The New Foundation Gallery is closing next month
The New Foundation Gallery is closing next month

Last Wednesday morning at 9:07 am, someone at a PR firm pressed send on an e-mail that set the Seattle art world into a heated conversation about what it means and how to feel when private philanthropists suddenly change their minds and their plans.

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The e-mail was an announcement that Shari Behnke, the prominent Seattle philanthropist who in 2012 founded The New Foundation Seattle to support local contemporary artists, which opened a Pioneer Square gallery in 2014, would be shutting down the art gallery and laying off its staff next month—right in the middle of an ambitious year of planned exhibitions.

Behnke was not available to talk but made her explanation in the press release: “Due to an illness in my family, I am simplifying The New Foundation Seattle. I have chosen to put my family first right now.”

I started getting private texts and e-mails immediately, and social media lit up with comments both supporting Shari in a difficult time, and bemoaning the effects of the whims of the wealthy.

Seattle is a little shellshocked, after all. We have at least three very powerful, and very different, billionaires on whom we depend as a city and as individuals.

And last fall, billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen built a contemporary art and culture center called Pivot in South Lake Union. He announced big plans for it including quarterly exhibitions and a constant rotation of programs utilizing the large-scale gallery and a high-tech auditorium capable of broadcasting talks for free onto the sidewalks outside. There would be collaborations with existing arts and performance organizations. (This was after the Allen Family Foundation halted its longtime funding for those same local organizations.)

But before Pivot even opened in December, staff were being laid off and the future was uncertain. Pivot has a new show this month, its second (called Imagined Futures, featuring art about space travel), but Allen’s company Vulcan says Pivot’s exhibitions may continue, “or the space may be used for something else.”

Shari Behnke is not Paul Allen. For years, the entire Behnke family have been supporters of the arts in Seattle, including founding the Neddy and Brink Awards for local artists.

But Shari was striking out in creating The New Foundation, making her own legacy. For four years, the Foundation, led by Founding Director Yoko Ott, has given multiple local artists support through direct funding and through purchasing their works on behalf of interested museums in Seattle and elsewhere. The New Foundation also funded a teaching position for a needed annual course in the art school at UW, Critical Issues in Contemporary Art, which brings artists to Seattle for a free public lecture series each year.

Eric Fredericksen, who teaches the class and organizes the lecture series, said he doesn’t know about the future of that funding but that the Foundation has “done a lot of great things for a lot of different artists here… The [Pioneer Square] space became a focus of what people thought about the Foundation, but the hardest thing for artists in Seattle is to get support on a quick timeline for projects they really feel like they need to do, and the Foundation has provided a really flexible and useful granting program.”

The Foundation’s free Pioneer Square gallery became a focus because it was the public face, and because it presented the most ambitious of the Foundation’s enterprises.

The gallery has exhibited important artists from outside Seattle and provided a free art library of books and periodicals open to all. There aren’t really other art libraries or bookstores that are accessible to non-students in Seattle.

But more than all that, the foundation used the gallery to galvanize a civic and national program in 2016. That program began with the announcement of a new prize, the 100K—$100,000 in unrestricted cash—to be given by the Foundation every two years to an influential, U.S.-based woman artist. (Behnke says the prize will continue.)

The first recipient was New York based artist Martha Rosler, and her work would be the basis for an entire year of programs called Housing Is A Human Right.

It was not meant to be just some art shows.

Housing Is A Human Right was pitched as a commitment to mobilize art and the artistic community in Seattle around pressing local issues of housing and homelessness. Seattle is facing a housing crisis and a homelessness emergency due to the influx and growth of tech corporations.

When New York was facing the same problem in 1989, Rosler had created a three-part exhibition at an organization called Dia. Since then, as communities all over the world have struggled to keep their cities from becoming monocultural playgrounds for the rich, Rosler’s three-part exhibition, called If You Lived Here… has been re-staged with contemporary adaptations, as If You Lived Here Still.

The New Foundation scheduled that three-part series for Seattle for the first half of 2016, to be followed by two more exhibitions of related works by Rosler in the fall.

Events at several partner locations were also announced. An exhibition of Rosler’s collages at Seattle Art Museum is ongoing. In the fall and winter, UW will organize group shows and discussions. Davida Ingram, Public Engagement Programs Manager for Seattle Public Library, told me that the program, “Housing Is a Human Right: Frontlines of the Housing Crisis” planned for May 18 at Central Library, is going on as planned. “Our focus for this event will be on people who have experienced homelessness or dealt with other forms of housing insecurity (e.g. evictions, foreclosures, and gentrification),” she said. “The library’s focus on housing is long-term and based on our commitment to equity and inclusion.”

But the Pioneer Square gallery will close before half of Rosler’s planned shows can appear there. The original Dia series will not even be able to complete its run.

What does Rosler think of all this? She spent time on the phone with me talking through the various issues and said she is mostly just confused and concerned.

“From my point of view, we’re still committed to trying to make something work and do whatever we can to further the promise that we held out to the community,” Rosler said. “I’m befuddled, I’m concerned, I’m uncertain about where we’re going from here, but I feel really bad for people who’ve had their jobs terminated in an instant, and for people who were expecting more [art] to come—the audience, and of course I feel terrible for Shari.”

I asked Rosler whether she thought the overt content in her work made Behnke uncomfortable. The reason I asked is that the wall text in the exhibition changed after opening day. On that day, the text was a strong statement by the Foundation including the question, “Will Seattle become the next Detroit?”

The week of the opening was the same week that violence broke out in Seattle’s large homeless encampment “The Jungle.” Behnke asked the staff to alter the original wall text so that it no longer sounded like the Foundation was taking a side on housing and homelessness in Seattle. Instead, the new label attributed any commentary in the show to Rosler.

“This might surprise you,” Rosler said, but she found Behnke’s request for the change “appropriate” for an arts organization that wants to keep an arm’s distance from seeming partisan in order to better present material to the broadest audience.

Rosler said the new labels didn’t hobble her work at all. She also said that Behnke never wavered in expressing support to her for her work.

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The staff of four at the Foundation received the harshest blow. They hadn’t known the New York PR firm was going to make an announcement, and had only been sent their own emails about losing their jobs an hour prior.

What didn’t surprise them was the announcement that Behnke was coping with an illness in the family. People in Seattle art circles for months have spoken in hushed and sympathetic tones about the illness in the family that’s affecting Shari’s life terribly. (She asked that specifics about it not be published, and I don’t see why they should be.)

In fact, months ago, Behnke told Ott that she planned to close the Foundation at the end of 2016 because she was struggling so much. Only Rosler and Ott knew, at Behnke’s request.

But nobody knew Behnke would close the Foundation early, and nobody expected the announcements on Wednesday. Behnke told me through a spokesperson that the timing was due to her family member’s illness taking a sudden turn for the worse.

Further notices from Behnke’s lawyer that day notified them that their positions were eliminated as of May 26, although as an at-will employer, the Foundation could also let them go anytime before that.

The four employees—Ott, Associate Director Jessica Powers, Programs Manager Ingrid Langston (who left work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York to relocate to Seattle for this job), and Programs Intern Coley Mixan—deserve so much better.

Behnke has earned a lot of goodwill from her work on behalf of Seattle, and she could still improve this situation by offering her employees firmness on their termination date at the very least.

But I would like to see Behnke reconsider the closing date, period, to let Seattle have its rightful full year of Rosler exhibitions.

“We have had so many people come in here who wouldn’t have otherwise come in here,” Mixan told me.

Pioneer Square is the epicenter of poverty in Seattle’s downtown core. Housing Is A Human Right cannot be about any one person, or the hardships of any one family. It is far bigger, or it risks becoming a vanity project.

That doesn’t have to happen here, does it? Really?

The staff is in place, the plans are in place. Everyone involved, from what I can tell, believes passionately in the work.

“My focus now is on continuing to do this work,” Ott said. “My commitment is to the institution’s mission and to the people that we work with.”

But because there was no plan for the Foundation’s sustainability, Ott may not be able to keep that commitment. A few years ago, Ott found herself at the whim of another single-funder gallery, Open Satellite in Bellevue, which also closed.

I recently wrote about Creative Capital, a New York-based arts funder that spends as much money training and connecting artists and curators and writers as it does in providing cash for projects. Creative Capital’s entire purpose is sustainability; it was developed in response to the death of individual artist grants from the National Endowment for the Arts during the Jesse Helms era. So I asked Ruby Lerner, Founding Director of Creative Capital, about Behnke’s precipitous announcement.

Lerner said she’s never understood funders who spend their money on projects that can fit into existing museum or gallery systems. She was excited to hear about Behnke’s support of the Martha Rosler exhibitions in Seattle. But she was dismayed by how fragile that support appears to have been.

“Where does the responsibility for supporting risk really reside? I think maybe that’s the question,” Lerner said, throwing it out there for us to pick up.

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