Major Force in Region’s Cultural Life Dies

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Peter F. Donnelly

1938-2009

Peter F. Donnelly, one of the most significant voices in the cutural life of the Puget Sound for the past four decades, died Saturday of complications from pancreatic cancer. He was 70.

His influence was vast, his charm undeniable, his knowledge encyclopedic, his connections legendary. No one compared with him in the scope of his power, touching every art form in the area, directly or indirectly, not only in terms of major capital projects but the daily life of dozens of arts groups. Knowing everyone, he sat at the center of the arts community, his office a clearinghouse for groups and individuals and ideas. There was no one like him. His career was synonmous with the huge growth of the arts in Seattle.

He arrived in the city, in 1964, as a Ford Foundation fellow at the then fledging Seattle Repertory Theatre and became a Seattle icon, first as producing director at the theater and later as president and CEO of ArtsFund, an umbrella fund-raising organization for King and Pierce county arts organizations. He retired in 2005.

“Peter Donnelly was the single most powerful voice for the arts in the Puget Sound area,” said Speight Jenkins, general director of Seattle Opera. “He changed the culture of raising money for the arts. When he returned from Dallas (in 1989) to take over the Corporate Council for the Arts (now ArtsFund), the organization had become a shield against substantial fund-raising and turned it into a dynamic force for the entire region. Peter could convince people who would not ordinarily give to the arts to give, and to give generously.”

“Peter was the most unusual and effective and fun person I have ever known,” said Susan Trapnell, former managing director of ACT Theatre and senior consultant with the Arts Consulting Group.

Upon Donnelly’s retirement from ArtsFund, Ken Kirkpatrick, president of U.S. Bank Washington State and ArtsFund chairman, said, “We wanted someone with his personal charm, connection to the community and passion. Mayor Greg Nickels summed it up at a civic function: ‘One listens to Peter Donnelly.’”

A native of Boston, Donnelly was a graduate of Boston University and had aspirations to be an actor. “I was lucky,” he said an interview, “I found out early how bad I was.” He worked in various theaters in the Northeast and had been offered a job as manager of the newly founded Trinity Repertory Theater in Providence, R.I., when the Ford Foundation offered him a management internship in Seattle. “I thought why not look at Seattle,” he remembered 40 years later. “The trip was free and the West Coast foreign territory.”

What attracted him was the “sense of possibility” with the Rep and the city itself. “It was a place on the move, just beginning to feel its own muscle, ready to take its place in the world. Anything you could contribute was welcome. It was hungry for talent. I thought about the job very hard, knowing the decision was important. It became life-altering, and I never regretted it.

“When I arrived, Seattlelites apologized for the weather, lack of good restaurants and cultural opportunities. Now they don’t apologize for much of anything There were only a few professional arts venues: Seattle Symphony, which paid its musicians most of the time; Seattle Art Museum – a boutique Asian art museum; Seattle Opera, which had just opened its doors; the Ladies Musical Club, which brought individual artists to town. There was also Cecilia Schultz (an independent impressario who presented noted musicians). The Henry (Art Gallery) was sleepy, and the Frye (Art Museum), another boutique operation. Theater was either a touring company from New York or at the University of Washington.”

Fast forward a couple of generations to 75 arts organizations, some of which enjoy a national reputation, unprecedented in a city of this size. “This all happened because of the city’s ambition, basic optimism, commitment and curiosity.” Donnelly was at the center of this growth, encouraging and pushing artists, patrons and audiences. Early on at the Rep, Donnelly was approached by a civic leader who wanted advice about starting another professional theater in town (A Contemporary Theatre, now called ACT). Donnelly was uncertain: “We were having such terrible times at the Rep, finding audiences, going from one crisis to the next, to help seemed dangerous to ourselves. But I found I couldn’t say no, and I gave advice and our mailing list. Whatever we had in assets we were not using, we lent. Better to hang together than alone.”

That kind of civic sensibility and collegiality, for which Seattle is now known, is due in a major part to Donnelly’s generosity of spirit.

Civic leader and philanthropist Bagley Wright remembers well Donnelly’s arrival. “I was president of the Rep then and the place was in turmoil. Peter was very civilized, had good manners, was diplomatic and genial. Peter gave board members a sense that being at the Rep was fun when it was not.”

Day after day, week after week, year after year, Donnelly worked in the trenches to make the Rep not only a place of artistic achievement but a place of administrative and financial stability. He succeeded. The Rep became a leading regional theater, and, in 1983, had a new home on the Seattle Center campus, the Bagley Wright Theatre, which was the first major capital project for an arts group in the city since the World’s Fair in 1962.

In his spare time Donnelly helped draft legislation that created the Seattle Arts Commission and provided the idea for a blue-ribbon civic committee to focus on financial problems of arts groups that led to a $7.5 million grant from the National Arts Stabilization Fund.

Thinking that his work in Seattle was done and he needed a new challenge, Donnelly accepted a job as producing director of the Dallas Theatre Center.

“That was the only mistake Peter ever made,” said Wright.

Donnelly returned to Seattle in 1989 to take over the troubled Corporate Council for the Arts. He restructured the organization from one that was barely able to stand on its feet to one that is a model nationwide. Its yearly allocations doubled, derived from its annual campaign, both corporate and individual, and income from 12 separate endowment funds, initiated through his wide circle of influential friends and allies. Their collective assets total more than $11 million. The most recent, the Peter F. Donnelly Merit Fund, was created on his behalf in honor of his retirement.

He was instrumental in convincing the Bullitt sisters — the late Priscilla Collins and Harriet Bullitt — to donate KING-FM to a consortium comprising ArtsFund, Seattle Symphony and Seattle Opera; and the Kreielsheimer Foundation to donate the Century Building on Lower Queen Anne to ArtsFund. In the 1990s, he helped ensure the survival of the National Endowment for the Arts when it was under attack in Congress, particularly by securing key support of then Sen. Slade Gordon. Donnelly was the prime mover, in 1991, in the formation of the statewide Building for the Arts program, which has contributed $57 million to 150 capital arts projects such as Benaroya Hall, On the Boards, Intiman Theatre, Phelps Center (Pacific Northwest Ballet’s administrative home and studios), Seattle Children’s Theater and the Leo Kreielsheimer Theatre at the Rep.

Donnelly long played a crucial, and often quiet, role in dozens of other projects around town by getting the right people in touch with one another and providing advice to seemingly legions of important, and not-so-important, arts people. He was the ultimate insider, known for his energy, affable manner, political savvy, discretion and indefatigable enthusiam for the city and its culture.

“Peter sometimes got flak for being too powerful,”said Trapnell, “The fact is he didn’t have any power. This was the interesting thing. ArtsFund is a totally transparent organization with a very specific purpose and purview: to raise money and send it out into the community at the discretion of the board, not him. The source of his power was his good advice. People listened to him and paid attention. They didn’t have to take it but were happier when they did. He was a firm advocate of the glass half-full philosophy.”

His influence extended well beyond Seattle. He was a member of Boston University’s National Council; vice-chairman of the Americans for the Arts, based in Washington, D.C.; chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts Challenge
Grant panel; national advisory panel of the National Coalition of United Arts Funds, and a trustee of the American Arts Alliance and Theatre Communications Group.

Before his retirement, one of the major collections at the newly built Seattle Central Library was named the Peter F. Donnelly Art and Literature Collection, in recognition of his decades of arts advocacy.

He has also been given numerous awards, including the Governor’s Arts & Heritage Award, Seattle Center Legion of Honor Award, honorary doctorate of the arts from Cornish College of the Arts, Michael Newton Award for Excellence presented by the National Coalition of United Arts Funds.

After his retirement from ArtsFund, he was appointed a trustee of the Seattle Art Museum, 5th Avenue Theatre and the Frye Art Museum, of which he was president.

He is survived by his partner, David Farrar; sisters Donna Down of Winchester, Mass., and Patricia Fabucci of Lynn, Mass.; four nieces and a nephew.

A celebration of his life will be held April 20 at 6 p.m. at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Donations may be made to the Peter F. Donnelly Merit Fund at ArtsFund, P.O. Box 19780, Seattle 98109.

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2 thoughts on “Major Force in Region’s Cultural Life Dies

  1. Thank you R. M. Campbell, for underlining the extraordinary role Peter Donnelly played in this community, he will be terribly missed indeed.

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