In the decade since it opened its doors in 2006, the Hedreen Gallery at Seattle University—prominently fronting 12th Avenue—has been a full-fledged laboratory. This has been a place where local artists go to experiment, discuss, perform, build, and witness their own and each others' works, including every medium from painting, sculpture, drawing, video, writing, and installation to durational performance.
That early era was defined by another quality: lack of funding.
Now, Amanda Donnan arrives at the Hedreen as an experienced curator who'll actually function as part of the art history department, not only creating exhibitions at the Hedreen Gallery and the two smaller galleries at SU, but also teaching a class of students each year about contemporary curating and the history and theory of display, and incorporating the university's permanent collection into the mix.
"Did you know there's a Jo Baer diptych in SU's collection?" Donnan asked me on Monday night, when I sat down to interview her.
I barely knew SU had a collection. (Turns out it also includes Chinese antiquities, in addition to the diptych by the famous 1960s minimalist.)
"[The Baer is] on the sixth floor of the library, in the student lounge," Donnan offered helpfully.
Donnan is a Pittsburgh native from a family she described as working class, and her earliest experience with contemporary art happened on a high-school field trip in 1999, when she and her fellow classmates were taken to a big national exhibition at her hometown museum, the Carnegie Museum of Art. All she'd known before that was that she loved art class. Afterward, she went to Penn State and studied art (mostly making ceramics) and art education, then went to work as a production coordinator for the PBS documentary series Art21. She worked on the episodes featuring Nancy Spero, Mark Dion, Laurie Simmons, An-My Le, Jenny Holzer, Lari Pittman, Robert Ryman, Pierre Huyghe, and more, and "I loved it! Seeing the inside of artists' studios. Hearing them speak candidly."
In 2009, she made a homecoming. She was appointed assistant curator at the Carnegie Museum of Art that had inspired her a decade before. Between Art21 and the Carnegie, she worked as an intern at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Cabinet magazine while earning a graduate degree in art history and criticism from SUNY Stony Brook.
Donnan was assistant curator on the 2013 Carnegie International, which was widely lauded for being "strikingly thoughtful," wrote Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker, and "a welcome shock to the system of one of the art world’s more entrenched rituals" that "all but leaves festivalism at the door," according to New York Times critic Roberta Smith.
Donnan only relocated to Seattle—about a year ago—because her husband got a tech job in Seattle.
"We are part of this hated tech wave, but we're not bros," she pledged.
Donnan's first project at the Hedreen was an exhibition of works that could be checked out like books from a lending library. Next up is an installation—a suspended living room—by Sean M. Johnson, the Seattle artist who recently moved to Brooklyn. That opens April 14.
Brilliantly, Donnan took advantage of an upcoming regional event—Disjecta's Portland biennial, juried by Michelle Grabner—to invite Grabner to show this summer at the Hedreen. Grabner was one of the three curators of the 2014 Whitney Biennial and her own art has inspired great debate after Ken Johnson of the New York Times wrote a sexist review of it. Grabner's solo exhibition this summer at the Hedreen will offer a chance to revisit those debates and consider new questions.
Donnan doesn't "have an agenda," she said. "It's not really about me. It's more about taking an open position. I like curating because I get to learn. I'm into everything from good abstract painting to meta-documentary videos." She's drawn to "projects that address underknown cultural histories," like her exhibition of Duncan Campbell's videos at the Carnegie in 2012, her first show there. Campbell's videos blend archival footage and fictional scenes to tell stories about actual political, economic, and business figures.
At SU, Donnan works for the art department, where the current chair is Naomi Hume, an art historian who was part of the faculty's effort over the last several years to convince the university to create a new position for a curator.
Without much money to pay, the Hedreen has hired curators without a lot of experience but with exciting ideas, Hume explained. Those curators, making magic on shoestring budgets, have been Carrie E.A. Scott, Yoko Ott, Whitney Ford-Terry, Jessica Powers, and, most recently, Amanda Manitach.
The Hedreen should still be experimental, Hume said. That's what a university gallery does, after all. It's just that the Hedreen has not done very well at reaching into campus and including its own community of students and faculty, so that will be part of Donnan's job as well. Teaching will embed her, and a quarterly schedule of exhibitions rather than a monthly one will give more people a chance to come through. That said, Hume acknowledged the Hedreen doesn't want to lose its place in the hearts of Seattle artists.
"The fact that the artists in town love the Hedreen, that's an audience that is hard to deliberately go after," she said. "We've been incredibly lucky" and having such little money to regulate the space also meant that "all kinds of experimental things went on that we couldn't have really done intentionally as a university department."
The press release from SU says that Donnan will "introduce artists from around the country and abroad, while providing opportunities for regional artists to experiment and take risks in a laboratory-type environment."
“Given the Jesuits’ commitment to social justice and civic engagement, participatory or relational projects in that vein will be a prominent thread,” Donnan says in a statement. “There is also a focus on reflection in Jesuit philosophy, though, so work that invites contemplation or wonder is part of the equation, too.”
Part of the reason artists in Seattle have loved the Hedreen has been its accessibility as an incubator—dozens and dozens of local artists have shown work, spoken, and organized events there. They won't love fewer opportunities to do so, and I'm expecting to hear nostalgia for the old days any minute now, if it's not already out there.
Donnan's upcoming solo exhibitions look mixed to me. Johnson's furniture installation sounds like what he is known for doing rather than an experiment, but we'll have to wait to see what it's actually like, and what talks and programs come along with it. Grabner is certainly an interesting choice for an artist from outside the region. And Donnan's outsider-insider history, and her beginnings as an artist, are encouraging to me. SU's art department is deep in the local community, its faculty members running a local artist residency in addition to the gallery's activities. And SU's art historians are the only ones you see consistently at other art openings around the city. So for me, the Hedreen doesn't have to be a near-community center in order to hold onto the strong hope that that SU's gain doesn't have to be a loss for the artists who love it, and for the city at large.