nonprofit called Static Factory under what was then the Capitol Hill Arts Center. He provided musicians with cheap studio space, promotion advice, and help with recording and mixing, while allowing them to retain all rights to their work. When Burning Man founder Larry Harvey met Engstrom in the Nevada desert one year, he was so impressed with his ability to combine good business sense with a communist-style approach to fostering the arts that he invited Engstrom to his San Francisco headquarters to help his own staff better manage the multimillion-dollar festival.
So when a friend heard that the Delridge Association was looking for someone with a good head for business and a community-oriented approach to the arts, he thought Engstrom would be the perfect fit. It seems he was right.
When Engstrom first came on board, the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center had two other employees. Engstrom spent two years promoting the building as a rental. Eventually money started coming in, and as the budget grew, Engstrom started adding programs. Now the former school hosts 36 affordable living and work studios for artists, galleries, recording studios, and a 150-seat performance space for films, dance, music, and theater performances. The staff is up to 17.
"We live in a culture that fosters an isolationist way of living," says Engstrom. He aims to combat that.
"It's just like a second home," says West Seattle High School senior Diana Estrada, who shows up every Wednesday night to put together a meal and discuss social issues. "I'm just so comfortable here. She sits on a council of 12 neighborhood kids who decide who will be granted permission to use the space for classes or workshops. That means much older artists or community leaders have to apply to their jury for acceptance into Youngstown. "There's not a lot of opportunities to be in leadership roles at school," Estrada says.
In honor of Engstrom's work at Youngstown, the D.C.-based group Americans for the Arts last month named him its 2009 Emerging Leaderâ€"an award given to someone under the age of 35 running an arts organization. "Randy exemplifies the qualities needed to lead and advance the arts," Americans for the Arts CEO Robert Lynch said in a press release.
And Engstrom isn't done: In addition to his work at Youngstown, he sits on the city arts commission, and is currently studying for a master's in Public Administration at the University of Washington Evans School. "I'm trying to figure out how to make other places do things like Youngstown," he says.â€"Laura Onstot