Dwight Gee, for 22 years an invaluable executive at ArtsFund, is moving on at the end of July to a new post at the World Justice Project. He will be very hard to replace at ArtsFund, an agency that collects millions from individuals and businesses in the Seattle area and distributes the funds to nearly 70 arts institutions in the Seattle area and Tacoma. As it happens, the president of ArtsFund, attorney Jim Tune, is also leaving once a successor is found.
Gee is executive vice president of ArtsFund, a title that fails to do justice to the crucial role he plays in helping to run the organization and staffing and providing counsel to many task forces on the arts. He's a classic Seattle type: always cheerful, always volunteering for more work, looking on the bright side where others might see nasty artistic feuds and political warfare. He also typifies contemporary Seattle in that his interests have evolved toward international work, particulary helping arts in Mongolia, and in his new post.
The World Justice Project was founded by Seattle attorney Bill Neukom, for years the chief counsel at Microsoft and now busy as president of the San Francisco Giants baseball club. As national president of the American Bar Association, Neukom launched the project, dedicated to the spread of the "rule of law" to many other nations. It holds global forums, produces the Rule of Law Index, monitoring progress in 65 countries, and issues publications on the topic of how to "give everyone in the world a fair shake." Gee will be working in the Seattle office (headquarters are in D.C.), with a focus on institutional development and fundraising. Gee and Neukom first worked together when the former was board chair of ArtsFund.
ArtsFund was founded in 1969 as the arts version of United Way. Instead of having corporations beseiged by individual pitches from arts groups, the large companies agree to give generously to the fund, which then allocates the money to organizations after vetting them for financial soundness and mission. The money, totaling $2,374,000 last year, is the most coveted form of grants: general support money (not tied to specific programs). After a shaky start, the group, originally called the Corporate Council for the Arts, flourished under the leadership of Peter Donnelly, the former general manager of Seattle Rep and an amiable, politically savvy kind of arts czar who could bless new organizations, suggest good board members, guide some out of the way of competitors, and lower the boom on a few poor performers. Gee was Donnelly's essential operations director, and he learned the arts of genial diplomacy from that master.
One current project very much depended on Gee's solid staff work and patient prodding. This is the effort to create a Cultural Access District for the central Puget Sound arts and educational institutions (zoos, history museums, aquariums, museums of flight, science centers and the like), following an admired model in Denver. The effort, now named the Education and Arts Access Program, was originally fashioned by Donnelly (I also helped in the early stages), and has been inching its way forward in Olympia, helped by many arts groups and the Prosperity Partnership of the Puget Sound Regional Council. It's a tough slog in this economy, and Gee's departure will be a serious setback.
Will ArtsFund itself undergo significant changes with these two key changes at the top? Some have felt that the organization, for all its value in rounding up bucks and shaping up organizations, has two drawbacks: it tends to put a cap on local giving, by fending off individual appeals, and it puts too much emphasis on business practices in a highly creative field. It may also be that companies in the "new economy" prefer a more individualized, entrepreneurial approach to cultural funding.
Yet the idea for these United Ways of the Arts has spread across the country and reflects a strong Seattle tradition of working together and rationalizing the local marketplace for the arts. And it's unlikely that any of the major arts groups would want to risk a dip in that annual grant (Seattle Opera, for instance, received $270,000 last year).
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