Joe Mclalwain reflects on his 17-year legacy at Edmonds Center for the Arts

Joe Mclalwain leaves Edmonds Center for the Arts this month after 17 years as executive director.

After more than a decade and a half as the face, heart, soul and brains of the Edmonds Center for the Arts (ECA), Executive Director Joe Mclalwain announced earlier this year that he will be leaving the performing arts center – and the Pacific Northwest. His destination: Austin, Texas — another vibrant arts community where his wife Jaimie Herlich Mclalwain recently landed the prestigious position of managing director at the Zach Theater.

“With a masters in theater management from Seattle University and ten years under her belt as development director for Seattle Repertory Theater, this was just too good an opportunity to pass up,” explained Joe. “But we’ve been living as a two-city family for the past year, and we’re really ready to get beyond that!”

Jaimie moved to Austin last August, but with son Turner about to enter his senior year at Bishop Blanchet High School, the family decided it would be best for Joe to stay in Edmonds rather than move everyone and disrupt his education.

Turner will start his freshman year at WSU in September, where he follows his sister Elly, a WSU senior.

This gave Joe plenty of time to give notice to the Public Facilities District and ECA Boards, the two groups that oversee ECA and pull the levers to keep it a going concern. While his departure was an open secret for some time, both boards made the official announcement in February of this year, praising Mclalwain for “17 years of transformative leadership” and for “leading ECA’s strategic growth, adding infrastructure, increasing resource capacity, growing community engagement, and bringing legendary artists alongside genre-defying, rising stars from around the world to the ECA stage.”

In honor of his work with ECA, Joe Mclalwain was named grand marshal of the 2023 Edmonds Kind of Fourth of July parade.

Joe Mclalwain came on board at ECA in January 2006, charged with creating programming, hiring staff, and finishing the capital campaign aimed at paying for building renovations.

“ECA was brand new then and construction was still underway,” he recalled. “We had nine months before the building was to open. It took some scrambling, but we met the schedule and were ready to occupy the building in late September.”

The first act on stage was the Cascade Symphony Orchestra on Oct. 23, followed by local duo Eric Tingstad and Nancy Rumbel in November. That first season capped off with a holiday treat – the Olympic Ballet performing the Nutcracker.

“We focused on local talent for that first short season, just to get our feet wet,” Mclalwain remembered. “We weren’t even really officially open that season – it was kind of a soft opening.”

January 2007 brought the grand opening with name talent, as Al Jarreau took the stage to kick off the season. That year also saw the start of season ticket sales.

“It’s amazing looking back and recalling how small and how green we were then,” he recalled. “We were learning on the fly, building our audience and our reputation. It was like building an airplane while you’re flying it.”

The team had no sooner gotten its feet on the ground when the recession hit. “It literally pulled the rug out from under us,” he said.

“The housing market was down; folks were scared and just weren’t spending as much money on entertainment,” he explained. “We had to make some difficult decisions – including cutting some staff – and while we kept shows going, we sometimes played to an almost empty house.

“But by the end of 2008, the recession had begun to back off, and folks started to discover ECA as a close, easy, fun, affordable answer,” he continued. “We ended the season in spring 2009 by booking the Indigo Girls and were pleasantly stunned when two shows sold out immediately. We quickly learned that by bringing in name recognition acts like the Indigo Girls we would draw attention to our other shows – folks coming in for the big acts would pick up our brochure, learn about other offerings, and be moved to give them a try.

“I feel the most joy about this work when there’s an artist on stage that people may not be familiar with, but really enjoy,” he added. “It’s such a rush for me when patrons come out and grab my arm saying, ‘that was amazing, please bring them back!’ And besides simply building trust with our audiences to pick good talent, there’s the satisfaction of helping to promote a less-known artist, maybe a niche artist – someone who’s spent their whole life becoming that good – and knowing that we’re helping to nurture that talent.”

Mclalwain then explained how ECA continued to build on this experience through the 2010s, keeping with the formula of peppering up the season with a few name acts along with others that are less well-known. At the same time, ECA was growing its education and community engagement programs, including taking artists out to schools to work with kids, starting the dementia inclusive series, music therapy and more.

“Some performing arts centers fall into the trap of being just a concert venue, but that’s just one part of what we are,” he explained. “If we’re not engaged in and servicing the community, we’re failing.

“By the 2015-2018 timeframe we were not only back on our feet, we were thriving,” he said. “The 2019-2020 season was our most successful ever – we were flying high, selling out often.”

And then COVID hit, and all the wind went out of the sails. By March 2020, ECA – along with an array of businesses across the spectrum – was forced to close down.

“We did a few livestream events, but it really didn’t catch fire,” Mclalwain recalled. “Performing arts is very much an in-person, in-the-moment, in-the-same room kind of experience. I can take great pizza home, but I really can’t take the experience of a live performance home. The performer-audience interaction is lost. The magic just isn’t there.”

In summer 2021 ECA took some tentative steps with outdoor concerts on the lawn and in the parking lot, but always exercising caution by checking vaccination status and requiring masking.

“Other performing arts centers were canceling acts and shutting down, but we didn’t,” he explained. “What would have been the 2020-2021 season was already planned, and despite being shut down ECA began selling tickets for it in May 2020 anyway. And despite the uncertainly, our patrons bought tickets and supported us.

“When it became clear that the season wouldn’t happen, we got in touch with performers and agents and asked them to shift it ahead a year. We renegotiated dates with everyone, and kept the contracts alive,” he continued. “Other performing arts venues who had made the decision to shut down were forced to start from scratch, booking new shows, negotiating new contracts, and rebuilding relationships with their patrons. But we kept in touch with our patrons, kept folks excited, and they stuck with us. We delivered on the 2021-2022 season, and it turned out to be the second best we’ve ever had.”

“We kicked off that season with a super act – Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives. It was our first real indoor act after COVID,” he explained. “Interest in them was high thanks to the PBS’s Ken Burns Country Music documentary, which was running at the same time, and their talent literally explodes off the stage. It was a fantastic act to kick off the new season.”

And the rest, to coin a phrase, is history. ECA has stuck to its formula of bringing in a healthy mix of name acts – The Four Tops, Joan Armatrading, Lily Tomlin, Joan Baez and Pink Martini, to name a few — as well as less-well-known artists. And audiences continue to purchase tickets for all acts, trusting ECA to give them top enjoyment, fun, great experiences, and value for their entertainment dollar.

Joe Mclalwain stands in front of the Edmonds Center for the Arts, which he has led for the past 17 years.

But how does one get connected with a career like this? Not too many kids talk about growing up to be a performing arts center executive director.

A Northwest native, Mclalwain grew up in Seattle’s Lake City neighborhood and continued the family tradition of attending Bishop Blanchet High School. His parents met at Blanchet, his brother attended there, and his children graduated from there.

Staying local after graduation, Mclalwain enrolled at the University of Washington, in the drama department.

“College was all about learning to act and/or be a stage manager – but I was terrible at both,” he recalled with a laugh. “So when I graduated, I took a job waiting tables at Anthony’s Shilshole restaurant. I stayed for six years, and actually loved it there – they’ve got the best outdoor deck in Washington!”

While working at Anthony’s, Mclalwain started to volunteer at the Freehold Theater Lab in Seattle. He met managing director Elizabeth Austin, who set him on a new path.

“She was doing a fundraising campaign using direct mail and other strategies, and was hopelessly bogged down,” he recalled. “Somehow she suckered me into finishing the project for her. I spent a weekend sorting through the morass of papers and getting organized, got it squared away, and it suddenly dawned on me that someone needs to be behind the scenes supporting the work that’s done on stage – market the show, pay the bills, manage the building, raise the money. And I discovered that I really loved it.”

Through Austin, he learned of a graduate program at the University of Alabama in theater and arts management.

“There were only three grad students in the program at the time,” he explained. “We ran the theaters on campus. I even got to work managing programs for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery doing marketing, education and financing – and I totally loved it. After graduation I stayed around and taught in the program as an interim professor.”

But when the chance came up to become managing director of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, he jumped at the opportunity, staying there for two and a half years.

But his Seattle roots kept calling, and in 2001 he made the decision to move home to be closer to family. He quickly found a job as development director with the Kirkland Performance Center.

“That’s where I really honed my fundraising skills and learned the subtleties of managing a performing arts center [a venue that books acts] as opposed to a producing theater [a venue that produces its own acts],” he explained. “At first I missed working for a production theater, but soon got into the role of matching prospective donors to the works and performers they love – and things began to really click for me.”

Then in 2005 the Edmonds Center for the Arts executive director job opened up.

“I applied, and it ended up being a six- to eight-month process,” he recalled. “I ended up as one of four finalists, and ultimately was offered the position. It was a great opportunity, but thinking back I was probably crazy to take it – at 34 I was far too young. But I went ahead and I’m still here, 17 years later.”

His years at ECA were filled with some exhilarating highs, and a few lows. Focusing on the peak experiences, Mclalwain said he’ll never forget when the Indigo Girls took the stage in spring 2009.

“We were just coming out of the recession, the house was packed for the first time in months, and the energy in the room was amazing,” he remembers. “They walked in the stage door and I just got chills up and down my back – this is really happening. I introduced them, they started performing, and the rest was pure magic.”

But this was eclipsed by another experience, more subtle but more meaningful.

“We were running a community education program at Aegis in Lynnwood that included a songwriting workshop,” he explained. “It was a weeklong workshop for 10-12 residents with memory loss, some pretty severe. One of these was a woman who was brought in every day in a wheelchair. During the entire weeklong workshop she was basically non-responsive, catatonic.

“Then on the last day we had some extra time at the end of the workshop, so the group leader suggested we sing another song,” he continued. “They chose something everyone knew – the Hawaiian standard Aloha Oe. The group began and the woman — who had been non-responsive for the entire workshop – started singing. I broke down crying. There were tears everywhere – we were all amazed to realize that this woman, despite appearances, had really been there all the time. What a powerful experience. What a testament to ECA and its role in the community.”

Mclalwain’s last day at ECA is Aug. 31, and he’ll be immediately moving to Austin.

“I’m already looking at a few possibilities down there for me, but mainly I’ll be just keeping my antennae up to see what’s next,” he said. “Austin is a fantastic arts town – I couldn’t wish for a better one. I know I’ll find a place there.

“It’s bittersweet to leave Edmonds,” he continued. “But thanks to our community, ECA is in great shape. Organizations like this need the community’s support and investment in any form – come see shows, bring kids to summer camp, volunteer, donate, be an ambassador. ECA is one of the heartbeats of our community – and it only thrives when the community is connected and invested in it.”

— Story and photos by Larry Vogel

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