Royal Alley-Barnes held many different job titles during a career in Seattle city government that spanned more than 40 years -- from senior budget analyst in the Office of Management and Budget to executive director of the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute -- but the title she chose for herself was "embedded artist." An accomplished painter and muralist, her background in the arts framed her response to problems as varied as how to reduce youth violence, protect the environmental quality of the Mercer Island Slough, and improve the financial viability of city-owned arts facilities. On the eve of her retirement in 2015, she said "I think as a painter, as an artist," explaining that every new problem "is like a blank canvas" (Tate interview). Much honored for her work with the city and as a community volunteer, she summed up her career in this way: "I've been an embedded artist in the public-sector world. My profession and my passion and my purpose have been singular. I've been fortunate in having jobs that put them all together" (Tate interview).
Royal Alley-Barnes was born on December 19, 1946, in San Francisco, the second of five children of Willie Ree Alley and Essie Mae Burton Alley. Her parents named her Pauline. She adopted the name Royal years later, at the suggestion of her husband, Curtis R. Barnes Jr. (b. 1943), who said she reminded him of a queenly character who put things back together in the novel Things Fall Apart, by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe (1930-2013). She commented, "If I look back over my career, I seem to always have had an opportunity to put things together with somebody or something. That's pretty much what I've done my entire life" (Tate interview).
Her father was a chief petty officer in the navy. The family moved frequently because of his career, which included assignments at the Sand Point Naval Air Station in Seattle and the Bremerton Naval Base (now Naval Base Kitsap). Pauline Alley attended second grade in Sand Point; she went to high school in Bremerton.
Her abilities as an artist surfaced at an early age. She used to charge her siblings 25 cents to watch her paint. "They could sit outside the threshold and watch me paint in my room," she remembered, chuckling (Tate interview).
Her talent did not insulate her from the racism she experienced as an African American growing up in a predominantly white society. She recalled "a little white girl with red hair" in a California preschool who wouldn't let her touch her toys because she was black: "It begins so early. Not being called on in school. Or everyone is seated alphabetically and my last name is Alley and I'm in the back of the room" (Tate interview).
Her high test scores qualified her for a program for gifted students at East High School in Bremerton. Her parents insisted she be admitted despite opposition from some teachers in the program. She was one of six students of color in her high-school senior class of 358 and the only black student in the gifted program. "It was rough" -- at one point, a male student circulated a petition "to make sure I wasn't homecoming queen because Negroes shouldn't be allowed to represent the school" (Tate interview).
Early Career in Art
Pauline Alley graduated from East High School in 1964 and entered the University of Washington as an arts major. She completed a bachelor's degree in 1968 and went on to graduate school, working as a teaching assistant while pursuing a Master of Arts for Teachers (MAT). A scholarship from the UW Faculty Wives Club and a grant from the Coretta Scott King Educational Fund of the American Association of University Women helped with tuition and other costs.
She met Curtis Barnes, an artist himself, while curating a student art show at the UW in 1968. She described their first encounter this way: "I left the room for a while and when I came back in, he had reorganized the show!" (Tate interview). They were married two years later, at 7:30 a.m. on September 10, 1970, by a Justice of the Peace at the King County Courthouse -- early in the morning so that she could get back to the campus in time to teach her class. They had two children: a son, Maikoiyo, born December 13, 1977, who became an artist; and a daughter, Asuba, born February 9, 1988, who became a licensed massage therapist and champion power lifter.
She and Barnes were among six Seattle artists included in a show called "Black Commentary" at the Quinta del Sordo Gallery in September 1969. Seattle Times critic John Voorhees gave her work a mixed review: "Miss Alley does everything from very large paintings to very small sketches, handling figures and faces most capably. But she is also her own worst enemy for many of her really good faces have been gimmicked up, the paintings done on torn paper, then covered with shellac. It's only effective once in a while, and distracting most of the time" ("Black Commentary").
Asked about her reaction to the review, Alley-Barnes shrugged it off. "Don't put your work out in the public if you can't take criticism. Creating art is a process. You should feel confident enough to follow your dream and take those comments and put them on the shelf" (Tate interview).
She continued to exhibit her work at local galleries, including Black Arts West, which featured Alley-Barnes and her husband in a show in January 1971. She was also involved with Gallery Nimba, an African-art gallery established by Thelma Lehmann (1916-2007) in a wing of her home in the Sunset Hill neighborhood. Alley-Barnes trained a group of docents to show and explain the art to visitors.
In the fall of 1971 Alley-Barnes was hired as art director for the Seattle Public Schools' Extended Services Program, which served high school students who had dropped out or were transitioning back to regular classrooms. She continued teaching, on an intermittent and part-time basis, for many years, in studios and schools around the region, including Garfield High School, Seattle Community College, Seattle University, Pacific Lutheran University, Portland State University, and the University of Oregon. Her subjects ranged from art history to medieval literature, in addition to drawing and painting. She estimated that by 2015, more than 4,500 students had come under her tutelage.
Alley-Barnes was teaching a seminar at the UW in 1970 when she came up with the idea for her best-known work of public art. She and her students had been discussing the need for black artists to revitalize the spiritual and political consciousness of their communities. That discussion gave rise to a proposal she and Curtis submitted to the Seattle Parks and Recreation Commission, calling for the creation of a monumental outdoor mural depicting African American history, to be painted on two large concrete walls at the entry to Medgar Evers Memorial Swimming Pool. The pool, named in honor of the slain civil rights leader, had opened that April at 500 23rd Avenue, next to Garfield High School, in the heart of Seattle's historically black Central Area (also called the Central District).
The commission's reaction was lukewarm. The couple went back a year later with the results of a public-opinion survey that showed overwhelming support in the black community for such a project. Finally, on March 16, 1972, the commission approved the installation of what was initially called a "Wall of Respect," consisting of two panels, 10 by 30 feet each, to be designed and painted by the Barneses. Together, the panels would represent the black ethos, from birth in Africa through enslavement in America to eventual emergence into a "honeycomb of freedom, unification and harmony" (Varney). The couple chose the work's final title: "Omowale," usually translated from the Yoruba language as "The Child Returns Home."
The sketches were approved in the spring of 1972 and the mural completed later that year. The project, including construction of the concrete background for the mural, a courtyard entry, and expansion of an adjacent playground, cost $175,000. The federal Model Cities program provided most of the funding, supplemented with $3,000 from the Seattle Arts Commission and an equal amount from Pacific Northwest Bell. The artists' fee was $10,000, which they figured came to about $1.25 an hour, based on the total time they gave to the project.
Writer Alan U. Barnett described the result as "a pair of panels rendered in a sophisticated, painterly manner unique in outdoor work" (Barnett, 116). The acclaimed African American artist Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) was among those who spoke at the dedication (Alley-Barnes had been one of his students when he joined the UW art-school faculty in 1971). The mural was well-received by the community. But it was never properly sealed and began to deteriorate within a few years. An unsuccessful campaign to restore it was launched in the early 1990s. Despite numerous appeals and petitions from concerned citizens, it was destroyed in 1995.
Alley-Barnes believed the mural was really a victim of gentrification. "There were a couple of realtor/architects buying properties in the neighborhood and I think they thought it was too intimidating -- too black" (Tate interview). But she and Curtis stepped away from the controversy at the end. "Because what could you do? You could get all mad, you could cry all you want to, but to what purpose?" she said, adding this thought: "And the irony is, if you look at the Mbari tradition in Africa, they build these absolutely gorgeous things out of clay and then they deteriorate. So we took it in that regard" (Tate interview).
Disillusioned by their experience with the art establishment in 1972, the couple temporarily abandoned painting in order to concentrate on salaried jobs. They said they wanted to "acquire enough capital to free themselves from dependency on the art system" (Barnett, 117). They hoped to eventually establish a fine-arts center that would make art accessible to ordinary people without having to rely on public funding and foundation grants. Alley-Barnes went to work as the coordinator of the Women's Information Resource Employment-Education Service (WIRE) in the city's Office of Women's Rights. Barnes became a construction manager for a Seattle city agency that rehabbed housing.
At WIRE, Alley-Barnes provided one-to-one counseling for women who were out of work, hoping to change jobs, or seeking non-traditional jobs in the trades. There, too, she encountered the chasm that can separate the white and black worlds. She told a Seattle Times reporter that some white women could speak to her frankly about their problems on the phone but could not relate to her in person when they discovered she was a black woman. "If they can't [relate], I refer them to someone who can continue the original level of communication," she said, and the reporter added this comment: "When she says 'This is a racist society,' Ms. Alley-Barnes speaks from experience" (Foote).
In 1975, Alley-Barnes began a six-year stint as a senior budget analyst in the city's Office of Management and Budget. She found her perspective as a woman was useful to her in that job. "When I was in the budget office and I was in really difficult situations, I'd think not one man here has ever been pregnant or ever given birth. All their time is spent on things they've made to be used up -- not to be reused" (Tate interview). She cited as an example a pipeline through the Mercer Island Slough. The pipeline had been slated for replacement; she proposed that it be relined instead, to decrease the environmental impact. Some of Alley-Barnes's friends have joked that what is now the Mercer Slough Nature Park -- a 320-acre wetland park administered by the City of Bellevue -- should be renamed the Royal Alley-Barnes Memorial Slough.
Parks Department Administrator
Alley-Barnes worked as a consultant for the Seattle Engineering Department before joining the Department of Parks and Recreation in 1982. It would be her home base for some 30 years. She started out as business manager for the Woodland Park Zoo. She was named manager of concessions, grants, and contracts for the parks department in 1984. In that role she dealt with problems as diverse as cleaning up City Hall Park (less formally known as "Muscatel Meadows"); finding a new concessionaire for a small-craft center at Green Lake; and determining the "highest and best use" of four city-owned visual and performing arts facilities (Pratt Fine Arts Center, Seward Park Art Studio, Madrona Dance Studio, and the Bathhouse Theater at Green Lake) -- all while administering $10 million in contracts and $20 million in grants.
By 2003, she had a new title -- operations manager for Central East Parks and Recreation -- and new challenges. Among them was Cal Anderson Park, bordered by East Pine Street and East Denny Way, a block east of Broadway on Capitol Hill. Neighbors complained about rampant drug use and prostitution. Needles, condoms, liquor bottles, and human excrement littered the grass. The park's new restrooms were being trashed. Alley-Barnes worked with the police department and the Department of Neighborhoods to develop a multi-agency response. She told a writer for The Stranger, "We're having each department step up to the plate and do what it's supposed to do" (Jenniges). For her part, that meant having park employees quickly respond to reports of vandalism; hiring a young homeless woman as a part-time aide to clean up litter; and locking one door on each of the restrooms, to prevent people involved in illegal activities from sneaking out the back. "We've had a 50 percent reduction in biohazards and illegal activity by locking one door," she said (Jenniges).
The City of Seattle recognized her efforts by giving her its 2004 "Management in the Field Award." The citation noted that "Field supervisors' and managers' mettle is tested every day by the public we serve, the logistics of their jobs, and the constraints of their budgets" ("2004 Award Recipients").
Alley-Barnes would receive many other awards for her work with the parks department and as a community volunteer over the years, including the 2008 Charles E. Odegaard Award (named after a former UW president) for encouraging racial diversity; the 2009 John C. Little Spirit Award (honoring the founder of the Central Area Youth Association) for her support of at-risk youth; and a 2012 Ford Motor Company "Freedom's Sisters" award, recognizing women whose social and humanitarian efforts have contributed to civil rights and racial equity in their communities.
Challenges at Langston Hughes
The final phase of Alley-Barnes's career in the public sector began in January 2009, when she was named executive director of the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center. Her appointment came at a challenging time, marked by internal personnel strife and external debate about the future of the largely city-subsidized center, a cultural fixture in the Central Area. Two previous directors had quit after conflicts with the artistic director; city council members were pressing for a new funding model, one that relied more on private fundraising and less on tax dollars; and members of the black community were worried that the center might lose its long-standing focus on African American arts and culture.
The iconic building that houses Langston Hughes was originally a synagogue. Designed by B. Marcus Priteca (1889-1971), a noted architect who specialized in theaters, for Chevra Bikur Cholim, an orthodox Jewish congregation, it was completed in 1915. The City of Seattle bought the synagogue building with federal urban renewal funds in 1969 and operated it as a community center until 1972, when it was taken over by the parks department.
Alley-Barnes began her six-year tenure there by taking steps to expand opportunities for artistic expression by young people, particularly disenfranchised youth. She had been serving as the parks department's lead on a citywide Youth Violence Prevention Initiative when she was assigned to Langston Hughes, and she continued in that role even after taking on her new job. She worked with the Seattle Youth Employment Program to double the number of paid summer jobs at the center, from 11 to 22. She increased the number of hours the center was open during the summer, hoping to entice youth off the streets and into art, music, and dance classes.
The nearly century-old building was closed in 2010 for a two-year, $3.4 million renovation that included seismic retrofitting; new wiring, plumbing, and fire protection; new hardware flooring in the lower-level performance hall; and new upholstery and carpeting in the upstairs theater. The imposing ceiling dome got a fresh coat of white paint. The downstairs kitchen was expanded and equipped with a restaurant-grade gas stove and stainless-steel refrigerators. All the restrooms got makeovers, with lead-free piping and gleaming tile. Antique Tiffany light fixtures in the lobby were refurbished. A former office was converted into a studio apartment, for an artist-in-residence program. "Isn't it beautiful?" asked Alley-Barnes after the grand re-opening in May 2012, and the community agreed (Berson).
By that point, however, city officials had made it clear that they were no longer willing to pick up most of the tab for operating the center. Of roughly 350 nonprofit and community organizations receiving some degree of municipal support, Langston Hughes was the only one directly operated and largely paid for by the city. It was budgeted to receive $740,000 in city funds (mostly from admissions taxes) to pay for its operations and staff in 2013 but was generating less than $70,000 in annual revenue. Questions about its organizational structure and funding had persisted for years, but came to a head after the building re-opened.
The city council took an intermediate step by voting to transfer management of Langston Hughes from the parks department to the Office of Arts and Culture, effective January 2, 2013. Along with the transfer came a new name: the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute (LHPAI). A new management plan, adopted as part of the 2013 budget process, called for LHPAI to be turned over to an independent nonprofit organization by 2016. The city would continue to own and maintain the building, but would gradually reduce its subsidies for operations. The nonprofit was initially given three years to become self-sustaining, a period that was later extended to at least seven and possibly 10 years.
Alley-Barnes, who helped craft the plan, said she thought it would give the institute more flexibility than it could have while operating within a city bureaucracy. "I think I'm probably the only person who's ever put themselves out of business," she said shortly before her retirement in December 2015, "But isn't that what you do with a canvas? You reallocate resources to carry the institution forward" (Tate interview).
Alley-Barnes remained active in the art world throughout her four-decade career with the city, as a teacher, curator, and painter. She curated four of the "A Matter of Colors" exhibits in the 1990s. These shows, first held in 1994 at the Pacific Arts Center on the grounds of the Seattle Center and later moved to the Seafirst Gallery in the Columbia Center, featured art by people of color, both professional and amateur, including children ages 6 to 18. Alley-Barnes was also producing paintings of her own during the same period. Her work was commissioned and collected by patrons around the United States and in Africa. She was particularly proud that Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) -- the revered leader of South Africa -- acquired one of her works, titled "Mandela Be Free," in 2000.
In 2002, she was forced to take a hiatus from painting because of a retinal vein ocular occlusion that developed in one eye. She described it as "a tiny, tiny blood clot that obscures the vision" (Tate interview). If she turned her head in a certain way, she couldn't see out of that eye. Unfazed, she learned to work around the visual impairment. In 2016 she still maintained her studio, in Building 30 at Magnuson Park -- not far from where she once lived with her family, as a second-grader, at the Sand Point Naval Air Station.
She retired at the end of December 2015. The Office of Arts and Culture hosted a celebration of her life and career at the Frye Art Museum on January 22, 2016. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray (b. 1955) issued a proclamation declaring that day "Royal Alley-Barnes Day," noting, among other things, that she had "connected communities around public sector government and the arts for her entire career" (Proclamation).
Her post-retirement plans included completion of a series of paintings of gray-haired women of various races. The paintings, she said, depict "fully blossomed women, telling their stories" (Tate interview). It's a subject that has interested her since the early 1970s, when she worked as a coordinator for WIRE. She later became involved with the Grandmother Project, a Senegal-based international development organization that seeks to improve the lives of girls and women by strengthening intergenerational relationships. (She is herself a grandmother of four.) She said, "I'll be focusing on women. Teaching women how to leverage -- we're makers. That's what we are. We do it all the time, in so many different ways. But we don't value it" (Tate interview).
She also planned to serve as a volunteer member of the board of the new nonprofit Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, saying "I'm going to have an active life. I think I'm going to continue being an embedded artist" (Tate interview).