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153 153 9 the art of good business: peter donnelly Barry B. Witham In May 2003, the Seattle Public Library unveiled its striking 355,000square -foot Central Library designed by the famed Dutch architect Rem Koolhaus. As part of the opening ceremonies, it announced that the art and literature section of the collection would be named in honor of Peter Donnelly, longtime arts advocate and chief executive officer of one of the most dynamic fund-raising organizations in the Northwest. It was an appropriate tribute to Donnelly and the latest in a series of awards that recognized the critical role that he has played in securing and distributing corporate and private funds for arts organizations. What made the tribute meaningful was that it did not honor Donnelly’s philanthropy but his leadership and the widely held view that he had invested his adult life making Seattle a community in which the arts thrived and were prized. Unlike other “angels” in this volume, Donnelly was not the source of the philanthropy but rather the mediator. And like traditional angels who mediated between heaven and earth, he created a conduit between wealth and the arts. Terry Collings, director of the 154 barry b. witham Seattle Public Library Foundation, stressed that the naming campaign originated with Seattle arts donors who wanted to do something for Peter . “He gave so much to the area that they wanted to recognize the role that he had played[,] not just the dollars he had raised.”1 Six prominent families donated $1.5 million to celebrate the achievements of a man who began as a Ford Foundation theater intern and, over the course of forty years, pioneered a view that the arts flourish best when they are stripped of elitist notions and prized for what they are: good business. Peter Donnelly. Courtesy of Peter Donnelly. 155 the art of good business Donnelly grew up with the regional theater movement in the sixties , and it was in that context that he honed his skills and developed the strategies that would inform his management style: “There weren’t many professional theatres in the early sixties, but the Ford Foundation saw the coming tide and knew that staff would have to be trained for the regional houses. They started matching young managers with theatres so we could train for a profession. Of course we had to make up a lot of it up as we went along.”2 He graduated from Boston University in 1960, worked as an assistant stage manager for Ellis Rabb’s Association of Producing Artists (APA) company and with Robert Porterfield’s celebrated Barter Theatre, where he met theater director Adrian Hall. In fact, he was planning to team up with Hall in Providence, Rhode Island, when the Ford Foundation notified him that they had approved his internship application and assigned him to the Seattle Repertory Theatre as a management trainee. It was a prestigious opportunity, but Donnelly had never been to Seattle and knew very little about its theater. So in July 1964, he journeyed to the Northwest and interviewed successfully for the position. A month later, he was marketing season subscriptions and generating income for the infant Seattle Repertory Theatre, a company committed to rotating repertory under the direction of Stuart Vaughan. In spite of the enthusiasm generated by both a successful world’s fair and its first ambitious season, however, the theater was in debt and already developing the fissures and strains that would characterize many emerging resident companies. At the time Donnelly started, the theater was supervised by a board of directors—mostly successful business citizens—who were figuring out their own role in the management of a professional arts organization. Vaughan believed that his contract protected him from board interference in artistic matters, but sometimes the distinctions blurred, and he found himself increasingly at odds with Bagley Wright, founder of the theater and spokesman for the business side of the operation. Vaughan wanted a true rotating repertory. The board pointed out that modifying the number of changeovers could reduce costs. Vaughan did not wish to reappoint a certain actor, but the board argued that the actor had a large and positive following in the community. Vaughan believed that the board should concentrate on selling tickets and let him get on with directing the company.3 156 barry b. witham Donnelly’s immediate boss was Bill Taylor, whom Vaughan had brought with him from New York and who had held a variety of...


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