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Seattle arts leader Wier Harman dies at age 57

caption: Wier Harman, October 2022, in the vestibule at Town Hall Seattle, which is named for him.
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Wier Harman, October 2022, in the vestibule at Town Hall Seattle, which is named for him.
Courtesy of Town Hall Seattle

The Seattle arts and culture community has lost one of its most influential figures. Longtime friend to KUOW and former Town Hall Seattle executive director Wier Harman passed away Monday night, after a six-year struggle with lung cancer.

Harman took over at the revered First Hill nonprofit in 2005, replacing founder David Brewster, who calls him a transformative figure. Brewster says Harman, "made Town Hall into probably the most beloved of the arts venues in the city."

Harman expanded the landmark hall's event offerings to include civics, arts, music, and sciences, but insisted on keeping ticket prices affordable. During his tenure, he made attendance free for many young people. Brewster calls him “marvelously adept” at handling the challenges the organization faced.

And there were challenges. Built in 1916, Town Hall needed a seismic retrofit and other major upgrades. During the period after his diagnosis, Harman shepherded the organization through a $35 million renovation campaign, then the pandemic, before stepping down in December 2022. As he departed, he was still stumping. He told friends of Town Hall not to take it for granted. He urged them to “take yourself back to the last moment an event at Town Hall surprised you… think about the last time a program there helped you discover something.”

Harman loved music and local musicians. In January of 2018, he wrote to friends, “I’m obsessed with a few songs right now, especially Tomo Nakayama’s “Pieces of Sky.” It is weird and almost painful to type —but the vulnerability of cancer can be a kind of a gift.” Harman credited the medical care and targeted therapies he received with extending his life.

Ashley Toia was Harman’s deputy director at Town Hall. She says he was “a magnificent connector of ideas and people. He loved bringing people together," she says, "and believed we could create a better place to live by providing a platform for conversation and different perspectives.” Toia says Harman was in large part responsible for creating the Town Hall community.

Harman served on the Puget Sound Public Radio board of directors from 2010 to 2019. KUOW President and General Manager Caryn Mathes says he was a “voice of reality” about nonprofit operations. She calls him “a great idea person” whose advice and counsel were highly valuable. Mathes says he will be sorely missed.

She recalls spending time with him at a reception a couple of years ago. His wife and children came to pick him up. They were “calling out for him,” she says, “and their dog actually leaped out the car window to greet him! He laughingly looked over his shoulder back at me with the joy of chaotic, loving family life showing on his face.”

Harman grew up in Virginia, attended the University of Pennsylvania, and studied directing at the Yale School of Drama. In the early 1990s, he directed plays and was the marketing manager at Seattle’s Annex Theatre. He left Seattle for jobs in Atlanta and New York, before returning for the Town Hall opportunity. In 2015, Seattle Metropolitan Magazine named him one of “15 People Who Should Really Run Seattle.”

Wier Harman was 57 years old. He is survived by his wife Barbara and his children Stella and Ruby.

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