Art Guide Northwest

The Big Six:
Seattle's Longest-Lasting Art Dealers

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By Matthew Kangas
A television salesman, a department-store executive, a lawyer-turned-librarian, a former graduate student in American art history, a psychologist, and an interior designer: these are the people who became Seattle's longest-lasting art dealers, respectively, Gordon Woodside, Donald Foster, Francine Seders, Sam Davidson, Barbara Mack, and William Traver. As the Seattle art scene reaches an uneasy maturity in the midst of a troubled economy, various social and political crises, and shifting collector demographics, it is worth talking to the stalwarts who became the establishment and who saw the transition from a coterie of wealthy people directly supporting artists to a wide-open art community with many galleries and several hundred practicing and exhibiting artists.

They have witnessed the rise and fall of the Northwest School and its replacement by a far bigger, younger and more diverse group of artists. Today's Big Six dealers concentrate on a mixture of emerging and well-known artists, a broad variety of media including the crafts, and high standards for presentation, display, publications and lighting, along with the hard-won assumptions of honesty, integrity and reliable advice.

Founded in 1961 with the loan of $800 from Gordon Woodside's friend and long-time partner, Don Teichman, the Gordon Woodside Gallery was "open from ten o'clock until midnight every day for the first two years." Partner John Braseth joined the gallery in 1978, and the name was changed to Woodside/Braseth.

"Seattle was barren in those days. There was a tiny handful of dealers," Woodside continued. "Zoe Dusanne and Otto Seligman were catering to the elite. But David Hall-Coleman opened his gallery and that finally began to bring in the middle class. That helped us a lot. For our first show, I borrowed paintings from all the top society people. Manfred Selig (father of property developer Martin) lent five Schiele drawings so they all showed up and we were off and running!"

Now associated with Northwest School masters like Guy Irving Anderson, William Cumming, and Paul Horiuchi, the gallery also discovered abstract master William Ivey and other strong non-objective artists like Carl and Hilda Morris, Kathleen Gemberling Adkison and William Ingham.

African-American artist Jacob Lawrence (who died in Seattle in 2000) has been the financial mainstay of Francine Seders' gallery for nearly 25 years. To have one or two very big sellers is important for a dealer, French-born Seders mentioned. Trained as an attorney in Paris, she arrived in the U.S. in 1957 and worked briefly as a librarian in Tacoma before joining Otto Seligman Gallery in the University District in 1962, the year of the Seattle World's Fair. After Seligman's death in 1966, Seders bought the business, changed the name, and, in 1970, moved it to 6701 Greenwood N.

"I lived upstairs and then, later, in the basement, until 1980, when I bought my first home. After 1970, things really opened up with the middle class in Seattle. The Tobeys I was selling were a lot more expensive than the work of some of the University of Washington Art School faculty I began showing so they made a big difference. Michael Spafford and Michael Dailey were the first professors, followed by Norman Lundin, Ripley Jenkins, Robert C. Jones and Wendell Brazeau."

"It's taken a good long while for Seattle to mature. It's always been a good city to be an artist in though. These days, attendance is very high but people are not buying as much as two years ago. That will change because people need art; it's a necessity and they always come back. Last year's earthquake, the loss of local jobs, and then September 11 frightened them off, but it's turning around."

Third-generation Seattleite Donald Isle Foster took over the Richard White Gallery founded in 1969. From 1973 on, Foster/ White Gallery retained the original partners' names even though Foster became sole owner. "The whole area was the center of the interior design business in Seattle. There was only our gallery, Polly Friedlander, and then Davidson and Barbara Mack. The art scene was smaller and more fractured in those days, but fixing up Pioneer Square and gentrifying the storefronts and housing was the first effort to galvanize the visual arts into one area," he recalled.

As a founder of the 1970s advocacy group Friends of the Crafts, Foster has always encouraged artists working in traditional materials like clay, fiber, metals, wood and, most importantly, glass. Dale Chihuly's first Seattle show at the gallery was in 1977 and Foster/White has been an important venue for the world-class artist ever since, along with subsequent glass stars like William Morris, Richard Royal and a host of international glass and ceramic artists. Because of this, the tradition began of displaying crafts alongside fine arts and this, in turn, put Seattle on the map as a city where craft art is given equal status.

"We've had down times in the past, like all the galleries," Foster noted, "but we persisted. Longevity helps build a solid reputation. That, along with honesty and how you deal with clients-and artists-really matters a lot. It's a question of trust, really."

Davidson remembers "how much more camaraderie there was in Pioneer Square in those days. Manolides Gallery was here, Linda Farris was going strong, and Don Foster was upstairs. Then, it became a lot bigger and more fragmented. If there ever had been a Northwest School, that was changing, too. The other thing that was crucial," Davidson insisted, "was First Thursdays [a monthly event when all the galleries are open late] and the gallery guide, both of which began in 1984. After that, it truly became an art scene."

After an art history degree at Wesleyan University and an M.A. at the University of Massachusetts, Davidson worked for the campus print-gallery chain, Ferdinand Roten, before coming back to Seattle. After trying various locations he settled in at 313 with ample space for the galleries' strengths: antique, modern and contemporary prints; and contemporary painting and sculpture with an emphasis on realism.

"Our success is due to our multi-pronged programming approach, but also because we train our staff to engage people so they can get whatever price range they want," Davidson mentioned. "We want to help them so they can distinguish what an original print is and not buy a photographic or digital reproduction passed off as an original print."

Although Barbara Mack now has a gallery in Palm Desert, Calif., and sold her Gallery Mack to an employee, Jo Ann Overfield, in 1999, she still maintains ties to Seattle and remembers the early days of Pioneer Square with fondness. Begun in 1977 at 123 S. Jackson St. (the current location of Foster/White), Gallery Mack moved near the Pike Place Market in 1984. "I wanted to provide a positive place for people to come into a gallery with no high pressure, " Mack recalled.

"We began specializing in sculpture and have shown Northwest bronze artists like Georgia Gerber, Louise McDowell, Dennis Kleine, Kevin Pettelle and, later, out-of-town big names like R.C. Gorman, Fernando Botero and Francisco Zuniga," Overfield added. "It takes a collector with a little more vision to place sculpture. It is a more difficult market."

Celebrating his 25th anniversary this year, William Traver started his original gallery at 2219 Fourth Ave. in 1977. In 1992, he moved to his current space on the second floor of the Pohl Building at 110 Union St. Having become one of the nation's top five art galleries specializing in glass, Traver expanded further by adding Vetri (1408 First Ave.) in 1995 to showcase high-quality production ware and emerging artists.

With a 10,000-square-foot space including offices and storage designed by architect George Suyama, William Traver Gallery has two or three shows on at the same time, often combining glass art with painting and sculpture. From his first show in 1977 to the current year-long celebration, Traver has focused on local artists as well as those associated with the Pilchuck Glass School. Visiting instructors from Sweden, Poland, Czech Republic, Italy and Japan have all had important exhibits, in many cases, their U.S. debuts, long before shows in New York that inevitably follow for them.

Perhaps speaking for the other five, Traver commented on the current scene, "The economy has to recover. That'll take a while. I can already see things improving. I'm very optimistic. The last twenty-five years have just been pioneering. As the world opens up, there'll be much more opportunity for us all."

Matthew Kangas began reviewing Seattle galleries for Artweek in 1977 and is now a contributor to Art in America, Sculpture and many other publications. He wrote an earlier history of Seattle art dealers, Merchants, Mavens, and Money for ARTSline in October 1986.

Matthew Kangas, 2002

William Traver and Margaret Tomkins

Art dealer William Traver, now celebrating his gallery's 25th year, with artist Margaret Tomkins, c. 1990. Photo: Christopher Dahl 1990

Gordon Woodside

Gordon Woodside in 1986 at 1101 Howell St. Photo: Christopher Dahl 1986

Francine Seders

Francine Seders at the Otto Seligman Gallery on University Way, 1966. Photo: Robert Eyre

Donald Foster and John-Franklin Koenig

Donald Foster, art dealer, and artist John-Franklin Koenig at Foster/White Gallery, 1986. Photo: Christopher Dahl 1986

Sam Davidson

Sam Davidson, 1986. Photo: Jim Ball

Barbara Mack

Gallery Mack's Barbara Mack, 1986

Jo Ann Overfield

Gallery Mack's Jo Ann Overfield, 1986

 


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