Sitting at a conference table in the empty upstairs offices of the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute on an overcast morning, Tim Lennon breaks down the importance of Black cultural institutions for Black artists living in a 70% white city.
“In Seattle, Black folks are constantly having to moderate our stories to fit into white spaces,” he says. “To get really vulnerable, to open up your own experience to an audience built of your own community—there’s less to explain. They get it.”
Lennon’s job, ultimately, is to fill this 102-year-old building with audiences, artists, and teachers who get it. He’s the first executive director of LANGSTON, a non-profit arts organization formed to reinvigorate the historic purpose of Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute as a nexus for Black culture in a neighborhood undergoing rapid gentrification and displacement.
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Lennon previously served as executive director of the Vera Project and worked at the city’s Office of Arts and Culture, which administered the building along with the parks department until LANGSTON came onboard. He knows his way around the arts administration biz and he’s got a full portfolio in this new job, planning partnerships and programming to keep the building booked up with Black art.
By summer he hopes to have the calendar filled with workshops and classes during the day and shows at night, utilizing LHPAI’s impressive 285-seat theater and wood-floored grand rehearsal hall as well as its labyrinth of offices and conference rooms. He envisions throwing events outside on the lawn, too.
This month LANGSTON presents a night of performance based on the photography of Al Smith, who documented the Central District jazz scene in the 1940s and whose work is currently on display at the Museum of History and Industry. In April, the Langston Hughes African American Film Festival will celebrate its 15th year. LANGSTON will partner on future events with organizations like the Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas, also housed in LHPAI, and the Seattle Public Library.
“This space was created to fill a particular need for the time and place it was born into, an 80-plus percent Black community that needed a cultural center everyone could walk to,” he says, “Now we’ve got the opposite problem: the community is super dispersed. The need for a cultural center everyone can come back to is critical. We’re gonna give folks who have been pushed out to the suburbs a reason to come back, and give new Black folks who have moved to town reasons to connect to the Central District, to see this as the cultural home for the Black community even if it’s not the geographical home for the majority of us anymore.”
The Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute is located at 104 17th Ave S. You can learn more about LANGSTON at langstonseattle.org.