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Northwest Voices

Seattle Times letters to the editor

April 1, 2009 at 4:00 PM

Peter Donnelly

He championed art that existed on the margins

I realize how difficult it must be to fill an obituary column with all the virtues of one who has passed on [“Champion of the arts put Seattle on the map,” page one, March 30]. However, in the case of Peter Donnelly, it feels as though the surface was only slightly scratched.

While Peter deserved all of the accolades related to his work with the Seattle Repertory Theatre, ArtsFund and the Building for the Arts fund, one would think that he only delved into promotion and sustainability for those well-heeled, richly supported arts organizations. He did much more.

While Seattle audiences often look as segregated today as they did in 1964 when Peter arrived here, it’s worth noting that his work reached those whose art existed on the margins. He saw the margins and was willing to step across the lines.

When the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center was still known as a cultural center, it was Peter who made it possible for CCA funding to flow to that institution. ArtsFund continues to support programs there to this day.

Other small, ethnically specific arts organizations can look back and note that Peter Donnelly, while shrewd and sometimes above reproach, was honest and willing to help when organizations had their acts together and warranted support.

It was Peter who recruited one of the smartest and most passionate advocates for the arts, an African-American woman who provided community support on behalf of Pacific Northwest Bell (now Qwest) and US Bank, to sit on the CCA review panel and the Building for the Arts Advisory board to give voice to the needs in our arts community that strive to tell the stories of varying ethnic cultures.

It was Peter’s work that created the Mary Helen Moore Diversity Fund in her honor after her sudden death. The Hansberry Project at ACT has had the honor of being a recipient of this vital funding.

The arts are in a fragile state in our community, but not unlike other times when Peter Donnelly knew that they were essential to assure that our quality of life was enhanced by what art brings to us all and that multiple forms and origins deserved expression.

It wasn’t just that such enhancement was only available in the plush, most comfortable seats in town, but those smaller, fledging organizations had a story to tell and would be silenced without the support by corporate and foundation contributions. Peter knew this and he walked with us so many times to assure that we, too, could participate.

We appreciate all that you did, Peter, to allow us to also participate in Seattle’s arts community. It’s true, we were unable to save our grandest symbol of diverse art, the Group Theatre, but we will continue to strive for equity, excellence and solid placement in this city, where world-class arts abound, with your memory intact.

It’s like an old saying –when you lose a friend, you gain an angel you know. We’ll continue to keep working to carry out the legacy you recognized was possible, and hope that you will continue to appear as that angel on our shoulders to show us how to do what is right over what is convenient and easy — words seldom found in your vocabulary.

— Vivian Phillips, Seattle

Seattle sparkles in tribute

I had the good fortune to arrive on the Seattle arts scene just as the turn of time brought our legendary Peter Donnelly back from Texas to the shores of the Puget Sound so that he could create his singular role of arts-commander-in-chief as head of the newly minted corporate council.

My first audience with this titan-in-the making was prophetic. He was gracious as he listened to the entirety of my impassioned plea for more money than mere facts could sustain. A smile erupted on his face as he laughingly read me out loud for all to hear, “You use the word opportunity like a Texan,” a pronouncement that served me well in my years of service to the arts and beyond.

Peter Donnelly, now upon your passing, I’m going to read you right back. You had the heart and soul of a Texan. Everything of your making was bigger than life. You gave us big ideas, big actions and big results.

By the grace of your enduring, large gestures, Seattle stepped upon the stage of world-class cities and emerged as a darling of destinations on the American continent. Some come for a visit, some come to stay. But they all come to drink in the fountain of liveliness and livelihood that springs from the deep well of your vision for the arts. Your work still showers Seattle with creative spirit that sparkles in tribute to the life and times of Peter Donnelly.

— Stephen Guy, former director of development, Seattle Group Theater, and assistant director, Seattle Arts Commission, Seattle

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