Documents Northwest PONCHO Helps SAM Support Local Artists

By Matthew Kangas

From the first exhibit in the Documents Northwest (DNW) series at the Seattle Art Museum modern art pavilion at Seattle Center in 1983, the attention and care given to the presentation of Pacific Northwest artists has been intense, selective, professional and lively. Fifteen years and five curators later, the PONCHO series, as it is subtitled, is still going strong and more important than ever.

Seattle has changed considerably since the days in the early 1980s when artists like Jeffrey Bishop (who received the first show) were launched on national careers thanks to solo shows in the prestigious series. Numerous Pioneer Square galleries have opened and closed; young artists' careers have begun, flourished and sputtered. Through it all, Documents Northwest concentrates on regional artists, always including a full-color six-to-eight- page brochure written by a curator or critic, and always funded by PONCHO, the Patrons of Northwest Civic, Cultural and Charitable Organizations founded in 1962. PONCHO's annual dinner-auction raises millions for the arts every year.

According to former executive director Judith Whetzel, who served from 1981 to 1995, "Documents Northwest is particularly important to us because it recognizes the outstanding artists of our region. Also, when they donate to our auction, the artists are generous to PONCHO and this is a way we can pay them back.

Whetzel feels that the Seattle Art Museum must continue the series under new Jon and Mary Shirley Modern Art Curator and Associate Director Trevor Fairbrother. "The museum must highlight the talented individuals in our community," she said. "And PONCHO is pleased that each show is documented with a brochure. It's crucial and critical so that people going to the museum can see the rich resource that we have in the Northwest."

Looking back, the efforts have been impressive. Although an earlier series called "New Ideas" under former curator Charles Cowles focused on two and four-person shows between 1977 and 1982, his successor, Bruce Guenther (now at Orange County Museum of Art in Southern California) blasted forward with a brilliant series of 16 one-person shows between 1983 and 1988.

Drawing upon his background at museums in Portland, Oregon and Pullman, Washington, Guenther broadened the geographical purview, favoring friends like Lucinda Parker, Michele Russo and Gregory Grenon (Portland), John Buck (Bozeman, Montana), Robert Helm and Patrick Siler (Pullman), along with young artists of stature from Seattle like Bishop, Robert Maki, Fay Jones and Dennis Evans. The surveys often concentrated on recent work presented in a pristine museum environment.

At the same time, Guenther's colleagues, Associate Modern Art Curator, Vicki Halper and Associate Curator of Photography and Prints, Rod Slemmons, began to share the workload with ambitious group shows as well as thoughtfully selected individual displays. Halper's 1987 Sherry Markovitz exhibit looked at a broad range of the Seattle painter and sculptor's work that Linda Farris, her dealer, had overlooked or simply not had time, space or money to deal with. Halper's 1989 print extravaganza, "First Impressions," displayed the work of 17 monotype artists, a once-through-the-press medium that was attracting a great deal of interest at the time. Blending together artists from all over the region, "First Impressions" was a definitive examination of a substantial body of work.

Slemmon's six group shows and four solo shows between 1986 and 1997 traced the rise and evolution of photography as an increasingly important part of the contemporary art scene. Whether sensitively selecting work by Glenn Rudolph, Michael Burns or Carly Tucker for tighter focus, or homing in on trends like street photography or sculptural photography, Slemmons (and his successor Peter Nesbit) set the pace for regional curators examining photography's legacy and transition into fine art within the Pacific Northwest.

When Guenther's successor, Patterson Sims arrived in 1987, the direction shifted radically to group shows. Whereas part of Guenther's mission was to make up for lost time in honoring midcareer artists like Michael Spafford and George Tsutakawa, among others, Sims took a cue from trends in contemporary art, such as multicultural art, craft arts like ceramics and glass, architecture theory, political art, and graphic design. The mix was lively if uneven. It also included many more artists under umbrella themes like historical-style revivals in Northwest glass (1995), new Native American art and figurative glass sculpture (both 1989).

Halper followed suit by honoring craft artists even more aggressively. "The craft artists already had substantial national reputations and it was natural and important that we recognize them at the museum," she said. Besides a Richard Notkin ceramics retrospective (which toured nationally), Halper surveyed the birth of Northwest jewelry using found objects (a local trend with national influence) and recently completed a retrospective of a glass artist, Whidbey Island's Richard Marquis, who also uses found objects in mock-folk art assemblages adding handblown glass.

The shift to group shows was positive in Halper's view because the projects included more artists and were more curatorially complex. Trends like found-object jewelry could be explored in depth with over 100 objects on view. However, this also meant that there were fewer shows per year, a dilemma that the museum faces today in its downtown headquarters.

Trevor Fairbrother is acutely aware of how much harder it is to do both small shows quickly and larger group shows, given increased expense, staff workloads, and scheduling battles. Nevertheless, DNW is an important part of his future plans. "It's amazing how strong (Documents Northwest) has been and how useful it's been. It's one of the best of its kind for a regional museum this size."

Fairbrother says of the future, "I thought it might be nice to do all kinds of things," such as his forthcoming Ray McMakin show which will resurrect a former area resident now living in Los Angeles who makes a hybrid of sculpture and handcrafted furniture. Fairbrother is also working with Halper on her final sam project, a two-person show of African-American painter and illustrator Barbara Earl Thomas and recycled metals sculptor Ross Palmer Beecher. Both women are highly respected artists with growing national recognition.

There's more talent than ever to choose from and it would be a shame if endless group shows up for six months ruled the day for the next ten years. Of course, there isn't room for everything at First and University but it's worth remembering that half of all the funding for the new building came from a public referendum vote ($26 million), a constituency, as Evans points out, that includes artists who pay taxes and vote; and, second, the likelihood that more and more local art programming, with DNW at the top, would actually increase museum admissions and be well worth the money, time and risk.

Documents Northwest has a whole new mission ahead: chronicling the latest exciting generation of Northwest artists.

MATTHEW KANGAS, independent art critic and curator, co-authored Expressions in Wood: Masterworks from the Wornick Collection, on view this spring at the American Craft Museum, New York.

Glass Art
Green Rock, White Vase, Red Teapot, 1984, Richard Marquis. Courtesy Seattle Art Museum.

Vicki Halper
Vicki Halper. Photo: Susan Dirk

Exhibit view
Documents Northwest, Jeffrey Mitchell.
Photo: Susan Dirk. Courtesy Seattle Art Museum

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