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Women of the Year: Melissa Huggins reaching out to artists to see how Spokane Arts can help

Melissa Huggins, executive director of Spokane Arts, has been chosen as a woman of the year in our annual Women of the Year section.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Melissa Huggins, executive director of Spokane Arts, has been chosen as a woman of the year in our annual Women of the Year section. (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

It was easy to find Melissa Huggins as a young girl: She was where the books were.

The executive director of Spokane Arts said she was always buried in books and essentially read through the library as a student at Roosevelt Elementary School.

“I finished reading the Nancy Drew series and I finished reading the Hardy Boys, and my school librarian was like ‘Sweetheart, you’ve read them all. There aren’t any more,’ ” Huggins said.

Maybe all those hours spent with teenage sleuths solving mysteries in River Heights and Bayport helped prepare her for the great mystery 2020 presented: How to keep the arts alive during a pandemic and economic slowdown.

Huggins, nearly four years into her tenure as director of Spokane Arts, has spent much of the year reaching out to artists and arts and culture organizations and asking, simply, “How can Spokane Arts help?” She has created an artist relief fund and has doubled down on promoting virtual events and artist opportunities.

“From the boring but important work of collecting data on lost revenue, to creating innovative new programs and opportunities to our local artists and arts institutions, she has stepped up as a resourceful and dedicated leader in our arts community,” Spokane Arts Program Director Mika Maloney, who has worked with Huggins since 2018 but known her much longer, said in her nomination letter.

Growing up in Spokane, Huggins has seen the city evolve from a place many thought they’d have to leave if they wanted to pursue a creative career or hobby to one in which its art community has become a point of pride.

While the pandemic has put much of that community on hold, Huggins hopes that when things return to normal, people will have a greater appreciation for art after reading books, watching movies, and listening to music and podcasts while quarantined at home.

“I hope they realize how significant arts and culture are to their everyday lives, aesthetically, emotionally, intellectually,” she said. “Arts and culture is woven into everything we are as humans and I hope people come out of the pandemic recognizing that.”

From reader to writer

Throughout her childhood, Huggins kept reading. She didn’t, however, start writing until much later, as a student at Pacific Lutheran University. After taking a couple creative writing classes, a professor encouraged her to pursue creative writing.

After graduation, Huggins spent a couple years in Tacoma working at Planned Parenthood and for a bankruptcy attorney while applying to grad schools. She was accepted into four programs but chose to return home to attend Eastern Washington University’s MFA program in creative writing.

It was as a grad student that Huggins got her first taste of working on Get Lit!, EWU’s annual literary festival.

As an intern for Get Lit!, Huggins worked alongside then-director Danielle Ward. In her second year in the program, Ward hired Huggins as the assistant coordinator for Get Lit! When Ward’s wife’s position in the Navy took Ward to San Diego, Huggins applied for the Get Lit director position.

“I applied for the job right after graduation and spent a very nervous few months waiting for that process to play out,” Huggins said. “Luckily, I did end up getting hired.”

During her five years with Get Lit!, plus two as a grad student, Huggins collected her her fair share of notable moments.

Meeting Kurt Vonnegut during a meet-and-greet at Catacombs, which is now the Gilded Unicorn, is a big one.

“I’m 99% percent sure that at the time you could still smoke inside bars so he was smoking up a storm, sitting in this booth, and one-by-one or two-by-two, we went and talked to Kurt Vonnegut,” she said. “He was charming and sweet and very funny, and it was incredible.”

The energy and excitement of Pie and Whiskey events, which were created by Sam Ligon and Kate Lebo, also stand out in Huggins’ mind. She can also still recall all the ways the community and local authors rallied behind Get Lit! over the years.

“That is really what sticks out to me, all of the times that someone said yes to Get Lit!” she said. “That someone said ‘Hey, I’ll offer this to you.’ ‘I’ll sit on this panel.’ ‘I’ll do this reading.’”

After seven years working with Get Lit! in one capacity or another, Huggins felt it was time to try something new. When former Spokane Arts director Laura Becker accepted a job in California, Huggins threw her hat into the ring.

For one, she knew the position would allow her to do more of the interdisciplinary work she loved as part of Get Lit!

“There were a number of events as part of Get Lit! where it wasn’t just about writers, it was about writers and visual artists together or artists and musicians or writers and theater folks,” she said. “Those collaborative pieces of the festival were always really enjoyable and fun for me, and I think the Spokane Arts job appealed to me in the sense that I knew I would get to work with a much wider range of artists.”

She also felt like the position with Spokane Arts would give her an opportunity to have an impact on the city in a broader, more significant way.

Huggins had also known since before grad school she wanted to work in nonprofits and “work in that capacity where you’re doing meaningful work to support your community.” In other words, becoming executive director of Spokane Arts was a natural fit.

New hat, similar goals

Through Spokane Arts, Huggins and the rest of the team work to support art and artists in any way they can, including the Spokane Arts Grant Award.

When Huggins was hired at Spokane Arts, funding for the grant from city council had already been established, so it was up to Huggins and then-grants administrator Jennifer Knickerbocker to create the program itself.

“One of the true delights of taking on the Spokane Arts job was getting to work with Jennifer and to build the grant program together from the ground up,” Huggins said. “To be able to learn from her expertise in grantmaking and also to be able to thoughtfully work on that together and listen to what the community was telling us.”

Huggins and Knickerbocker held round tables and created surveys to ensure the SAGA was as simple and accessible as possible, knowing from experience that if an application was too long or complicated for a small amount of money, it wouldn’t seem worth it to an artist or organization who was considering applying.

“I also got very, very lucky in that sense that after a year-and-a-half or two years, Jennifer’s husband landed his dream job in Ohio and they were set to move and I was fortunate enough to hire Shelly Wynecoop, who is our current grants administrator,” Huggins said. “She was able to take the strong foundation that Jennifer had built and really take it to the next level.”

Huggins is also proud that Spokane Arts’ mission revolves around celebrating and uplifting everyone in the cultural community via grant making, professional development and advocating for the arts at the city and state level.

“If she didn’t work for Spokane Arts, I think she still would be that sort of art supporter for music and visual artists and other art and cultural things that are happening because she’s a super fan that is involved in creative work closely enough,” Maloney said. “She gets it and does it. She sees it all at work. She understands the work that goes into it, paying people for their work, advocating for their support and celebrating their accomplishments. That’s really important.”

Huggins has seen the city evolve from a place many thought they’d have to leave if they wanted to pursue a creative career or hobby to one in which its art community has become a point of pride.

While the pandemic has put much of that community on hold, Huggins hopes that when things return to normal, people will have a greater appreciation for art after reading books, watching movies, and listening to music and podcasts while quarantined at home.

“I hope they realize how significant arts and culture are to their everyday lives, aesthetically, emotionally, intellectually,” she said. “Arts and culture is woven into everything we are as humans and I hope people come out of the pandemic recognizing that.”

Huggins also envisions a future for the Spokane art community which is equitable and accessible. Huggins cites the Spokane Theatre Arts Council’s work to bring equity to the stage and accessibility goals like free passes for events available at libraries, free transportation to and from cultural events, and ASL interpreters.

“One thing that I know about the arts community in Spokane is how resilient and resourceful and creative they are…” she said. “This community has already demonstrated how they will come up with creative solutions and pivot, and I’ve been marveling at their resourcefulness and how our community has responded.”

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