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Sunday, November 27, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seattle's arts hero scales back

Seattle Times music critic

New faces in the arts

With Peter F. Donnelly's retirement, ArtsFund has a new president: James Tune. That's not the only change at the top in Seattle's arts community lately. Peter Boal is the new artistic director at Pacific Northwest Ballet, and the Seattle Repertory Theatre is now under the artistic guidance of David Esbjornson.

Join Seattle Times theater critic Misha Berson for an onstage conversation with all three men in the next session of Talk of The Times.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 6.

Where: Town Hall Seattle, Eighth Avenue and Seneca Street.

Cost: $5 at the door.

Information: 206-652-4255.

They call him the "arts guru."

Over the past 41 years, Peter F. Donnelly rose from a young theater intern at the Seattle Repertory Theatre to the man who is perhaps the single most influential figure in the Seattle arts scene.

He has transformed a modest united fund for corporate contributions, the former Corporate Council for the Arts, into ArtsFund, an agency whose clout is felt in Olympia's political circles as well as arts groups' cash registers. His long list of awards includes a 2005 Governor's Arts and Heritage Award.

Donnelly, 66, has become the ultimate arts insider. He knows who's doing well and who isn't; he knows the donor community equally intimately. And because the ArtsFund board of trustees reads like a Who's Who of Northwest businesses, he's tapped into the business community at a surprising depth.

The news last year that Donnelly would retire at the end of 2005 shook the arts community to the core. Where would theater companies, dancers and music groups turn for sage advice? Whom would the media tap for inside information?

Two answers: Attorney Jim Tune is poised to take over as president of ArtsFund at the beginning of 2006. He's been working alongside Donnelly for the past two months.

And second, Donnelly promises he isn't going to disappear. The law firm of Perkins Coie will host him, giving him office space (as they did with Anne Farrell when she left the Seattle Foundation) as a contribution to the community.

"I'm not going anywhere," Donnelly promises, "but I'm going to reclaim about 50 percent of the time for myself, without a whole lot on the calendar."

Emptying that calendar is likely to be a lot harder than Donnelly thinks. Aside from the frequent calls for help and counsel, he is already on the boards of the Frye Art Museum, Kreielsheimer Remainder, KING-FM Radio (as an at-large member) and the ArtsFund Foundation, along with other boards, councils and committees, with the plan to "do one or two more boards."

He's still deciding how much time to spend at his place in Palm Springs, Calif., where Donnelly has seldom stayed for more than a couple of days at a time.

"My goals are simple," he says. "I want to get through the Sunday New York Times by Wednesday. And I want to finish the New Yorker profiles within a week."

He concedes, "It's a little daunting to feel untethered. I have had a life in the arts for so long, working constantly ever since I stepped out of school. Now I have to look at all the prospects of redefining my life."

He fell in love

with theater

When Donnelly stepped out of school (Boston University's School of Fine Arts), he came to the fledgling Seattle Repertory Theatre as a Ford Foundation management intern in 1964. Theater was a natural choice for him, because that genre was an important part of turning his life around.

"In junior-high school, I was one of those troubled kids," he remembers.

"I was restless, directionless — not easy to be around as a kid. My mother used to say to my father, 'Don't worry, he'll be better next year.' "

All that changed when the school drama teacher tapped Donnelly to move scenery around for a play. Later, she put him on the stage crew for Thornton Wilder's classic, "Our Town."

"I fell in love," Donnelly recollects.

" 'Our Town' is still my favorite play of all time. I still always weep at the line about a white starched dress and a chestnut tree."

An apprenticeship at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Mass., led to a scholarship to Boston University, where Olympia Dukakis was two years ahead of Donnelly and Faye Dunaway two years behind.

"I also did a stint in the Army: six months in the Reserve, extended another six because of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was briefly a page at NBC. But everything else has been arts, arts, arts."

And here in Seattle, his trail led up, up, up. It didn't take long until the former Rep intern became the general manager and then producing director in a fruitful term that lasted 21 years. The capstone to his Rep career was the building of the Bagley Wright Theatre, completed in 1983.

On to another challenge

Once Bagley Wright was done, Donnelly started feeling restless again.

"I had called in all my chips to get the new theater built. Everything was in wonderful shape. I didn't know what my next challenge would be, and I was bored."

Enter a team of determined headhunters from the Dallas Theatre Center, which badly needed a new managing director. Donnelly had gone to Texas a couple of times to give the company some advice on management problems, and they "cornered me." After initially declining, Donnelly said yes a few months later.

Ultimately, though, Donnelly stayed with the Dallas Theatre Center just three years before returning to Seattle.

So was Dallas a mistake?

"Not at all! It was the best thing I did. I needed a change, and Dallas needed a new theater. It proved more complicated than we realized, because immediately a big depression hit the state in early 1986. When I left, not one bank in Dallas was still owned by a Texan. They're just now doing the new theater, 20 years later.

"But I learned so much, and made such great friends," he continues. "They're the most optimistic people on Earth — they're more playful than Seattleites. Texans have seen so many booms and busts. They're always optimistic that the next boom is coming right up."

Donnelly had only been in Dallas a year when Seattle headhunters started hunting him right back.

"As soon as I left, I was a hero and a prophet," he laughs.

Arts managers courted him, but Donnelly didn't say yes until Immunex CEO Stephen Duzan pressed him to take over the Corporate Council for the Arts. At that time, in 1989, the CCA was an agency that collected arts contributions from corporations in King and Pierce counties, but it was also widely considered a shield behind which corporations hid, giving modest grants while repelling more ambitious sales pitches from individual arts groups.

"I saw that there was real room for improvement," Donnelly says now, "and they let me do what I wanted to do."

What he wanted to do was to unite the community behind the CCA, later renamed ArtsFund to express the mission's changing focus: from corporate contributions to individual workplace giving and foundation grants.

Almost the first thing he did was to establish the annual "Celebrate the Arts" luncheon, in which an astonishing cross-section of 1,000 business, arts and civic leaders gather annually to break bread and listen to speeches — and more importantly, to unite under the banner of the arts.

The luncheon is a symbol of the connections Donnelly has built throughout the community and of the high-level advocacy of the arts here among CEOs, legislators, mayors and other leaders.

Advocacy of the arts

Under Donnelly's hand, ArtsFund has more than doubled its annual distributions and raised more than $10 million in endowments (including a new one named in Donnelly's own honor, as president emeritus). One of his greatest rewards was the decision of philanthropists Harriet Bullitt and Priscilla Bullitt Collins to donate one-third ownership of Classical KING-FM Radio to ArtsFund, which shares profits from the station with Seattle Opera and Seattle Symphony Orchestra.

Among the successful ArtsFund-driven initiatives is the establishment of the Washington State Building for the Arts program, which helped make many of the region's arts facilities a possibility.

More recognition of ArtsFund's prominence came in the final year of the Kreielsheimer Foundation's operations, when ownership of a $2.6 million building across from Seattle Center's KeyArena was donated to serve as the ArtsFund headquarters (and also to provide lease income from other inhabitants, whose ranks include KING-FM).

Other arts leaders value his ardent advocacy of the arts.

"Peter is a proselytizer, a vital characteristic for anyone in the arts but particularly for someone who wants to sell all the arts," says Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins.

"He loves Seattle and believes that we have the greatest arts community in the nation. However good we are — and I think we are remarkable — he has been a major force in making us that way. We are all in his debt."

So what comes next? The last time Donnelly left Seattle, in the mid-1980s, he told The Seattle Times' Wayne Johnson in an exit interview that what the city really needed was the mayoral appointment of civic panels to study the troubled arts groups here.

That's exactly what happened, leading to the involvement of the National Arts Stabilization Fund and the influx of not only millions of dollars, but also lots of good ideas on running fiscally sound arts groups.

Now, Donnelly thinks the future for the region's arts is tied to the Prosperity Partnership, a four-county regional coalition launched last fall by the Puget Sound Regional Council and headed by former Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel.

Donnelly sees Prosperity Partnership as a way to unite regional public and political support of arts and cultural organizations, such as Woodland Park Zoo and Seattle Center, as part of its job-building economic agenda for the Puget Sound region.

"Bake sales and marathons are not enough," Donnelly says.

"We need a broader funding base for our cultural institutions. Look at what is being achieved in Denver, where a penny for every $10 of sales tax goes to support cultural institutions. Our own model might be different — but we need one."

Donnelly won't look back over his shoulder with regrets when he steps down at the end of this month.

"I'm very happy that Jim Tune will succeed me at ArtsFund," Donnelly says of the well-connected attorney who beat out 118 candidates for the job.

"You have to understand both sides of the equation, the donors and the recipients of our cultural community, and the quality of people I have gotten to interact with is extremely high. It's a treat.

"This is a very highly developed arts community. It's the real thing. It deserves the best."

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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