What happens when the managing director for a hip contemporary arts org takes the reigns of a film festival defined by its populist bent? On the Boards Sarah Wilke is about to show us.
What happens when the managing director for a hip contemporary arts org takes the reigns of a film festival known for its populist bent? On the Boards' Sarah Wilke is about to show us. Courtesy of On the Boards

Seattle International Film Festival, the largest film festival in the country, has been searching for a new executive director for a year. Thursday morning they announced they've found one in Sarah Wilke, who has been the managing director at Seattle's premier contemporary performing arts haus, On the Boards, for the last 12 years. She'll take over for interim director Christine Martin in January.

Artistic director Lane Czaplinski says Wilke has been integral to OtB's success over the course of their dozen years running the house together. "It's an organization with no debt and $650,000 in operating cash reserves on a $1.65 million budget. Our finances are the envy of most non-profit organizations around the state," Czaplinski says, adding, "That's a tribute to Sarah, as well as our board and our staff. She's one part of it, but she's a major part."

He's confident that her leadership abilities will be an asset to SIFF as they continue to grow into whatever kind of organization they want to become: "[Wilke} is somebody who can help rally the community," he says.

As managing director, Wilke wasn't just in charge of the finances and business side of things. She worked closely with Czaplinski to initiate several programs including OntheBoards.tv (a production arm of OtB that films and distributes performances), Studio Suppers (dinner for ~60 patrons on opening nights), and the Ambassador Project. "There's a fallacy that the artistic director only deals with art and the managing director deals with all things finance. That's not how we've rolled," Czaplinski says.

Wilke was also invested in audience engagement, and was happy to discuss challenging shows with surly theatergoers. When people would call in or write an e-mail complaining that OtB must have "lost its mind," Czaplinski says, Wilke would respond personally.

"My first response was to say off with your head!" Czaplinski says of those critics, adding, "But Sarah writes or calls them back and says, 'Man, we really appreciate your perspective, it's what makes this place go. Yeah, that show is kinda crazy, and we believe in what we do, but we also appreciate your perspective. Wanna have coffee and talk about it?'"

President of the board, Ruth Lockwood, says the board is happy for Wilke. "It's the right time for the organization and it's the right time for her. She's going to continue to do amazing things for arts in Seattle," she says.

The board was informed of Wilke's departure on Tuesday and has since convened a "task force" to start working on what to do with the absence of such a strong pillar. Lockwood thinks it would be foolhardy simply to hire someone to replace Wilke, and says the board is taking a close look at "how to leverage the position to grow the organization."

Lockwood describes the opening as an opportunity. "We haven't exactly identified how," she says, "but the idea of the leadership of the organization being something that's in transition is something we talked about before Sarah [Wilke] left."

Czaplinski filled in that idea a little more: "We're talking about how to involve more perspectives in a leadership way. Curatorially, at a board level, at the staff level, from an intellectual standpoint, and in terms of the language that frames projects," he says.

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Wilke will make her public debut as SIFF's executive director at the festival's annual gala, Sip for SIFF, next week. The full transition into her new role is expected to take two months.

According to board president Brian LaMacchia, SIFF's board "couldn't be more than pleased" with Wilke's arrival. Interim artistic director Beth Barrett, who took over for Carl Spence following his exit earlier this month, says she's “known and respected Sarah for many years" and is "looking forward to working with her."

What happens when the managing director for a contemporary dance theater takes the reigns of a film festival defined in many ways by its populist bent? We'll see. If Wilke's achievements at OtB are any indication, SIFF could get a little wilder, a little weirder, but still feel like home.