When you look at the Vera Project, that spunky little youth engagement center and all-ages venue, you probably don’t think politics. You probably think about its silkscreened-poster workshop, the one time your friend from high school ran sound for your favorite band there, or how you took that class that illuminated the arcane art of miking a drumkit.
Fourteen years after its birth, the Vera Project just seems as if it’s always been there. And that’s part of what Tim Lennon—the Vera Project’s brand-new executive director who just started at the beginning of this month—is hoping to change. He wants the Vera to get back to its roots as a direct citywide force for change and empowerment, rather than focusing simply on what happens in “those four walls at Seattle Center.”
“Since [Vera was created in 2001] there hasn’t been as much political engagement,” Lennon says. “Not that there should’ve been—but that energy of ‘We’re going to take on the world and change it,’ and then doing it, is something I’d love to see us get back into. ”
Lennon moved to Seattle to begin a long career in arts-event coordination in 2001—the same year the Vera Project was founded in direct response to a citywide cultural crisis created by the Teen Dance Ordinance. A cartoonish law straight out of Footloose, it effectively banned all-ages shows by making them outlandishly expensive for venues to host.
“We were dealing with this weird culture from leadership trying to push away our musical identity to be quote-unquote ‘world-class’ like other cities,” James Keblas, a Vera co-founder and current City Council candidate, tells me over the phone. “We were trying to say, ‘No, we don’t need to be like other cities, we need to be like us.’ ”
Vera achieved its goal at breakneck speed—after putting pressure on the nightlife industry and the Seattle City Council, the organization helped overturn the Teen Dance Ordinance a year later. Ironically, that quick victory has become the source of Vera’s biggest struggle.
In separate interviews, both Lennon and Keblas said the same thing: “The Vera is a victim of its own success.”
“Seattle has a big history of resting on its laurels,” Keblas says. “We get engaged [with an issue], go ‘Oh, we got it!’, and then when it goes away, we all say ‘Well, wait, what happened?’ ”
It’s a phenomenon that Kate Becker, another Vera co-founder and current director of Seattle’s Office of Film & Music, explained in more detail. “Once an organization exists for a while and seems stable, there is naturally something that happens, and it’s something I’ve seen happen with several programs I’ve started. When there’s not that immediately urgent, initial compelling need for everyone to jump in and be involved like there was at the beginning, things start to get taken for granted. It gets a little taken for granted that Vera will be there, Vera will exist, and that great things will continue to happen at Vera. I wouldn’t call it complacency, but I’d certainly say Vera is evolving.”
Without that driving mission to overturn the Teen Dance Ordinance, things at Vera got rocky. Its old split “triforce” leadership model, which shared power among programming, managing, and fundraising directors, started to break down over the past two years, igniting practical and philosophical conflicts that in March 2014 led the Vera’s board to elect to hire a single executive director instead. The idea received a lot of pushback from Vera members concerned that the single-leadership model would be too authoritarian, so an interim executive director was hired in April 2014 to test it. Andy Fife of Seattle arts-management and policy-consultation firm Shunpike was brought on to fill the experimental role.
“I came in and said, well, there’s a functioning operational system here, and I don’t want to upset it by changing everything suddenly, because it’s already upset emotionally,” Fife says. “I assessed the situation for a month and wrote up this big 40-page report on what was good, what was bad, and where the story was missing, and just started addressing those issues one by one. It was six months of unraveling—it was a very challenging time for Vera.”
Fife’s contract, initially set for only five months, was reupped twice due to the unexpected volume of work. (When he leaves this week, he’ll have been there a full year.) During that period, staff turnover spiked, making things even harder.
“Every two months somebody left,” Fife says. One by one, the talent buyer, the program manager, the development director, and the operations manager moved on. Despite the turnover and the daunting structural reworking that was needed, Vera saw some very tangible positive momentum, most noticeably in its year-end fundraising campaign. From 2013 to 2014, numbers jumped dramatically from $15,000 to $55,000.
“I think part of that was the fresh story,” Fife says. “When Vera came out of the cannon it was shot out of in 2001, it had an immediate community-wide mandate and incredible impact on day one. Fast forward to now: Almost every arts organization in town has a youth advisory board. The platform of youth inclusion into culture has really grown, and Vera was the tip of the spear. The burden of that success was that the Vera started focusing more on how to keep its doors open in Seattle Center than on its impact on the entire community in the city.”
According to Fife, the narrative at Vera became far more internalized than its initial community-oriented mission—staff conflicts and the minutiae of Vera’s inner workings started to consume the contagious energy that had led to its success. “Just by coming out and saying, ‘Vera is ready to come back out of its shell and look at the city and ask what’s needed?’ —that helped everything immensely.”
In light of Fife’s success, Vera members voted to elect a permanent executive director, and given its “fresh story,” Tim Lennon was “a perfect, really exciting choice,” Fife says. In his career, Lennon has often invited the city into new spaces. At the Office of Arts & Culture, he oversaw the city’s Concerts in the Park series and worked on the spacefinderseattle.org project, a website that connects artists with artist space in a city chronically deprived of it. And Lennon had already participated in Vera’s new politically engaged vision, sitting on a highly successful “Ferguson: Mobilizing Our Community” panel hosted at the teen center in January.
“That event was an example of the best of Vera,” Lennon says. “That was a case of the members very intentionally centering young people and people of color in the conversation in this DIY way. The best part of the panel was when we panelists stopped talking and it turned into an open conversation with a lot of young folks engaging each other. I felt like I learned more in that conversation than I had anywhere else. We’re creating the world we want to see in that space, whether it’s with these conversations, through visual art, or putting on a show. Rather than seeing it as a refuge from the issues we face in our city right now, it’s about inviting the whole city in.”
For Lennon, “inviting the whole city in” also means taking Vera to the people, hosting shows and classes in further-away neighborhoods like Rainier Beach or Ballard so that youth can “hang out in Vera spiritually and emotionally” on their own turf rather than just physically down at the Seattle Center, a location that can be hard to get to. “We need to have Vera everywhere—the space as a headquarters will always remain, but we need to get Vera out there in order to really empower youth and get these resources to them.”
And as Lennon is quick to point out, even though it seems like a new idea on the surface, this current evolution is actually a nod to Vera’s past. When the organization was born, it hosted shows all over the city in a variety of venues before it found its current home in 2006. “At this moment in our city, we need to get as many people living that Vera spirit as possible, inside and outside our four walls, if the city is going to survive and thrive. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
The Vera Project, 305 Harrison St., will host a public reception/meet and greet for Tim Lennon on Thurs., April 9 at 8:30 p.m.