Most Influential, Arts: Bernie Griffin
The arts executive left Seattle several times. She couldn’t stay away.
By Chris S. Nishiwaki March 2, 2023
Bernie Griffin is one of Seattle’s 25 most influential people reshaping our region. #mostinfluential
Every time 5th Avenue Theatre Managing Director Bernie Griffin pursued her professional ambitions around the country, she always returned to Seattle for an encore performance. The nonprofit arts executive will make one final curtain call at the end of the current season next spring as she will be retiring from the historic theater.
“I tried other places, but I always came back to Seattle,” Griffin says in her office above the 5th Avenue Theatre in the Skinner Building.
Since Griffin assumed a leadership role at the theater in 2002, approximately six million patrons have enjoyed 142 musicals. More than two dozen were new. Ten went on to Broadway and garnered 14 Tony Awards.
In 2017, following the retirement of Executive Producer and Artistic Director David Armstrong, Griffin was promoted to co-lead the theater with Producing Artistic Director Bill Berry. She had previously served as the theater’s first director of institutional advancement and development, creating and developing its successful fundraising initiative. She became managing director in 2010.
Griffin grew up in Walla Walla, but her career took her to Denver, New York City and Southern California. Each time, she returned to Seattle, the last 21 years ago when she joined 5th Avenue Theatre. Prior to that, Griffin served as assistant director of development for the Seattle Symphony, where she was responsible for the capital campaign that built Benaroya Hall.
During her long tenure she has worked tirelessly to revitalize downtown Seattle, creating the Downtown Seattle Theater District. During her time leading arts organizations, the Symphony and ACT Theatre moved their performance halls from Lower Queen Anne to downtown and halls like The Paramount, Town Hall and the 5th Avenue Theatre were saved from demolition and refurbished to their current grandeur.
Her last act may be the toughest: Revitalizing the downtown core once more, this time post-pandemic. Griffin is optimistic audiences and business will return.
“An ecosystem that was so robust, it can be so fragile,” Griffin says of the collapse of live performances during the pandemic. “The arts bring two million people to the downtown core. When you see the economic impact, it is astonishing.”
Josh LaBelle, executive director of Seattle Theatre Group, which manages The Paramount, The Moore and The Neptune, calls Griffin “the rock of the 5th Avenue.”
“She is the person who gets it all done with heart and compassion and a lot of wisdom,” LaBelle says. “I think she’s one of the most collaborative arts leaders we have in this city.”