Assunta Ng, Seattle Music Partners, Courtney Sheehan, and Leilani Lewis receive Seattle Mayor's Arts Awards on August 31, 2017.

  • By Kate Kershner
  • Posted 10/01/2017
  • Essay 20440

On August 31, 2017, Assunta Ng, Seattle Music Partners, Courtney Sheehan (b. 1989), and Leilani Lewis receive the 2017 Seattle Mayor's Arts Awards in a ceremony at Seattle Center's Mural Amphitheatre. Assunta Ng is the founder of both the Seattle Chinese Post and Northwest Asian Weekly. Seattle Music Partners provides mentoring and music instruction to area youth. Courtney Sheehan is the director of the Northwest Film Forum, a nonprofit film and arts center on Seattle's Capitol Hill. Leilani Lewis is an arts administrator who works closely with artists and promotes community engagement with the arts.

15 Years of Awards

The Seattle Mayor's Arts Awards were first established in 2003 to recognize arts, artists, and organizations that enrich the cultural community of the region. To celebrate the 15th year of the awards in 2017, ongoing exhibitions throughout the summer and fall were held at the Seattle Municipal Tower Gallery and the Seattle Center International Pavilion to present past awardees and their accomplishments and to showcase the work of previous visual-arts winners.

The 2017 awards were given in four categories: Cultural Ambassador -- Individual; Cultural Ambassador -- Organization; Arts and Innovation; and Emerging Leader in the Field. Twelve finalists -- three in each category -- were named on August 7, 2017. The four award recipients were announced and received their awards in an outdoor ceremony at the Mural Amphitheatre on August 31, attended by hundreds of community members and followed by a celebration above the Fisher Pavilion.

Cultural Ambassador -- Individual: Assunta Ng

Assunta Ng was born in China and came to Seattle in 1971, earning a degree from the University of Washington in 1974. In 1982, she started the Seattle Chinese Post, which covers national and international news in the Chinese language. In 1983, she founded the Northwest Asian Weekly, a Pan-Asian English-language newspaper. She served as the publisher of each paper from its inception, continuing in that role as of 2017.

Ng also founded the Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation, which works to promote leadership and diversity training for youth and adults. Through the foundation she started the Women of Color Empowered Luncheon series, which celebrates the accomplishments of women of color in their fields.

Ng was surprised by her nomination and win:

"I never thought of myself as a cultural ambassador. I still am very surprised that I'm the recipient ... I guess the Arts Commission has accepted the fact that storytelling is an art -- because what I've been doing all my life is storytelling and sharing experiences and breaking the rules" (Baltus, "... Assunta Ng"). "

The other two finalists for the Cultural Ambassador -- Individual award were Sharon Arnold of Bridge Productions and Ludovic Morlot (b. 1973) of the Seattle Symphony. Arnold, a curator, writer, and artist, founded Bridge Productions as a commercial and experimental space that works with emerging and mid-career artists and curators to provide a platform for artistic exchange and connection. Morlot, an internationally acclaimed conductor, became the music director of the Seattle Symphony in 2011 (he announced earlier in 2017 that he would step down from the position in 2019). Morlot was elected a Fellow in the Royal Academy of Music in 2014, and as of 2017 was Chair of Orchestral Conducting Studies at the University of Washington School of Music.

Cultural Ambassador -- Organization: Seattle Music Partners

Seattle Music Partners (SMP) was founded in 2000 by Marnie O'Sullivan to provide musical instruments and lessons to young people and match them with music tutors and mentors. SMP began as an after-school program serving fourth and fifth graders to facilitate entrance into middle-school band and orchestra programs and subsequently expanded to include a Middle School Music Project and a summer program.

In SMP's After School Program, fourth and fifth grade students take part in free twice-weekly instruction, focusing on both individual coaching and ensemble playing. A one-on-one mentorship is provided, as is a free instrument. Four Central Area elementary schools participate in the program. In addition, the Middle School Music Project holds a weekly evening class.

The organization relies on more than 150 trained volunteers from some 20 high schools, colleges, and community groups as mentors for the students. Removing barriers to music participation is an essential part of the program, but mentoring is equally important part. SMP director of community engagement Meaghan Leferink explained:

"I believe in the idea of 'if you see it, you can be it.' Our mentors are an example of what our students can do when they're older ... Our mentors don't just talk about music; they talk about what they're doing academically, how they've persisted as a musician, how they've tackled hard pieces they've encountered. Having a role model who's gone through the same sorts of things is really important" (Hamil).

Gay City and Tasveer were the other finalists for the Cultural Ambassador -- Organization award. Gay City, an LGBTQ resource center and organization, runs the Gay City Arts program, which supports and seeks out intersectional LGBTQ art and productions involving theater, dance, music, poetry, spoken word, drag, burlesque, and film. Tasveer, a nonprofit film and arts organization, produces the South Asian International Documentary Film Festival, Aaina (a South Asian women's festival), and the South Asian Film Festival, the world's largest social-justice-oriented South Asian film festival.

Arts & Innovation: Courtney Sheehan

Courtney Sheehan, an Ohio native, was named executive director of Northwest Film Forum (NWFF) in 2016. A "bastion of independent cinema and community engagement through film on Capitol Hill" (Zwickel), the Forum presents hundreds of films annually at its center on 12th Avenue in the Pike/Pine corridor, in addition to offering community events, workshops, and a full range of services for independent media makers there. NWFF also produces the Children's Film Festival, the largest youth-oriented film festival on the West Coast.

Founded in 1995 as a filmmakers' collective named WigglyWorld Studios, Northwest Film Forum adopted its current name the following year when it began operating the Grand Illusion Cinema in the University District. NWFF went on to build and operate the Little Theatre on Capitol Hill before designing and building its 12th Avenue venue and consolidating all its operations at that location in 2003.

As a curator and media programmer, Courtney Sheehan spent a year investigating and studying 20 film festivals throughout the world on a Watson Fellowship. Having previously been a summer intern at NWFF while in high school, Sheehan became the organization's program director in 2013, and was later appointed artistic director. After becoming executive director, she increased mixed-media and advocacy programming at the Forum.

Sheehan's speech at the ceremony called on the incoming mayor (to be chosen in the November 2017 election) to create:

"more opportunities and structural resources for us all to continue to build coalition. Because it doesn't take very long, I think, to work in the spaces that we do as individual independent artists and arts organizations to realize that we could try to do it without each other, but what's the point? Not only is it not as fun, but it's not as effective and we're not serving the public that we exist to serve as well if we're not joining forces. So here's to continuing to build the collective, creative resistance" ("Seattle Channel Video").

Also named as finalists for the Arts & Innovation award were Susie Lee and the National Film Festival for Talented Youth (NFFTY). Susie Lee, an artist and entrepreneur working in visual and new media, co-founded and was CEO of Siren, a mobile app voted Geekwire's App of the Year in 2015. NFFTY is produced by The Talented Youth, a Seattle nonprofit that fosters and encourages young people in media arts. NFFTY is the world's largest film festival for young directors, and also offers year-round workshops and screenings.

Emerging Leader in the Field: Leilani Lewis

Originally from Seattle, Leilani Lewis spent much of her childhood in Detroit, where she often attended Detroit Institute of Arts events with her mother. However, it was only after moving back to Seattle, starting her own family, and then returning to school, at a community college and then Seattle University, that she recognized her passion for bringing art to the public. She started volunteering with the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) even before it opened in 2008, and was soon hired in the development department.

At NAAM Lewis helped develop a popular Afropunk party and create community presentations about AfroFuturism and Black Lives Matter. She moved from the museum to join the University of Washington as an assistant director in Diversity Communications Outreach, but continued to curate exhibitions at NAAM and other local galleries. She was also named to the board of Shunpike, a nonprofit that provides support to independent artists.

In an interview regarding the Mayor's Arts Award, Lewis explained that her focus on social justice was central to her commitment to the arts:

"I don't want to sound Pollyanna about it ... Things are really hard right now for artists, and especially for artists of color, black, brown, Latinx, gay, lesbian, trans -- all artists who are in the minority are grappling with a lot of economic disadvantage in this city. But at the same time, we're the soul of the city, and my hope is that people recognize that. Having Seattle be an open, accepting, unique and loving city is to everyone's advantage and artists are the ones that teach us how to do that. They're the visionaries" (Wilson).

Arts organization Legendary Children and The Station coffee house were also finalists in the Emerging Leader in the Field category. Legendary Children, an arts programming organization, showcases queer and trans people of color. Performances are all-ages and free, and the group partners with institutions like the Seattle Art Museum and the Seattle Public Library to heighten awareness, access, and inclusion in public spaces. The Station, a Beacon Hill coffee shop, hosts regular arts events and an annual Block Party to celebrate South Seattle culture and community.


"2017 Seattle Mayor's Arts Awards," Seattle Office of Arts and Culture website accessed September 21, 2017 ( - 2017); Erika Lindsay, "Finalists Announced for 2017 Mayor's Arts Awards," August 7, 2017, Seattle Office and Culture website accessed September 21, 2017 (; "Seattle Channel Video: 2017 Seattle Mayor's Arts Awards," Seattle Channel website accessed September 21, 2017 (; "About Us," Northwest Asian Weekly website accessed September 21, 2017 (; Tricia Duryee, "Making Headlines: Assunta Ng Goes After What She Wants," The Seattle Times, March 21, 2002 (; Thanh Tan, "Northwest Asian Weekly Turns 30, Publisher Assunta Ng Remains a Powerful Force for Change," Ibid., October 8, 2012; Nicole Brodeur, "'This Isn't Like a Regular Movie Theater,' Says New Northwest Film Forum Director," Ibid., June 2, 2016; "Assunta Ng Named 2011 Charles E. Odegaard Award Recipient," University of Washington website accessed September 21, 2016 (; Seattle Music Partners website accessed September 21, 2017 (; "Access to the Arts: Spotlight on Seattle Music Partners," KEXP website accessed September 21, 2017 (; "Seattle Music Partners Gives the Gift of Music to Low Income Students in the Central District," , August 25, 2017, KING 5 website accessed September 29, 2017 (; Northwest Film Forum website accessed September 21, 2017 (; Charles Mudede, "Courtney Sheehan Is Now Running Northwest Film Forum," May 24, 2016, The Stranger Slog website accessed September 22, 2017 (; Leah Baltus, "The 2017 Mayor's Arts Awards," CityArts, September 1, 2017 (; Leah Baltus, "Meet the Mayor's Arts Award Winners: Assunta Ng," CityArts, September 11, 2017 (; Brett Hamil, "Meet the Mayor's Arts Awards Winners: Seattle Music Partners," CityArts, September 8, 2017 ('s-arts-award-winners-seattle-music-partners); Jonathan Zwickel, "Meet the Mayor's Arts Awards Winners: Courtney Sheehan," CityArts, September 7, 2017 (; Gemma Wilson, "Meet the Mayor's Arts Award Winners: Leilani Lewis," CityArts, September 8, 2017 (; "The Gallerist: Sharon Arnold," CityArts, January 2, 2014 (; "Who We Are," Bridge Productions website accessed September 21, 2017 (; "Ludovic Morlot," University of Washington website accessed September 21, 2017 (; "Ludovic Morlot Announces He Will Step Down as Music Director; Will Continue Artistic Relationship With Orchestra" (press release), April 21, 2017 Seattle Symphony website accessed September 29, 2017 (; "About Us," Gay City website accessed September 21, 2017 (; "About," Susie J Lee website accessed September 21, 2017 (; "Board of Directors," Shunpike website accessed September 25, 2017 (; "About the Station," Block Party at the Station website accessed September 25, 2017 ( 

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