Meet the Mayor’s Arts Awards Winners: Courtney Sheehan

Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim (left) and Arts Commissioner Tracy Rector (right) join Courtney Sheehan as she accepts the Mayor's Award for Arts & Innovation. Photo by Bruce Clayton Tom.

Northwest Film Forum, that bastion of independent cinema and community engagement through film on Capitol Hill, recently enjoyed one of the most successful fundraising seasons in its 21-year history. Its upswinging popularity is due in no small part to the vision of Courtney Sheehan, who arrived at NWFF in 2013 as program director and took over the role of executive director in May of last year. Since the beginning of her tenure, Sheehan has pushed the nonprofit in new and interesting directions, vastly increasing the number of live and mixed-media events in the Film Forum’s two theater spaces and consistently focusing on equity and advocacy in its programming. In recognition of her work, last week Sheehan was bestowed with the award for Arts & Innovation at last Thursday’s 2017 Mayor’s Arts Awards. We spoke with her about her take on the award, her expectations of the next mayor and the exchange between the arts and civic life.

City Arts: Congrats, Courtney, on not only winning the award but also in delivering a kickass acceptance speech. You made a point of demanding that the incoming mayor, whoever she may be, maintain a strong civic connection to Seattle’s arts community, and for the City’s direct support of arts as a means of social improvement. Was that a spontaneous decision or something you started thinking about when you learned you were a finalist?

Courtney Sheehan: The description of the award mentions different kinds of innovation, and one is cross-sector work. That’s something I’ve tried to integrate on a foundational level in what we do at the Forum, by transforming our programming from primarily film to live and hybrid and multidisciplinary in nature—and also more socially and politically explicit and engaging. One project I’m most proud of this year is the Seventh Art Stand, a national film and discussion series that was a direct response to the first travel ban.

Art is always political. Art and politics have an inextricable relationship and we don’t have time to waste in making sure that what we’re doing in the arts and culture sector is aligned and responsive to people’s lived experiences and needs, which are shaped by our political systems. It’s the mayor and other public officials’ responsibility to recognize that the arts have a role to play in contributing to the social change that’s urgently needed right now and that public resources need to be made available to support that work. The work we do in arts and culture is always in conversation with our civic lives.

Are you talking specifically about funding or general recognition?
Both. It’s a two-way street. Public institutions that are more civic or political in nature would see the arts, institutions, resources—even magazines like City Arts—as partners in building the kind of world we want future generations to live in. It needs to be a collective effort.

I appreciate that you’re calling out both civic and institutional leaders there. 
Yes, I don’t think that we can do this work in a vacuum—or pretend to. Certainly not if we’re working towards the social and racial equity the city needs to focus on. Civic leaders have a specific role to play in providing structural resources to support this kind of partnership and collaboration.

Has there been any sort of negative, purist reaction to the direction you’re going in? Any people who complain about the lack of attention on more traditional modes of film, who’d prefer leaving politics out of programming?
That’s a false delineation. I don’t think such a pure state exists. But if you look at our calendar you see we show a lot films. We are by no means abandoning any of that focus. We’re still showing and premiering hundreds of films each year that aren’t showing anywhere else in Seattle and are in maybe five or 10 U.S. cities.

I will say that one time we got an unsubscribe from our email list and the guy wrote, “Since your organization has become a shill for the democratic party, please unsubscribe me.” And we were like, is that as far left as we are? [laughs] And we’re not affiliated with any party as a nonprofit, of course.

I don’t regret the fact that we’re trying to walk our talk in this regard, and it’s being seen and felt. Our attendance is up. There’s certainly more types of audiences coming in than ever before and we had a record year for fundraising as well. The community is showing that they’re down with what we do.

Check out the calendar of upcoming events at Northwest Film Forum, including the 20th edition of Local Sightings, an annual showcase of Northwest film, which runs Sept. 22 – 30.