While arts folks, especially in the local film industry, are furious that Mayor Ed Murray has kicked out James Keblas as director of the city's Office of Film + Music, this turnover isn't a case of a tone-deaf executive hiring some lame-o bureaucrat who nobody knows. After the initial outcry following Keblas's surprise announcement, it was revealed that Kate Becker would be his replacement—which changed up the narrative. Becker, like Keblas, is a longtime all-ages music activist with deep roots in the local music scene. Surely Becker is just as well-loved and well-respected—and she's a longtime friend and colleague of Keblas's. You could see the internet rage turn into confusion as the news of Becker's hiring broke.
So, uh... WTF? Should we be pissed? Excited? Both? For some clarity on the situation, I asked Megan Seling, who covered Seattle's underage scene in The Stranger for eleventy-zillion years, what she thought of all this.
"While James has done an amazing job in the position and he absolutely will be missed," Seling says by e-mail, "it sucks that the shock of his departure is causing people to overlook how fucking great it is that Kate Becker will be his replacement."
She continued: "Kate has done decades' worth of amazing, incomparable work in the Northwest's all-ages music scene, and in the arts scene in general. She founded the Old Fire House in Redmond and she was one of the driving forces to get the Teen Dance Ordinance repealed and replaced with the All Ages Dance Ordinance. And when James helped co-found the Vera Project many years ago, Kate was one of the first people he and partner Shannon Stewart turned to to help get it off the ground, since Kate was already armed with the experience and the relationships needed to start a new all-ages club."
Seling says what other shell-shocked but optimistic people in the music scene have begun saying: "Kate Becker is probably the only person in this city who could replace James Keblas. So while it is a bummer to lose James, at the same time, it's a hell of a day for Seattle arts."
Echoing that praise is Shannon Halberstadt, who took over for Keblas as the director of the Vera Project after he left for this job in 2005 and has known and worked with both for years. "I'm a huge fan of both James and Kate, so this is bittersweet," she says by e-mail. But while she has "enormous respect" for Keblas's work at the city, she also "can't imagine a better person to take up the charge than Kate Becker," who she calls "a visionary leader" who's "adept at navigating political systems to get things done... We're all lucky to have her."
Neumos co-owner Steven Severin says he's "just as shocked as anybody" to hear about Keblas's departure and is "sad to see him go." But just like everyone else, he thinks Becker is up to the job: "She's proven that she's capable of many, many things. She's pretty much succeeded at everything that she's done."
She says she takes on the position with "tempered excitement" and acknowledges that the move "is causing some fervor and concern in the community." She also reminds everyone of her longstanding relationship with Keblas and the music scene—she's not some nobody showing up to usurp the throne. "It is very clear that people have tremendous admiration for James and his legacy, as do I. I have had the good fortune to work with James in multiple capacities over the years. He and I have been in the trenches together, including co-founding the Vera Project with Shannon Stewart in 2000. We have mutual respect for each other, and have supported each other throughout our careers. We continue to do so now as the community hears this news."
As this roller-coaster keeps moving, it's worth noting two things:
One, the way this announcement rolled out does not look good for Mayor Murray. And while his office isn't commenting on the behind-the-scenes stuff, it seems certain they didn't plan the rollout this way. Keblas's announcement of his departure set off a frenzy that has now been snowballing for the better part of a day—that petition to reinstate him is going to hit 1,000 signatures in less than 24 hours. What exactly was Murray expecting if he canned the incredibly popular and well-connected Keblas?
And two: It's not clear why this happened. Does Murray just like Becker better? Has Keblas made any serious missteps or is there any problem in his department? Murray says nothing in his press release about why someone who's widely considered successful and popular should be sent packing; Keblas has overseen an era of ass-kicking Seattle music and film culture in the last nine years. Becker is fantastic, but her skills and background seem to mirror Keblas's; she's not exactly a new direction for that office.
Time will tell how it all plays out, but as this transition happens—Becker takes over on February 24—the onus is on Murray to demonstrate his commitment to and vision for the arts in this city.