Faces of SAL: Sherry Prowda
February 23, 2021
By Gabriela Denise Frank
Sherry Prowda, the founder of Seattle Arts & Lectures (SAL), never used the word synchronicity when she unfolded SAL’s origin story for me, but it hovered over our conversation. Instead, she spoke of fortune and luck, gifts and generosity, even signs from the gods. When I asked how SAL began, she said, “I had this opportunity drop in my lap,” a modest framing of her entrepreneurship, which led to the inaugural 1988 season.
Organizations like SAL don’t come into being without great effort, of course; yet, I understood what Sherry meant when she described the seeming ease with which SAL came to life. She declared her intention to the universe and the universe met her halfway, turning its interlocking gears in her favor, opening doors where there had been walls—or nothing.
Carl Jung defines synchronicity as a meaningful coincidence that appears between a mental state and an event occurring in the external world. The relationship between the two is not causal, however when the imagined becomes tangible, it feels like proof of a connection—that thinking can indeed bring something into being. Thus, the story of SAL, which actually starts in Portland, is a mix of relationships, timing, and synchronicity.
Sherry began by saying, “I’m not sure things happen in the same way today,” and I think I know what she meant by that, too. The pace of the past was slower and things felt more opaque—there was no internet, no social media to build an audience—yet people found each other. The tactility of daily life was both dull and glorious; everything took so much time. Our conversation made me look back fondly on the hours I spent in Ticketmaster lines making smalltalk with strangers who were excited about a concert or a show; there’s little to remember about clicking purchase with one’s fingertip today.
The serendipitous relationships Sherry made as SAL came together seem almost inevitable, yet at any point she could have given up. She could have missed a connection, or found the task of starting the city’s first arts and lectures series too daunting. As she said, “I knew nobody in Seattle, and I had these little kids. I was living in a new city, and my husband was traveling a ton for work. I didn’t know where to go.”
Yet, vision and drive carried her forward, and the community responded.
Early on, Sherry was encouraged by a cohort of advisors in her newfound home of Seattle, including Rick Simonson of Elliott Bay Book Company and Barbara Earl Thomas, a visual artist and writer. She met Vicki Glant, who became SAL’s first board member, through her children’s preschool.
“Vicki said, I’m on board. I’ll help you any way I can,” Sherry told me, “and she didn’t just mean, Let me know about the first event, I’ll buy a ticket.”
One thing Sherry’s supporters had in common was a desire to not only help but become involved. Each advocate, in turn, introduced her to another, forming a network of support. After securing board members, a venue, speakers, and a fiscal sponsor, the first season of SAL sold out immediately, laying the groundwork for hundreds of events over thirty-three years.
“Seattle was a community that embraced ideas and entrepreneurship. I’ll always be grateful for that,” Sherry said.
After a decade at the helm during which she launched the Writers in the Schools (WITS) program under the leadership of Kip Greenthal (the next interview!), Sherry handed over leadership of SAL to others to carry forward. In 2014, the Prowda Literary Champion Award was created to commemorate her spirit. The award, which last year recognized Books to Prisoners, a Seattle-based nonprofit, and Amy Wheeler, a playwright and former executive director of Hedgebrook, celebrates individuals and organizations that make Seattle an outstanding place for writers and readers.
“I can’t take claim to having masterminded this great series and this great organization with a great strategic plan to sell tickets and raise dollars,” Sherry said, yet this is what she set into motion. She worked to create space for ideas, stories, authors, and friendships to flourish, the kind of creative dialogue Seattle was hungry for and continues to be. One six-event season in Portland, then in Seattle, evolved into an ecosystem of literary art—young writers, local writers, visiting writers, writers in schools, writers on stages—it’s no accident or wisp of happenstance. It’s amazing, when you think about it, the compounding good that one person’s energy can conjure, given favorable conditions.
We may not realize the impact of our actions, particularly at the start of a new venture, yet we can sense the tendrils strung from our influence, spanning distances like spiderwebs. From a certain angle, these connections are invisible; we may even forget about them or take them for granted. Shift your view, and the sun glistens on those gossamer strands, revealing fine lines that hold together worlds great and small; a web of connections running through everything.
This interview has been edited for clarity and flow.
Gabriela Frank: What is the origin story of SAL? How did you come to start it?
Sherry Prowda: Actually, I was involved in starting Portland Arts and Lectures (now called Literary Arts) first. It was 1982, I was living in Portland and writing for Willamette Week after having my second child, and I was trying to figure out what to do next. I’ve been very lucky, by the way. I’m not sure things happen in the same way today. Basically, I had this opportunity drop in my lap.
The person who headed up publications at the Reed College alumni office asked if I would run that department for a year. I thought, This is great. It’s going to get me back out in the community and still give me time to think about what I want to do. Meanwhile, I was introduced to a woman named Karen who wanted me to help raise money for a City Arts and Lectures series; she came from San Francisco where they had an arts and lectures series, and she was hoping to start something similar in Portland. I wasn’t in a position to help at the time, but we became friendly.
The first year, she had three or four speakers come through. Norman Mailer was one. The following year, I got a call from her. It turned out, Karen was leaving Portland, but she had scheduled speakers for the next year. She either had to cancel and break contracts with these writers, or I could take it over. She said she had to know right away if I was in or out—I was her first call, but she had a list of people to call after me. My job at Reed was ending in June and I thought, Sure. Why not?
I had never worked for a nonprofit arts organization or a literary arts organization. I was a reader, but not like people in the audience are today. I had a one-year-old and a four-year-old and I was supposed to start this thing. The first person scheduled to speak that year was Tom Wolfe on October 8—my son’s second birthday. I called a friend who was also trying to figure out what to do with her career, and I said, Come help me do this. Together, Julie and I started what became Portland Arts and Lectures.
We were clueless, except it was such an easy thing to make happen. The times were different. Writers weren’t sent on the road like they are now, or were before the pandemic. It was very unusual, certainly in the Northwest, to have writers come through on book tour. Access to writers was a novelty. Plus, Karen had scheduled really good writers for that year. Julie and I innocently put an ad in the newspaper and the ticket seller—we’re talking forty years ago, right?—the tickets were being sold through Ticketmaster, which had an outlet at a department store called Meyer and Frank. We left them all the tickets and went away thinking, Oh God, what are we gonna do? We weren’t getting paid a penny, and if we couldn’t sell the tickets, we could end up having to pay fees to the writers.
Three or four days later, we got a call from Ticketmaster. They said they ran out of tickets, and could we please bring down more. We said, Well, no, we gave you all the tickets. That’s how easily it all happened. I can’t take claim to having masterminded this great series and this great organization with a great strategic plan to sell tickets and raise dollars. It kind of just flowed in.
Gabriela: What was the link between Portland Arts & Lectures and Seattle Arts & Lectures? How did SAL take off from there?
Sherry: The Portland series was wildly successful that year—every event sold out—and the next year looked like it was going to be equally successful. The second year, my (ex)husband was offered a job in Seattle. He asked what I thought about moving, and I said, No, I have this job. Then I thought about it. If I’m saying no to things at thirty-six, what am I going to be like when I get old? So, I agreed to move, and I commuted to Portland to work with Julie on the series.
Julie was literally my best friend—still is—but it was hard for her to have her partner living in Seattle. She suggested I see about starting a lectures series here. We figured that we could program together and it would be a more interesting invitation because, instead of flying from the East Coast to Portland, writers could go to two cities and get two fees. It was just one more day, not a big time crunch for them.
But I knew nobody in Seattle, and I had these little kids. I was living in a new city, and my husband at the time was traveling a ton for work. I didn’t know where to go. The spring of the second year, Julie came up to meet with me. She was also good friends with my husband; one night, I came home and found them talking, their heads together, and when they saw me, they stopped. I said, What is it? They said, We’ve been saying that you’re never going to start it up here. It’s time you left Portland so Julie can find somebody else to work with, and it’s time you figured out what you’re going to do in Seattle.
I was so pissed at them, but it was the motivation I needed. It was like, Nobody’s gonna tell me I can’t do something! I said, I’m going to start this tomorrow.
Then two other things happened. I set up a couple of appointments, one with Rick Simonson at Elliott Bay Book Company, and one with the Seattle Arts Commission, both for the same day. At that time, Elliott Bay was doing some author visits and readings, but it hadn’t yet blossomed into the celebrated series that Rick grew it into. Rick encouraged me. He said, This would be a good thing. Walter Carr, who started Elliott Bay, and Rick, who worked with Walter from the very beginning, were so generous. Their mindset was, the more the merrier. The more books there are and the more writers coming through Seattle, the better for the community. They were very supportive.
That afternoon, I went to the Seattle Arts Commission to see if there might be funding there. I met with a woman named Barbara Thomas, a visual artist and a writer (who now has a show at SAM). She wanted to know who else I was meeting with. I said, You’re the second person; this morning, I met with Rick at Elliott Bay Books. She never mentioned that she and Rick were, at the time a couple. But when I found that out, I thought, This is a sign from the gods—honestly I could have not met with smarter, kinder, or more helpful colleagues.
Then, I met Vicki and Gary Glant through our children’s preschool. Vicki knew about the lecture series in San Francisco and agreed that we needed something like that here. She said, I’m on board. I’ll help you any way I can. And she didn’t just mean, Let me know about the first event, I’ll buy a ticket. She was the first official board member of Seattle Arts & Lectures, and Gary joined as well. So, it’s pure luck that it all happened. Seattle was a community that embraced ideas and entrepreneurship. I’ll always be really grateful for that. And the series did just as well here starting out as it did in Portland.
Gabriela: How did you go about pulling together that first year in Seattle?
Sherry: Well, I had two years of experience in Portland to build on. The first step was to have names of writers who were coming through in order to interest the media, potential sponsors, potential donors, and people in the community who we wanted to get excited about this opportunity. I made connections with people who were engaged in the literary arts, including at the library. And I found a fiscal agent, which I needed in order to form a 501(c)3. It turned out to be Seattle University.
Gabriela: Interesting! How did that come about?
Sherry: It was interesting how it happened. Again, you never know who’s sitting next to you. Vicki Glant introduced me to another preschool parent who was an alum and current Board member at Seattle University—they had a remarkable President, Father William Sullivan, at the time—and it turns out, the university was looking to expand its reach into the community. They wanted to be known as an academic place that served all kinds of students. They thought a lecture series was a wonderful idea.
Once Seattle U was on board, I was able to submit documents for nonprofit status, which meant I had to add a few more board members. So, we had nonprofit status, a very large institution had put their stamp of approval on us by becoming our fiscal agent, we had writers coming, and I needed a place to put them so we could figure out how many tickets to sell.
There weren’t as many venues back then. It’s better to have a packed hall that’s smaller than a big hall that’s only three quarters full, so I decided on 1,000 people because if Portland could bring that out, certainly Seattle could. I looked at different places and decided on the First United Methodist Church on Fifth Avenue between Marion and Madison, which is no longer a church. It held a little over 1,000 seats—and it immediately sold out. It was hot. People packed into the pews. The first writer was John Updike.
Gabriela: Tell us about that!
Sherry: It was wonderful. Today Updike might be thought of as a ‘white male writer’—which of course he was—but he remains only one of four writers (no women!!) to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction more than once (Colson Whiteheard, a SAL featured writer, is the only other living writer to be so honored). I found Updike to be charming, curious, and knowledgeable about many things—especially about the visual arts. When I picked him up at the airport in my minivan—littered with the ‘stuff’ of kids—he asked two things: tell me about your family and can we see some of the city. We started at Seattle Center for a birds eye view from the Space Needle.
Ah—but, I realize I should go back a step. Before Updike flew out, Jinny and Bagley Wright offered to host a dinner in his honor. I thought, This is great! I shared with him that the Wrights were extraordinary supporters and collectors of the visual arts and very welcoming hosts. In the end, he declined. I was disappointed, as were the Wrights. Then on our walk to the Space Needle we passed the Seattle Rep’s sign for the Bagley Wright Theatre. Updike stops me and asks, “Is that the person who invited me to dinner and did I make a mistake?” Yes, I replied. He gave a great talk that night. Seattle University was thrilled. The audience was happy. I was relieved and feeling so incredibly lucky.
Gabriela: When you planned the inaugural year in Seattle, how did you decide which writers to invite?
Sherry: I partnered with Julie in Portland on scheduling. We decided six writers would make a series, and we’d sell the whole season as the series first, and whatever didn’t sell, we’d offer as individual tickets. For the first three years in Seattle when we were at the small hall, the series sold out within the first week. It was astonishing to spend almost no money on marketing. I mean, do you know what that means to a new nonprofit? To this day, when I talk about what an incredibly well-read, wonderful community Seattle is and how indebted I am, that’s what I mean. The community made Seattle Arts & Lectures work.
In making the series, Julie and I agreed that we would always look for two big names, two in-between names, and two emerging writers. We felt that the emerging writers, while not able to pull in a lot of people on their own, deserved to be heard. The in-between writers probably would have brought in a decent audience on their own, but having two big names is what we needed to make the series work.
If I had to say one thing I’d go back and do differently, I’d look for greater diversity in programming. More women, more writers of color, more writers representing cultures across the globe. Important voices to be heard and celebrated and learned from. If you look back to the first few seasons, there was diversity, it was never all John Updikes, but there’s much more diversity today. I’m thankful SAL has been able to evolve as an organization, especially over the last eight years with Ruth.
I would also say that the audience skewed older and whiter than I wish it had. It was doing very well, and it felt like something the community wanted, but it felt like we could do something more for people who weren’t going to the series.
We worked with schools and teachers to make tickets available to their classes if, say, they were studying Toni Morrison and she came to town. It quickly became clear, like Rick said, you can never have too much about books or writers or writing. You can never have too many arts programs because the public school system kept pulling back on the arts. While there might have been a few other organizations that did something with writers in the schools, it was a fraction of the kids in the school system.
Gabriela: Is that what gave rise to WITS (Writers in the Schools)?
Sherry: Yes. We decided to do something with and for kids within their schools, but also to provide opportunities for paid work for writers in this region. We wanted to help artists and writers in this community and we wanted to help teachers. If they participated in the Writers in the Schools program, they also came out of that year with skills they didn’t have and strategies they hadn’t used before. Through their work with students and reading and writing, the teachers felt empowered, too.
The board made a decision that we wanted to engage in this, and we needed someone to work on it. Again, it was so easy. It kind of fell in my lap. I called some local writers and asked if they knew someone who would like to work with me. Brenda Peterson immediately responded, You want to work with Kip Greenthal—she’s the one. Brenda and Kip knew each other through a writers group. Kip had been a librarian for years. Brenda said Kip is a fabulous writer (and she is—her first novel will be published in October 2021), and she knows other writers. That’s how it happened.
Gabriela: How did you and Kip shape the WITS program?
Sherry: At our first meeting, I told Kip that I wasn’t hiring her to fill a position that was already inside a frame—I was hiring her to create the frame. She was free to investigate programs around the country to see what worked well. We didn’t have to develop something totally new, we just needed to start something. I knew it would be fabulous.
Kip researched a program in Houston, Texas, called Writers in the Schools, and traveled there to meet with the woman who started it. It was Houston that we modeled WITS after. I love people who are innovative and entrepreneurial and have great ideas; I also appreciate people who find things that are being done really well and bring it back and tweak it and customize it. Because, really, it saves the community a lot of money—you have a model that already works. I’m very happy that Houston figured things out earlier than than we did, and I think it’s been a great success and continues to be. When I go to Seattle Arts & Lectures and a young person gets on the stage, I am always blown away.
Gabriela: It’s really important for kids to see working writers from the community.
Sherry: Absolutely. Early on, I got feedback that we didn’t have enough local writers participating in the series, that cities don’t appreciate their own talent, which I think were valid comments. This is what set us apart—we were bringing in writers who ordinarily would not be coming through Seattle—but there’s also a sense that if you want to be a great artist, you need to be in New York or LA. For us, WITS became a way to show that we have some phenomenal writers here, too. Writers who we felt had important work to do, but weren’t yet able to live off of just their published writing. We were able to provide them with some income, and the local community would get to know them, and young students would learn about their work. One nice thing that happened over time is that a lot of people locally have had opportunities to be on stage with the visiting writers as interviewers. Even while I was there, it evolved. If somebody in the community was a friend of or studied under the writer coming through, we would have them do the introduction.
Gabriela: Do you have a favorite memory from your time with SAL, a moment that stands out?
Sherry: So many wonderful memories. Some writers ask to be dropped off at the hotel and say, I’ll see you tonight, but other writers like Doris Lessing want to go on a ferry ride. Most of them really didn’t want to talk about their work. Writers are thinkers and observers who question the way of being. They wanted to talk about life, about where they were at, about people and places and trees. What an incredible honor to be with people who were incredibly generous of spirit and had such interesting minds. It was a gift. Most of our volunteers were writers, too—a very nice, unpretentious group of people.
Overall, one of the nicest human beings I met out of the 200 events I was involved with was Wallace Stegner. He was amazing on every level. His wife traveled with him and both of their minds were incredible—and their hearts. You just know you’re in the presence of good people. They came through in the days when we were still at the church. It was a packed audience, standing room only, maybe 1,200 people. One of our volunteers had called me the week before and asked to buy a ticket. It was sold out, but he and his wife really wanted to go; he wondered if there was any chance. I said, Of course, I’ll send you a ticket, no problem. When the night was over, this volunteer and his wife came up to say hello to Wallace, and it turns out he was the son of the couple that Wallace based his book Crossing to Safety on. He didn’t tell me that. These are the kind of people I’m working with. He just asked to buy a ticket.
Then there was the time V.S. Naipaul came to town. He went out to dinner the night before with Bagley and Jinny Wright and a group of other people. The next day, he asked me to take him to Brooks Brothers. When I picked him up that night, he said, Seattle is an amazing city. I said, Why do do you say that? And he said, You have very smart people here. And I said, What makes you say that? I mean, he had been here for twenty-four hours. And he said, Well, the people last night around the dinner table, they knew their literature and they knew world events, a very smart group of people, but today when I went into Brooks Brothers to buy socks, the saleswoman knew who I was.
Gabriela: What are you reading these days, and who are you excited to see this season at SAL?
Sherry: I’ve been in the mood to escape the present day and go to another place and time, so I’ve been reading The Brothers K by David James Duncan, and I just finished Anna Karenina. I try to overlap my reading with Seattle Arts & Lectures, so I read Circe by Madeline Miller.
Gabriela: How did you like it?
Sherry: Very, very much. This year, I’ve been adding to my list of fiction, so in the last couple of months I read Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam, and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi—I loved that night with her. Now, I’m reading Obama’s A Promised Land. I am looking forward to Gabrielle Hamilton, and I’m also looking forward to Maira Kalman, who is coming as part of the Women You Need to Know series. And I’m looking forward to Ocean Vuong.
Gabriela: Before we go, I wanted to touch on the Prowda Literary Champion Award which was started in 2014 and, of course, is named after you. The award celebrates individuals and organizations that make Seattle an outstanding place for writers and readers. What was your reaction when you learned about the award?
Sherry: I was verklempt. I thought, Oh God, this is so sweet. I was maybe even a little embarrassed. For as public as I was for a part of my career, I’m actually a little shy. I didn’t tell my family about it at first. A year later, they said, We didn’t even know! It’s a hard thing to take over an organization, but Ruth was the perfect person to come in and set up these sorts of programs. She is a fabulous human being. As for me, if there was anything I could do to help, I was going to do it. If she thought this was something good for the organization, then it’s good.
Gabriela: Last question. What is bringing you delight these days?
Sherry: It’s such an important question, given the days we’re living in. Lately, what gives me delight is not what I would have answered three years ago. There are the obvious things: my family, my kids, my grandkids, we’re all very close. My home. In the past, I would have said hiking and travel and friends. All of a sudden, my delights have started to get pretty small: the same Steller’s jay that comes to my bird feeder. Red twigs on the dogwood. I don’t know when big things are going to be back again. I try to focus on small things that are within my sight. That’s what gives me delight.
Gabriela Denise Frank is a literary artist whose work has appeared in galleries, storefronts, libraries, anthologies, magazines, podcasts, and online. Her essays and fiction have been published in True Story, Hunger Mountain, Bayou, Baltimore Review, Crab Creek Review, Pembroke, The Normal School, and The Rumpus. A Jack Straw Writer and Artist Trust EDGE alumna, Gabriela’s work is supported by 4Culture, Mineral School, Vermont Studio Center, Jack Straw, Invoking the Pause, and the Civita Institute. www.gabrieladenisefrank.com.