Kelly Hart, who’s been executive director of Allied Arts of Whatcom County for 15 years, grew up in Tacoma, and attributes her love of the arts and travel to her grandparents.
“They were very involved in supporting the arts in Tacoma and Seattle,” she says, and frequently took Kelly and her sister to art openings and performances.
“They felt that travel was an important part of education,” she adds, and made it possible for her to visit amazing places and experience local cultures. One of her favorite trips was through Scandinavia. Her grandmother was born in Norway and moved to the States with her family when she was 8.
“I was also fortunate enough to go to a school with a really strong arts program, the Charles Wright Academy in Tacoma,” she says. ““The pottery studio and photography dark room were my hangout places.”
After high school, Kelly got her undergraduate degree in art history from the University of Oregon, then went on to Sotheby’s American Arts Course in New York City for a masters certificate in fine and decorative American arts, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst online for a masters certificate in nonprofit arts management.
When asked how she demonstrates her creativity, she says right away that it was by being a single mom. “About all I had time for the past few years was for making Halloween costumes and decorating birthday cakes.” Her two sons have left the nest, and she just finished a digital photography class from Al Sanders at Whatcom Community College.
“It’s a long way from the darkroom of my high school and college photography classes,” she says. “I also just took a silver jewelry-making class at the Jansen Art Center in Lynden. It was something new for me and really fun.”
Kelly admits that she doesn’t give up easily.
“I have always worked to make the arts inclusive for everyone, from a welcoming gallery, a pay-as-you-can art supplies from the art supply thrift store, to an arts education program that serves all Whatcom County school districts. She’s spent all of her career here advocating for more arts in our schools and opportunities for artists by serving on Inspire WA (formerly the WA State Arts Alliance).
“A big reason I took this job 15 years ago,” she says, “was because of the large membership, the terrific support of the arts in the community, and the variety of other arts organizations in the community. Working with all of these great art enthusiasts makes my job easy.”
And she appreciates her staff and volunteers.
One longtime staff member was Katy Tolles, who recently left Allied Arts to work at Lydia Place. Katy was volunteering for the organization’s education program when Kelly was hired, and Kelly hired Katy shortly thereafter.
“Kelly has a truly epic passion for ensuring the arts in our community continue to thrive,” says Katy. “During our time together, I was constantly in awe of her tirelessness for advocacy, pursuing funding and partnerships to ensure our artists had outlets in our community.”
Scott Ward has served on the Allied Arts board as president for three years. He appreciates Kelly’s dedication to and passion for the arts in Whatcom County. “She’s a resourceful, creative and positive leader,” he says, and he’s continually impressed with her ability and willingness to shift on a dime.
On the personal side, Kelly says that Bellingham has been an amazing place to raise her two sons.
“The variety of things to do here is really mind-blowing. I love getting up into the mountains or out onto the water as much as possible. I purchased a house last fall and have really been enjoying working in my yard meeting my neighbors through online plant exchanges. I am also really enjoying being able to walk to work.”
A favorite event of Kelly’s every year is Allied Arts’ Holiday Festival of the Arts, which runs November 19 through December 24. This year, she says, there are new great artists participating, as well as returning favorites in more than 100 booths. She’s excited about the new space for the event, at 1411 Railroad Avenue (in the old Bellingham Beauty School).
There will be both an in-person event as well as an online market with curbside pick-up available for the full five weeks, open daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. (closed on Thanksgiving and closing at 3 p.m. on December 24.)
The event will also be open until 9 p.m. for the Downtown Bellingham Art Walk on December 3, and there’ll be a special Holiday Festival larger works exhibit at the Allied Arts Gallery, 1418 Cornwall Avenue, through December.
Kelly says one of the best things to come out of the struggles of the past few years has been the forming of the Whatcom Arts Project, a collaboration of arts organizations throughout Whatcom County.
“We’ve worked together for a social media campaign, fundraisers, arts advocacy, and marketing efforts,” she says. “But best of all, arts leaders meet regularly to support and encourage each other.”
Katy Tolles sums up working with her former boss.
“Kelly takes every opportunity she can to talk to anyone who will listen about the importance of arts in all aspects of our community.”
“At the same time, she also listens, hearing people’s stories about why they are creative, how art has helped them, and ways to make our community more art friendly are at the forefront of why she does what she does.”