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Meet Sarah Wilke

June 25, 2019

If you find yourself standing next to Sarah Wilke, Meany Center’s new Senior Director of Operations and Planning, at the next intermission lounge, here are a couple of conversation starters you could use:

  • Ask her about 20th century Buddhist mural painting
  • Inquire into the years she spent in Sri Lanka
  • Ask her how she happened to arrive in Singapore for a month-long Asian vacation with absolutely no luggage and wearing only the clothes on her back—bicycle shorts and shirt…

And that’s just for starters!

In fact, Sarah’s path to her current position at Meany has almost as many detours as what you’ll find any day trying to navigate the streets of South Lake Union.

Born into an arts-loving family, Sarah attended Bowdoin College in Maine, where she studied 20th Buddhism and Hinduism with a focus on 20th century Buddhist mural painting—perfect training, it turns out, for a career in nonprofit arts administration!

As part of her college experience, Sarah participated in an exchange program that took her to study in Sri Lanka for a year. The summer after her return to the States, the Smithsonian was hosting the first ever traveling exhibit of Sri Lankan art—and hired Sarah as a summer intern. After graduating in 1994, she got a full-time job at the Freer|Sackler Gallery, part of the Smithsonian’s national museums of Asian art.

She was there for seven years, working in education and curation programs focused on Japanese, Islamic and Near Eastern art.  Freer|Sackler was also where Sarah first developed her love of classical music—in addition to the visual arts, the gallery hosted music, dance, film, and theater performances by renowned artists from Asia and across the US. She attended some of Yo Yo Ma’s earliest Silk Road Project performances there; she shepherded Emanuel Ax from green room to stage and back.

A Fullbright scholarship lured Sarah away from Washington and back to Sri Lanka for a year, followed by a Master’s program in museum education at Harvard.

It was at this point that she and her then-husband decided to move to Asia. But first they came to Seattle to visit Sarah’s parents—and also to participate in the 206 mile Seattle-to-Portland bike ride the day before their flight to Singapore.

Looking back, Sarah thinks they might have tried to fit too much in, since she ended up heading to the airport in her biking shorts with no luggage. Perhaps that was a harbinger of things to come: after a month, she and her husband decided to head back to Seattle where he had been offered a job, and she landed at the Tacoma Art Museum as an associate curator of education.

Coming to Seattle in the early 2000’s, Sarah decided that the most interesting art in the city was not necessarily hanging on museum walls, but rather being created and performed in the studios and theaters all over town. She said good-bye to art history and stepped into the role of Managing Director at Consolidated Works, a multi-disciplinary contemporary arts center. Then in 2004, Sarah became managing director at On the Boards, a Seattle cultural institution focused on producing and presenting new performances from the Northwest and from around the globe. During her tenure, OtB launched—the first website to film and deliver full-length, high quality contemporary performance on demand; and started a creative residency program focused on commissioning and building support for artists.

Much as she loved On the Boards, after 12 years Sarah felt she’d been there long enough. So in 2016, she became the Executive Director of the Seattle International Film Festival. “I loved the community ownership,” Sarah says. “There aren’t many organizations that inspire people to stand in the rain for hours.” And she appreciated how SIFF had moved from a film festival to a year-round presenter in five locations. But while she loved the operations side of things, she really missed live performances and the chance to work and interact regularly with artists. So when the opportunity came up to join Meany Center as the new senior director, she jumped at it.

“I’ve had great respect for Michelle Witt for a long time,” Sarah says. “And I’m also excited by the potential of being on a campus—of ensuring that students learn about art, and helping Meany incorporate student and faculty perspectives.”
Also, she’s thrilled to have the opportunity to continue exploring music more directly. Chances are good you’ll see Sarah and her daughter Lily at many events next season—be sure to introduce yourselves if you do.