Francine Seders was a sharp young corporate lawyer buried in the Paris headquarters of the Citroën automobile company when it hit her that she would work for 30 more years under a bunch of sexists only to retire to some helpless, silent, tedious station in the world. Because she wasn't the type of person to stake her future on somebody else, and because a doctor once told her she wouldn't be able to have children, casting about in search of a husband in order to construct a family haven wasn't high on her agenda. Not knowing what she'd do, Seders left law, left her homeland, and came to Tacoma and then Seattle. Less than 10 years later, by the late 1960s, she could be seen most Friday afternoons on University Way Northeast and Northeast 47th Street bluffing her way through poker games to try to win back the ante she'd loaned to the starving artists Jay Steensma and Joseph Goldberg. She wasn't some bohemian hanger-on to the Northwest circle of artists. This diminutive Frenchwoman given to occasionally wearing white go-go boots was their dealer.
The Francine Seders Gallery at first was the latter-day Otto Seligman Gallery, located in the U-District. Seders was widely read, an accomplished pianist, and a trained librarian who, after teaching French and music to distracted rich kids at Tacoma's Annie Wright Seminary and trying to conduct research at the sleepy Washington State Historical Society, took a job as assistant at Seligman's established gallery. A year later, in 1966, Seligman was dead of a heart attack, and Seders took over the business, encouraged by Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson, and Mike Spafford.
Today, at 40, the Francine Seders Gallery is the oldest gallery in the city still run day-to-day by its founder, and probably the city's most unlikely art success. Even Seders herself is surprised by it. "I never cater to people with money, which would help," she says, wearing a dress and folding her hands in her lap, looking like a cross between Cezanne's proper, upright wife, and Bonnard's languorous Marthe. "What can I talk to them about? They don't want to talk about the books that I read. Maybe I should play golf and have a martini."
What you notice immediately is that her gallery is different from the others. It is a house, built around a hundred years ago, and located miles away from downtown. (The joke is that it's up behind the elephant house in the zoo.) It has a kitchen with a round table covered by a yellow gingham tablecloth, orchids over the sink, and shelves stacked with art books instead of dishes. It has two main rooms where the art is displayed but where a sofa, reclining chair, fireplace, and dining set might just as easily appear. A staircase leads up to bedrooms containing nothing but art. In the carpeted, white-walled basement: more paintings and sculptures, mostly abstract but some figurative, hanging, sitting, leaning. The cat wanders through every room. The neighborhood is called Greenwood, "green" and "wood" being two sylvan-ities that have not much been associated with modern art, and the surroundings are indeed trees, shrubs, and other old houses.
Seders herself, now 74 years old, is a version of this distinguished brown-gray house. Her reasons for keeping her distance are entirely personal. Greenwood feels like the happy country house where her family went for refuge from Paris's Fourth Arrondissement during the war. She needs a garden, birds, and sky, and finds Pioneer Square—like Paris—dingy and small.
Above all, she does not schmooze, cajole, or convince. The painter Goldberg got his start with Seders, living in the basement of the Greenwood house rent-free. "We were all frustrated with her for the same thing, and we all liked her for the same thing: She wasn't the world's greatest salesperson," Goldberg said. "It was refreshing not to have a used-car salesman for an art dealer. But you wouldn't expect a shy, reclusive person to be running an art gallery, for chrissakes! I think people sensed that she was in a fragile position and wanted to support her. She loved art. She wasn't in it for the money, she just wasn't. We wished to hell she was sometimes. She was just dedicated to art and people like Guy could pick up on that real fast, that he wasn't just a commodity. Everybody had that response to her."
Seders has a reputation for intellectual sincerity, business honesty, professionalism, and devotion to her artists. The longtime Anderson collector Terry Welch describes her as having "a crystalline mind." (She is, in fact, learning Chinese from books.) When the artist Michael Howard, known for his earthy paintings of lonely architecture, decided to make vivid, painted-collage abstractions, she readily exhibited his new direction, whereas plenty of gallerists would have discouraged it.
Seders doesn't give discounts to museums, so that her artists get their full price. She has followed through on planned catalogs even after the artists in question switched galleries. And she has handled her rather famous defeats with grace. In the 1990s, shortly before Anderson died and after she had represented him for three decades, his spouse moved Anderson's work to another gallery suddenly and for no good reason. But even more painful was when Jacob Lawrence's widow, Gwen Knight, yanked his works from the Seders Gallery in 2002 after a relationship that spanned decades.
"They were kind of a family," says curator Beth Sellars. "Whenever Gwen and Jake had to go somewhere, it was usually Francine who drove them." Seders, notably, drives a dark-red 1966 Mustang. "I curated a Lawrence show for the Henry. Francine was totally gracious about it, and you knew she was suffering."
Seders admits she was "very personally hurt." And on top of the emotional loss, she also took on a financial burden: Artists like Anderson and Lawrence carry a gallery. Seders had hired an employee—her gallery is like a family, and one assistant has worked there 34 years—just to keep up with Lawrence's popularity, "and I am trying very hard to conserve their jobs. I don't have much savings, much money put aside—I plan to work as long as I can."
Seders is one of the only remaining dealers in a line that goes back to the earliest contemporary galleries in Seattle. When Lawrimore Project opened this year, Greg Kucera, who opened his Pioneer Square gallery in 1983 shortly after showing his own paintings at Seders's, passed new dealer Scott Lawrimore a stone Seders had given him. One side was rough, one smooth: a symbol of what was in store. Kucera describes the Seders Gallery as "a genteel business, but not a snobby business."
Laughingly, Seders says her only regret is not marrying a rich man so she could support her three dozen artists better. She got close to marriage twice, but said she felt it would compromise her independence—an explanation that didn't stop people from looking at her funny when she explained that, no, she wasn't a lesbian. People have always found her inexplicable. The abstract painter Robert Jones has known her since 1969, and "my shows never sell, but she's carried me all these years," he said. "I'm very fond of her, but I don't know her very well," he added. "I think she's an unknown thing."