New on the job as director of performing arts at Ysleta High School, and a Midwestern outsider, Kitch found himself having to fire their popular teacher and take over himself, though he plays trombone, not drums.
What he knew about group dynamics, he'd learned by having been in bands since the fourth grade (not as an only child at home, he jokes). So he made a deal with the furious girls that if they reached a certain level in a statewide competition, he'd humiliate himself by wearing one of their Indian Maidens uniforms and marching with them in a home-game halftime show.
A few years later, in Austin, Texas, he did not have to put on a maiden's uniform again. But in his first five months on the job as Austin's Cultural Arts Program Director, he brokered a peace among contentious arts groups over the city's funding process. From an article in the Austin Chronicle in early 2004: "Hercules had it easy...Vincent Kitch, Austin's first official arts tsar, is tackling a task almost as mythic in proportion—overhauling the city's arts funding program, which is encrusted with at least two decades of conflicts and controversies...Even though he has only the strenght of a mortal, Kitch has...[developed] a different, less contentious, more supportive way for the city to fund artists."
Seattle Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith says he hasn't seen that article. But he's equally excited about Kitch, Mayor Mike McGinn's selection for new director of Seattle's Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs.
"Given that he has a deep arts education background, he understands arts as an economic driver, he knows how to work with capital projects, he has worked in public art—he was the whole package, frankly," Smith said by phone Wednesday.
Kitch's appointment, which must be confirmed by City Council, was the result of a national search conducted by Smith, the mayor, and a nine-member panel of Seattle Arts Commissioners and community members. (That panel included The Stranger's Brendan Kiley, who was asked to join after Kiley and I wrote this piece listing our dream candidates for the job, and explaining why. All the panel's members were sworn to secrecy.)
Talking by phone from Austin, Kitch said, in his slight Southern accent, "It's just a huge, new, and exciting thing." He explained that Texans, including him, are happy to drive three hours for a barbecue, and said he's planning to become "more green" in Seattle.
Asked about his professional reputation as a peacemaker, he said, "Our work touches the community. The people are who we serve—I’m a big customer service guy. We have to leverage everything we have, and that takes collaboration and partnership."
Here's a summary of Kitch's resume: He's from Quincy, Illinois and attended Quincy University, where he studied music performance and business, then Illinois State University, earning a master's degree in music (in 1990). He went on to become arts program coordinator for the city of El Paso, then uniform-wearer at Ysleta High, and then Education and Capital Improvement Programs Coordinator for the Michigan Council of Arts and Cultural Affairs, before going to Austin.
Is he perfect for this job? Obviously, he hasn't even started yet—it's impossible to say. There are promising indicators, like his early work in Austin, and also a few question marks.
Kitch has shown himself to be a diplomat rather than a visionary; his record is as a stalwart public servant.
He'd never been to Seattle before his job interview, which Seattle Deputy Mayor Smith sees as a bonus, for the potential for fresh ideas to arise out of the novelty of a new place, but which also means he's starting from scratch, without relationships outside the city government structure already in place.
Meanwhile, Seattle's Office of Arts and Cultural Ideas needs a shakeup. Formerly a national leader, it has in recent years become just middling. Other governmental agencies, like 4Culture (an agency of King County), have surpassed OACA in terms of ambition and relationships with working artists. It's unclear whether McGinn's administration understands this; Smith said the mayor's office has sent no broad, game-changing directives to OACA.
The press release sent out earlier this week from McGinn's office was a little odd. It read, "Kitch has worked in the arts for nearly 20 years, most recently as the Cultural Arts Program Manager for the city of Austin. The city is famous for its annual South By Southwest music, film and interactive conference and festival, and has drawn comparisons to Seattle as a place that values and supports artists and arts programming."
This was a little odd because South by Southwest is a private, not governmental event. And Seattle's Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs is separate from Seattle's Office of Film and Music (headed by James Keblas). Kitch has connected the arts with film and music interests in Austin, Smith explained.
Another oddity: Though the release says Kitch's most recent post is Cultural Arts Program Manager in Austin, he does not actually hold that job today. Before the holidays, he began a new post in the same division, as Arts and Culture Development Manager, working with major local arts institutions on real-estate projects. It's unclear why the mayor's office didn't list his current employment on the press release.
There has not been much media coverage on Kitch since the Austin Chronicle's 2004 story.
An article in the Austin American-Statesman last March reported that Kitch got on the wrong side of arts groups when he sent out an email not long before their funding application deadline announcing that guidelines had changed and they'd need to justify their programming in tourism terms. It turned out, as the American-Statesman reported the next day, that Kitch had jumped the gun, and that under pressure from a lobbying group a change was being considered to the guidelines but had not been implemented (even today, the lobbying group has not been able to convince the mayor and council to implement the change, which might make it harder for some groups to get funding).
Kitch says the episode is unrelated to his job change or departure from Austin. Smith, Seattle's deputy mayor, says the last-minute change of jobs "wasn't even a blip" in the interview process.
"We were just very impressed," Smith said. "He brings different types together. He has 20 years in the business. And there's something about him that seems unflappable."
He's expected to start work April 4.