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Originally published March 29, 2009 at 7:36 PM | Page modified March 29, 2009 at 9:06 PM

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Peter F. Donnelly, champion of Seattle arts, dies at 70

Peter F. Donnelly, one of the most important figures in Seattle's arts community over the past 45 years, died Saturday after complications from pancreatic cancer. He was 70.

Seattle Times staff reporter

When Peter F. Donnelly arrived in Seattle in 1964 to work at the then-fledgling Seattle Repertory Theatre, the city had few professional arts organizations.

Seattle Opera was just starting out. There was no Pacific Northwest Ballet or Intiman Theatre.

Mr. Donnelly, one of the most important figures in Seattle's arts community over the past 45 years, would play a pivotal role in changing that state of affairs.

Mr. Donnelly, who headed ArtsFund from 1989 to 2005, died Saturday (March 28) after complications from pancreatic cancer. He was 70.

"He's absolutely a titan in the arts community," said James Tune, current president and CEO of ArtsFund, which raises money for the arts in Western Washington.

"When Peter came to Seattle, Seattle was essentially unknown as an arts community," Tune said. "He has played a critical, if not the critical, role in making Seattle one of the top arts communities in the country."

Mr. Donnelly developed programs that funded the arts; got business and civic leaders involved; advocated to local, state and national leaders on issues affecting the arts; mentored artists and leaders of arts organizations, and brought together people and ideas.

"I don't think there's anyone who did more for the arts scene in the whole Puget Sound area than Peter Donnelly," said Seattle Opera General Director Speight Jenkins.

Born and reared in Lynn, Mass., and a graduate of Boston University, Mr. Donnelly came to Seattle Repertory Theatre as a Ford Foundation management fellow. Shortly after, the Rep's board chose him to be its first managing director and later, producing director.

Mr. Donnelly and his colleagues at the Rep began a culture of cooperation among the city's arts organizations when they shared the young theater's subscribers list with other groups that were just starting out, including A Contemporary Theatre and Seattle Opera.

Fun and irreverent, he also "had a generosity with what he knew," said Kevin Hughes, vice president of public affairs at Pacific Science Center, and former managing director of Empty Space Theatre.

And when Mr. Donnelly felt "something was the right thing to do for the arts community and for the region, he had a clarity of vision and a way to proceed that was extraordinary," Hughes said. "He had an ability to bring the right people together to make it work."

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Mr. Donnelly was a prime mover in the building of the Rep's Bagley Wright Theatre — the first new facility on the Seattle Center campus since the World's Fair in 1962.

He was instrumental in the development of the Building for the Arts program that has delivered more than $57 million in state funds to more than 150 arts facilities including Benaroya Hall, Intiman Theatre and Seattle Children's Theatre.

He brought together arts managers under the leadership of then-attorney Paul Schell to write the legislation that created the Seattle Arts Commission.

And during Mr. Donnelly's tenure as head of ArtsFund, the organization more than doubled the money it gave each year. It also raised more than $10 million for an endowment fund.

Tune, current head of ArtsFund, remembers receiving a "charming letter" from Mr. Donnelly when Tune was managing partner for the law firm Bogle & Gates. The letter let him know that the firm had been "selected" to host one of ArtsFunds' first workplace giving campaigns and inquiring as to when they might meet to discuss how to run the campaign.

"No 'would we, could we,' but just 'when,' " Tune said. "Peter was a man to whom one could not say no."

Mr. Donnelly turned ArtsFund, previously known as Corporate Council for the Arts, from a struggling organization into "one of the most powerful arts supporters in any city in the country," Seattle Opera's Jenkins said.

"He tried harder than anyone in the world to make the business community realize that more people go to arts events in this city in any one year than go to all the sports events."

Mr. Donnelly was so effective because he was passionate about art and artists.

"He believed that the creative mind was the thing that separated human beings from every other sentient being," said Susan Trapnell, senior consultant with the Arts Consulting Group and former managing director of A Contemporary Theatre. "For him, that was what being human was about: being creative."

Over the years, Mr. Donnelly also served as president of the Frye Art Museum, and on the boards of classical KING-FM 98.1, the Seattle Art Museum, the 5th Avenue Theatre and the Kreielsheimer Remainder Foundation.

He served as vice chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization Americans for the Arts; chaired the National Endowment for the Arts' challenge grant panel, and chaired the National Coalition of United Arts Fund.

Mr. Donnelly is survived by his partner, David Farrar, of Seattle; and his sisters Donna Down, of Winchester, Mass., and Patricia Fabucci, of Lynn, Mass.

A celebration of Mr. Donnelly's life will be at 6 p.m. April 20 at Seattle Repertory Theatre's Bagley Wright Theatre, 155 Mercer St.

Gifts in memory of Mr. Donnelly may be made to the Peter F. Donnelly Merit Fund, part of ArtsFund's endowment. Donations can be made online through www.artsfund.org, or sent by mail to: ArtsFund, P.O. Box 19780, Seattle, WA 98109.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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