Remembering Wier Harman, Town Hall’s Unstoppable Dynamo

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From time to time, a strong leader comes along to jump start Seattle’s cultural evolution. Glynn Ross, founder of the Seattle Opera, was such a Music Man come to River City. Others include Richard Fuller, founding director of the Seattle Art Museum; Peter Donnelly of the Seattle Rep and arts czar of ArtsFund; Greg Falls of the ACT Theatre and the UW Drama School; Speight Jenkins, indefatigable and long-lasting maestro of the Seattle Opera; Susan Trapnell, leader and rescuer of local theaters; and Kent Stowell and Francia Russell of the¬†Pacific Northwest Ballet.¬†

Wier Harman, who directed Town Hall Seattle for 17 years, was another person belonging in that cultural hall of fame. Sadly, he died last week at age 57 from lung cancer, leaving his wife Barbara Sauermann and daughters Stella and Ruby, along with much unfinished business.

I helped to find Wier (pronounced “ware”) as my successor at Town Hall, which opened in 1999. Major scouting credit goes to Alison Narver, theater maven, who touted the job opening in Seattle to her friend Wier, who had impressed folks in his earlier stint with Seattle stages. I became Wier’s friend and admirer. He will prove a hard act to follow, so well and for so long he masterminded Town Hall. And he was an easy act to precede, bringing and respecting a founder’s vision to full flower.

Among his accomplishments: attracting a younger audience, programming and recruiting local ensembles that reflect modern and contemporary Seattle (lefty, alternative culture, popular music, a “Brooklyn” sensitivity), and raising a remarkable $35 million to renovate lovingly the 100-year-old Christian Science Church building on First Hill.

Harman was a theater guy who had a stage director’s intense focus on details (lighting, acoustics, backstage, flexible stages, broadcasting, audience amenities), and it shows everywhere in the handsome renovation. He was a music guy with a huge collection of records of all kinds of music, and he enriched the original classical music program with world music, new composers, rock, and the exploratory spirit of contemporary music that cellist and music director Joshua Roman programmed. And he was a community guy, stoutly insisting on keeping Town Hall affordable to all and creating spaces meant to activate audiences to act, not just absorb speakers’ talks.

Wier was able to keep the gas pedal fully pressed until his tribute-rich retirement a year ago. He had a genius for friendship — always smiling, upbeat, genuine, funny, and sharing his emotions — that translated into remarkable bonds with donors. He was the full package.

The result is that Town Hall is now a beloved cultural institution in the city and perhaps the leading multi-dimensional civics-and-arts venue in the country. Wier told me he planned to top that impressive act at Town Hall with a second career guiding philanthropic donations. He clearly knew the town’s cultural landscape and the quality groups to help, so his shortchanged career is another reason for the town to miss this effective, buoyant leader.

As you might suspect, there was some drama in this hugely successful and ambitious saga. That came with the pandemic and the closure for the renovation, but also, as Wier confided in me, when some members of the board advised him to split the demanding tasks of both running Town Hall and simultaneously directing a capital campaign. He always wanted to do it all, and he weathered that bad storm, despite the serious diagnosis of cancer in 2017.  Like others in my cultural hall of fame, he was unstoppable.

People such as Wier Harman don’t come along often, so I wonder if we will see his likes again. The Guardian recently posted a story about how the one-man-band model of artistic direction may have run its course. The article notes that “the job feels impossible,” citing poor pay, freelancer and staff revolts, the new diversity agenda, and board mismatch. These factors have produced an exodus of visionary, all-in-one-head leaders in the arts.

Still it was riveting to watch one last show where a charismatic, intellectually omnivorous leader of the band conquered the town and found new formulas for a changed city. I and many of us will miss him deeply, and the fan club will gather next month at Town Hall to pay tribute to this remarkable dynamo.

David Brewster
David Brewster
David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

9 COMMENTS

  1. I’d like to say, “One of a kind”, but maybe, not so much but one of many (as Brewster alludes)? Seattle is so lucky to have the DNA to attract such talents as Brewster (himself), and the leaders he mentions in his opener: Ross, Fuller, Donnely, Falls, Trapnell, Jenkins, Stowell and Russell. I will personally miss Wier, I am confident that we have emulates in our midst. Thank you David for this tribute, and to Nick for his affirmation.

  2. A beautiful tribute David to/for a beautiful, uniquely special human. What an honor it was to work with and for Wier. But it is his warm and generous friendship I will most miss.

  3. Wier did a terrific job in expanding and re-envisioning the concepts and programs that David and others built in the first decade of Town Hall Seattle’s life. We wish the best for its new leaders as they move forward into a challenging future.

  4. Thank you David for the eloquently beautiful tribute to Weir Harman. And David what lies in that tribute also represents what you have given to all of us in Seattle. Many thanks for opening our eyes.
    Miriam Sutermeister

  5. Indeed, we all will greatly miss Weir who was always on the job so to speak making sure that everything was working and that the audience was happy. He made himself available for feedback from audiences., a tough act to follow.

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