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Saturday, March 26, 2005 - Page updated at 12:37 a.m.

Museum director, 87, was "spark plug" for local art

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

LaMar Harrington had a passion for visual arts.

Art-museum curator and director LaMar Harrington never fully retired. She continued to discover, nurture and help artists display their work.

In 1997, after she moved to the University House in Seattle, the former director of the Bellevue Art Museum and the Henry Art Gallery looked around the common areas and saw potential display space. She founded the changing exhibitions program that continues today.

Ms. Harrington's last show at the University House opened in 2002, after she had left Seattle for Port Townsend. She organized a show of Port Townsend artists.

Ms. Harrington, 87, died Wednesday at the Jefferson General Hospital in Port Townsend following a short illness.

Linda Landkamer of Port Townsend said her mother was born LaMar Hannes on Nov. 2, 1917, in Iowa. Ms. Harrington moved to the Northwest in 1941 with her husband, Stanley, and daughter.

In an earlier interview, Ms. Harrington told a reporter they lived in Seattle, where the couple operated a grocery store in the Capitol Hill area. She studied music at the Cornish School for the Arts until the family moved to Bellevue.

In 1951, she volunteered at the Pacific Northwest Arts Fair, and she would credit that work as the beginning of her passion for visual arts. She earned a bachelor's degree in art history at the University of Washington in 1957, the same year she started working at the university's Henry Art Gallery. She planned exhibits, seminars and workshops and eventually became the Henry's associate director.

"Her commitment to craft exhibitions and contemporary art at Henry was very, very strong," said Richard Andrews, director of the Henry.

In 1972, the museum received a Governor's Award for diversity and innovation, and it was credited to the "dedicated, imaginative guidance" of Ms. Harrington, who served then as the assistant director, Andrews said.

"She was a spark plug," Andrews said. "She had this open-minded energy for what was happening now. She was always living in the present — you'd expect some people to drift away and not pay attention to the current art scene and the next generation, but not her."

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Ms. Harrington supported video and conceptual art in the 1970s, considered cutting-edge then and even a bit risky. Andrews added that Ms. Harrington helped set an adventuresome spirit for the Henry.

She left the Henry and became a curator at the Archives of Northwest Art for the university's Suzzallo Library, retiring for the first time in 1978.

She was recruited to be the Bellevue Art Museum's director and chief curator in 1985. The museum, then inside Bellevue Square, was struggling with low attendance and a deficit of $70,000. She said in an interview in 1999 that she agreed to become the director on one condition: that her salary would be a modest $500 for the first year.

Ms. Harrington brought the museum out of the doldrums. Of the many exhibitions she brought to the Eastside, the "Frank Lloyd Wright: In The Realm of Ideas" exhibit put the museum on the cultural map.

"It was a big gamble to take," said local developer Kemper Freeman Jr. "The Wright exhibit [which included a whole house] had only been in major markets. We were the only small market. We beat the Seattle Art Museum attendance figures that year.

"That was just one example of LaMar's wonderful ideas. But she was also good with people. She was a bundle of energy and had a big impact on arts in greater Seattle."

She touched many lives, said Lin Salisbury of Bellevue, a longtime friend and supporter of Bellevue's art museum.

"LaMar was a woman of substance who nurtured her talents, her passions and her friends. She never strayed from her principles, and when she dug in her heels, watch out. She was a mentor, a cheerleader and a dear friend whose frequent handwritten notes were testimony to her caring," Salisbury said.

Before Ms. Harrington retired from her Bellevue post in 1990, the museum had grown to include a staff of 14 and a $1 million budget.

"She never told me when she was going to be on television or radio or get an award," Landkamer said. "She always wanted to be there for artists and do it in such a way to give the public access to their works."

Her daughter described Ms. Harrington as passionate about animals and as someone who never saw anything as impossible. Landkamer said Ms. Harrington once found a motorcycle in her parking place. She damaged a vertebrae in her back moving the motorcycle. Another time, a mouse ran under the family piano. Ms. Harrington worried it would get crushed, and she lifted the piano to let the mouse out, again injuring her back.

Ms. Harrington is survived by her daughter and two granddaughters, Daniella Chace of Sun Valley, Idaho, and Darcie Chace of Bellevue.

Memorial services are pending. Remembrances may be made to any animal welfare or rescue group or to any art institution.

Seattle Times staff reporter Natalie Singer contributed to this report.

Sherry Grindeland: 206-515-5633 or sgrindeland@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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