After 18 years as Seattle Center director, Virginia Anderson announced her resignation Tuesday, a departure that comes as the city-owned cultural campus faces an uncertain financial future.
During her tenure, Anderson helped transform the Center from the neglected site of the 1962 World's Fair to a diverse gathering place where people can see Jimi Hendrix's guitar, scream for the Sonics and celebrate the Tet Festival, the Vietnamese New Year.
She oversaw more than $700 million in public and private spending at the Center, including the renovation of the International Fountain, KeyArena and McCaw Hall, as well as the construction of Experience Music Project and Seattle Children's Theatre.
"It's a phenomenal legacy," said Peter Donnelly, former president of ArtsFund.
Her resignation is effective April 3. She said she has no job prospects. "I'm looking forward to another stage of my life," she said.
In recent years, the 74-acre campus has run deficits, due mainly to the sagging performance of KeyArena. Anderson has been working with a panel of community leaders, appointed by Mayor Greg Nickels, on a new business plan for the Center.
In a letter to friends and colleagues, Anderson, 58, said her resignation date allows her to "follow through with the work of this important committee." She suggested it was a fitting time to leave, saying "something new is at work right now."
Former Mayor Paul Schell said Anderson may have grown weary of the City Hall emphasis on the Center's financial state. "I think that debate probably tired her in the end," Schell said.
City Council President Nick Licata speculated that Anderson's style might have clashed with that of Nickels. Anderson dismissed the idea.
She did say she'd like to see significant investment in Seattle Center, including a dramatic makeover of Center House, which contains a school, a children's museum, offices and a food court. "It's time for us as a city to transform the center of the grounds," she said.
Anderson said it would be "dynamite" if voters approved a levy to finance such improvements.
Nickels asked Anderson to stay on, according to Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis, adding that Nickels did not necessarily disagree with Anderson's vision. "We just haven't gotten that far in the process," Ceis said.
Anderson grew up on Chicago's south side, the oldest of six children, in a family that lacked stable housing. She said her humble background taught her to appreciate public spaces, arts and diverse communities.
"The public spaces of Chicago is where I discovered and learned about beauty in the world."
She was a planner for King County and worked in the city's Office of Community Development. She then rose to vice president in Cornerstone Development Co. before former Mayor Charles Royer appointed her Seattle Center director in 1988.
At the time, the area had slipped into decline, Royer said. Donnelly called it "shopworn, almost derelict." A controversial plan by Disney to rebuild the Center had just been rejected by the public.
She helped push through voter-approved levies in 1991 and 1999 to fund renovations.
"Those projects have made Seattle Center the living room, the family room of this community," said Korynne Wright, president of the Seattle Center Foundation.
In a prepared statement, Nickels said the Center has become a regional gathering place "both in times of celebration and grief" under Anderson's leadership. "No matter what the occasion, everyone felt welcome at the Center. That is Virginia's legacy."
Nickels named Robert Nellams as acting director. Nellams, 49, has been with the Center for 10 years, eight as its deputy director. Nickels plans to conduct a national search for a permanent successor.
As for her plans, Anderson she said she wants to paint her kitchen, write a story for her 9-year old daughter and take art lessons.
"She's got another big act in her life," Donnelly said. "I hope this community knows how to use it."
Staff reporters Jim Brunner and Susan Gilmore contributed to this report. Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or firstname.lastname@example.org