Royal Alley-Barnes becomes executive director of Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center on January 7, 2009.

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 1/22/2016
  • Essay 11162

On January 7, 2009, Royal Alley-Barnes (b. 1946), a veteran administrator with the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation, becomes executive director of the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center (LHPAC). The center, located in a former synagogue in Seattle's Central Area, was established in 1969 to promote African American art and culture. The parks department began managing it in 1972. As director, Alley-Barnes will work to expand opportunities for artistic expression by young people, particularly disenfranchised youth, and will oversee a two-year, $3.4 million renovation of the historic structure while ensuring that the center's programs continue at other locations as the work is done. During her six-year tenure, the center will be transferred from the parks department to the city's Office of Arts and Culture; adopt a new name -- the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute -- and begin a transition to a new funding model, one that relies less on public dollars and more on private philanthropy for support.

Cultural Touchstone

Located in a historically black neighborhood at 17th Avenue South and East Yesler Way, the iconic building that houses Langston Hughes was designed by B. Marcus Priteca (1889-1971), an architect who specialized in theaters, for Chevra Bikur Cholim, an orthodox Jewish congregation. The City of Seattle bought the synagogue building from the congregation with federal urban renewal funds in 1969 and operated it as the Yesler-Atlantic Community Center until 1972, when it became part of the parks department. It was renamed the Langston Hughes Cultural Center at that time, the first of several name changes, all in honor of the renowned Harlem Renaissance writer and poet. The only publicly owned, culturally specific performing arts center in the Puget Sound area, it has long served as "a cultural touchstone" for the black community ("New Vision ...").

Alley-Barnes's appointment as executive director came on the heels of a contentious period in the center's history. Two previous directors had quit following conflicts with the artistic director, city council members were pressing for a funding model that relied more on private fundraising and less on city tax money, and members of the black community were worried that the center might lose its long-standing focus on African American arts and culture.

She began her tenure by reassuring the community that Langston Hughes would retain its traditional emphasis on African American culture. The center's primary mission, she noted in a report to the Board of Park Commissioners after six months on the job, "celebrates, nurtures, presents, and preserves" African American arts and cultural legacies, adding that "Beyond the mission, LHPAC offers an opportunity for all citizens of Seattle, from diverse backgrounds, to experience and engage in the performing arts" (Minutes, July 23, 2009).

Among her priorities was the expansion of opportunities for artistic expression by young people, particularly at-risk youth. She worked with the Seattle Youth Employment Program to double the number of paid summer jobs at the center, from 11 to 22. Participants gained work experience and training in cultural leadership, creative writing, dance, theater, and theater production. Alley-Barnes had been serving as the manager for the parks department's involvement in a citywide Youth Violence Prevention Initiative when she was transferred to Langston Hughes, and she continued in that role even after moving into her new job. The department recognized her efforts by giving her the 2009 John C. Little Spirit Award, named in honor of the founder of the Central Area Youth Association. Presenting the award, acting parks superintendent Christopher Williams said, "She has an agenda with youth ... She gives them work, not advice; she gives them a standard to aspire to, not pats on the back for just being" (Minutes, July 8, 2010).

The center presented five major productions during 2009, including "Callejon," an original bilingual musical based on Afro-Peruvian dances and rhythms; "Hip Hop: Back to Its Roots," which Alley-Barnes described as "an in-depth look at violence in our community, its root causes and opportunities for prevention" (Minutes, July 23, 2009); and, in its American premiere, "Obama on My Mind," a musical by London-based writer and filmmaker Teddy Hayes. Alley-Barnes, whose long career in city government included a six-year stint as senior budget analyst for the Office of Management and Budget, greatly reduced the costs of the "Obama" production by negotiating with the Actors Equity Association for the right to use local, non-Equity actors.

Renovated Building

The Langston Hughes building was closed for the next two years for extensive renovation. Alley-Barnes and her staff found various off-site venues so that the center's programs -- including a popular African American film festival, a summer teen musical, a fall production, and music and dance classes -- could continue during the renovation.

The building -- a commanding polygonal structure of tan brick with white terra cotta detailing -- reopened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 1, 2012. Alley-Barnes and other staffers proudly showed off the results: new wiring, plumbing, fire protection, and seismic upgrades for the nearly century-old historic landmark. New carpets, improved seating, and state-of-the-art sound and lighting equipment for the 288-seat auditorium. A fresh coat of white paint for the majestic ceiling dome, covering up what Alley-Barnes described, with a slight shudder, as "Pepto-Bismol pink" (Tate interview). The lobby's carpeting was replaced and its antique Tiffany light fixtures restored. There were improvements to rehearsal space and dance floors, dressing rooms, and restrooms. The downstairs kitchen was expanded and equipped with a restaurant-grade gas stove and stainless-steel refrigerators. A former office was converted into a studio apartment, for an artist-in-residence program. "Isn't it beautiful?" asked Alley-Barnes, and the community agreed (Berson).

The restoration was financed with $2.5 million from the Parks and Green Spaces Levy of 2008, along with a $449,000 "Building for the Arts" grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce and $365,000 from the City of Seattle's major maintenance fund. But questions persisted about the best way to manage and finance daily operations.

A Reimagined Future

An 11-member citizen task force had recommended in December 2008 that the parks department continue maintaining the Langston Hughes building and grounds but transfer administration and programming to an independent, nonprofit agency. Little attention was paid to the report at the time, although there was increasing agreement among city officials that the center's existing business model was not sustainable in the long run. At the urging of then-mayor Mike McGinn (b. 1959), the Seattle City Council took an intermediate step by voting to transfer management of Langston Hughes from the parks department to the city's Office of Arts and Culture, effective January 2, 2013.

Along with the transfer of jurisdiction came a new name, from the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center to the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute (LHPAI). Alley-Barnes said the change "reflects our evolving and expanded role in the broader arts community ... We are not just a presenter of performances. We also serve as educators and incubators for local grassroots talent. This name reflects that whole mission" ("A New Era ...").

Over the course of the year, a new management plan was developed. It called for Langston Hughes to be turned over to an independent nonprofit organization in 2016, at which point the city would begin gradually reducing its financial subsidies. The nonprofit would be given three years to develop the kind of fundraising heft that would allow it to become self-sustaining. The city would continue to own and maintain the building. This plan was approved as part of the budget process in December 2013.

Alley-Barnes, who helped craft it, said she thought the plan would give the institute more flexibility than it could have while operating within a city bureaucracy: "The ability to expand our financial capacity has intriguing possibilities. Flexing our artistic wings to further support the LHPAI mission in ways that could not happen within the city structure is exciting and the possibilities are enlivening" ("Future Charted ..."). By June 2015, it had become clear that three years was not enough time for Langston Hughes to become self-sustaining and the transition timeline would have to be extended. The nonprofit would take over the programming as planned in January 2016, but city support would continue for at least seven and possibly up to 10 years.

On the eve of her retirement as executive director in December 2015, Alley-Barnes described the new arrangement as "a perfect three-legged stool" -- a public-private partnership between the Parks Department, the Office of Arts and Culture, and the nonprofit Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute: "There's your three-legged stool, that anybody can sit on top of, and avail themselves of the offerings here" (Tate interview).

Alley-Barnes added, "My tenure here is complete. I've done due diligence. This organization is set to be robust. It has a long history, there are amazing people here, there's a huge community legacy" (Tate interview). She also said she planned to continue to be involved as a volunteer on the board of the new nonprofit.

Sources: Minutes, Seattle Board of Park Commissioners Meetings, January 10, June 12, and July 24, 2008, July 23, 2009, and July 8, 2010, copies available at Seattle Parks and Recreation website accessed January 21, 2016 (; Misha Berson, "Show Time! Arts Center Ready to Go," The Seattle Times, June 24, 2012, p. H-1; "New Vision for Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center" (editorial), Ibid, October 8, 2012, p. A-11; Emily Heffter, "City Oversight May Shift for Hughes Center," Ibid., September 14, 2012, p. B-3; Heffter, "Emails Show Rocky End to Arts Tenure," Ibid., November 12, 2012, p. B-1; Heffter, "Arts Center's City Funding Under Review," Ibid., January 30, 2013, p. A-1; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute (Seattle)" (by Zola Munford) and "Alley-Barnes, Royal (b. 1946)" (by Cassandra Tate), (accessed January 22, 2016); "Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center Closed for Renovations," news release, April 5, 2010, Seattle Parks and Recreation website accessed January 21, 2016 (; "A New Era for Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute," news release, January 30, 2013, and "Future Charted for Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute," news release, December 16, 2013, copies available at Seattle Office of Arts and Culture website accessed January 21, 2016 (; Vernal Coleman, "Langston Hughes' Next Act," The Weekly, December 20, 2013 (; Cassandra Tate interview with Royal Alley-Barnes, Seattle, November 24, 2015.

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