Wier Harman, the executive director of Town Hall Seattle, who, over the last 13 years, has expanded the organization into a vital community hub of creativity, civic thinking, and scientific inquiry, sent out a note to Town Hall members today that included some incredibly sad news:
I recently discovered that I am dealing with a complex cancer diagnosis. Over the next several weeks, I will be stepping away from many of my day-to-day functions at Town Hall as my family and I work with my medical team to pursue the best course of treatment.
For anyone who knows Harman, a tireless and inspiring cultural leader, it's hard to imagine him stepping away even for a moment.
"He's staying on as the executive director for the time being, and we're putting leadership in place to manage through the end of June and then we'll know so much more," says Town Hall advancement director Kevin Malgesini.
The organization is 80 percent of the way through a $25 million capital campaign to renovate its historic building, he says. "We've raised over $20 million dollars, we're starting construction this summer, and we have a board that's stepping up and a great team of leaders that's filling in the gaps for now, while buying the time for Wier and Barbara to figure out what's best for their family."
When I saw the email this morning I couldn't stop thinking about how wide-ranging and adventurous Town Hall has become, how essential to the life of the city this place is these days. I remember talking to Harman when he was hired in 2005 and being able to tell—from the look in his eyes—that amazing things were coming. He was 28 years younger than his predecessor, and the youngest person on staff. "I think that was somewhat intentional on the part of the board," he told me back then. He brought Town Hall into the digital age, he decided to make Town Hall an organization that cares about the future of the community and the country (with a civics series), in addition to an organization that cares about the environment and technology (with a science series), and as a former Annex Theatre guy (and a Yale School of Drama guy), the arts and culture offerings only got stronger.
Town Hall hosts 450 events per year (!)—half of them produced by Town Hall, the other half by community partners—and unlike many other arts organizations, tickets to Town Hall events are only $5, because "we believe money should never be a barrier to engaging in the life of our city," Malgesini says. "About a third of our audience has been in Seattle more than 15 years, and about a third of our audience is new within the last five years, so it's this mixing pot of old Seattle and new Seattle."
That's a testament to Harman's superhuman leadership, his ability to see the bigger picture, to figure out how to connect with people, and to bring various communities together. If you've never been to Town Hall before, get down there—they have all kinds of stuff. When David Brewster founded Town Hall in 1998, in a former Christian Science church, the organization was mostly music-focused, and later it partnered with bookstores for readings, but it's all that and more now. "Wier really leads from a point of bringing in as many voices as possible," Malgesini says. His strategy of a decentralized curatorial department, with different curators for different series, and many kinds of series, is what has opened Town Hall up.
"He is so inspiring and does so much more than anybody sees," says general manager Mary Cutler. "I have some sense of it but I don't even think the people who work closely with him know how 22 hours a day he's been working. So yeah, it's time to take a minute for himself."
He's also a hilarious conversationalist, he's warm, he's a strong leader, he's full of ideas, he has an awesome wife, and he has a gift for exceeding expectations, making the impossible seem effortless. The whole city needs him to get better soon, so send good thoughts his way.