He hated the title "arts czar," but that was the role that Peter Donnelly held during the critical years of significant growth in local arts. Even after he stepped down and learned to relax in a form of retirement, he was still often called on for advice, tending the flock he had nourished. Now, suddenly, he is gone. He died Saturday, only a week or so after the accidental discovery of his advanced pancreatic cancer. He was 70.
Donnelly came to Seattle in 1964, having grown up in Boston and learned from his family how to behave like an Irish pol. He began at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, which he eventually headed; spent some time in Dallas heading another theater company; and then was recalled by business leaders in Seattle who needed a strong hand to rescue what was then called the Corporate Council for the Arts, a kind of United Way for the Arts, which gathered corporate contributions, shaped up arts groups on the business side, and dispensed a few million dollars a year to these groups.
The position put Donnelly as a power broker for the arts. He explained the sometimes mysterious ways of arts organizations to CEOs, imposed discipline on sequencing all the capital campaigns, provided some "birth control" for new groups, and launched initiatives such as the state's Building for the Arts program, pouring money into capital campaigns. ArtsFund provided general operating funds, the most sought-after of all arts funding. And Donnelly was an indefatigable cheerleader for Seattle arts, connecting them with the tourism business, economic development, and the region's international image.
He will be greatly missed by his hundreds of friends and admirers, including me. He was already missed, though not by all, when he let go the reins of ArtsFund in 2005, since no one has really stepped into the role of arts czar since. His few critics felt that he favored the larger arts organizations, to the detriment of smaller institutions, and that he sometimes asserted his leadership too strongly when others differed. (An example was the decision of 4Culture to separate from King County government, a move that Donnelly felt put it in competition with ArtsFund for raising corporate contributions and let the county off the hook for funding the arts.)
He had excellent political judgment, and nearly all the local politicians enjoyed his company and counsel. He could also be a wonderful coach for inexperienced arts groups on how to build a board, how to define a mission, whom to hire for key staff jobs, and when to launch a capital campaign. I know from experience, since he was a champion and mentor of Town Hall, back when I was helping to start the venture, from scratch, in 1998.
On the surface, he seemed to be ever the booster. But his private judgments of arts groups and their boards, as well as some politicians who talked a better game than they walked (such as Ron Sims), could be very shrewd and forceful. Two examples come to mind: how much he lamented the way one major board has been riven with politics for decades; and how much he wished our arts critics would pass beyond the habits engrained in the World's Fair years (keep praising everything because it's all so remarkable and fragile for such a small city) into a more mature blend of praise and criticism. The candid side of Peter I will particularly miss.
I invite others who knew him well to append a comment below or, if you prefer, send me a comment that I will post. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. A tribute will be held April 20, 6 pm, at the Seattle Rep.