And now for some good news: This week, the Friday Foundation, a new Seattle entity, gave $9 million to nine Seattle arts organizations — mostly for new work. While some of the money is no-strings-attached or specifically for offsetting COVID losses, $6.5 million of it is dedicated to commissioning or buying contemporary music, opera, dance and art.
This is significant. In a time of crisis, when arts organizations are pinning more hope than usual on their old chestnuts to bring much-needed cash (virtual productions of “The Nutcracker,” Handel’s “Messiah,” “A Christmas Carol”), these gifts are an investment in emerging or underappreciated artists.
The gifts are a legacy from the late philanthropists Jane Lang Davis and Richard Lang, of Medina, who are nationally known for their choice modern-art collection (Francis Bacon, Alberto Giacometti, Willem de Kooning, and others). The money goes to organizations they supported in life: Seattle Art Museum, Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Seattle Opera, Henry Art Gallery, ACT Theatre, Seattle Repertory Theatre and Seattle Chamber Music Society, plus a $270,000 gift to ArtsFund for COVID relief.
“Mom liked ‘The Nutcracker Suite’ as much as anybody, but what she really liked was the powerful stuff,” said Lyn Grinstein, Jane Lang Davis’ daughter with her first husband. “Mom was not a sentimental person at all, and grew up in rough circumstances not worth going into, but she loved looking over the next horizon: ‘What’s coming, what’s young, what’s powerful, what’s the next big argument on the table and how can I help?’ They both really embraced what was iconoclastic and new and worthy.”
Peter Boal, artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, thinks Seattle’s ballet audience is generally accepting of new work — but Lang Davis was an unapologetic enthusiast. (That enthusiasm carried weight: Lang Davis was a founding member of PNB and helped cajole the original artistic directors — Kent Stowell and Francia Russell — to Seattle.)
“While some patrons might be giving each other sidelong glances about a world premiere, Jane was going to walk right up to you, grab you by the shoulders and say: ‘I love it!’ ” Boal said. “Now there’s an assurance that each year there will be an investment in new work — which lets me dream and realize the dream.”
The Friday Foundation, Grinstein said, was named after a family springer spaniel that Lang Davis was fond of, and funded with recent sales from the family’s art collection. Then she and other family members weighed where her mother and stepfather might’ve wanted the money to go: $4 million to Seattle Art Museum ($2 million for acquiring global contemporary art, $2 million for COVID relief); $1.5 million to Seattle Symphony Orchestra (for the new Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Living Music Program); $1 million to Pacific Northwest Ballet (for a new-works fund); $1 million to Seattle Opera (for the Jane Lang Davis Creation Lab); and $1 million to the Henry Art Gallery (for a new-works fund).
Additional gifts include $270,000 to ArtsFund (for COVID relief) and $100,000 each to ACT Theatre, Seattle Repertory Theatre and Seattle Chamber Music Society.
The larger gifts are bound for endowments at each institution, which will generate annual income.
“The endowment will spin off $100,000 a year, which is especially great if you’re supporting emerging artists,” said Amada Cruz, CEO and director of Seattle Art Museum. “We’ve been doing so much on equity, and this will allow us to support work of artists of color, and not just national and local but international artists as well.”
Krishna Thiagarajan, president and CEO of Seattle Symphony, says the symphony will use its $1.5 million gift to sponsor an annual concert promoting cultural exchange — the first is “Buddha Passion” by Chinese composer Tan Dun, scheduled for June 2021.
Allocating family wealth to arts institutions, Grinstein said, was more complicated than she’d expected: deciding what the deceased would’ve wanted (as opposed to what you want), figuring out what that mission looks like in 2020 (Richard Lang died in 1982, Jane Lang Davis in 2017), doing research on the potential recipients, pruning and distributing the family assets wisely.
“We’ve seen mistakes by some foundations,” Grinstein said. “Donors making major gifts which there were no funds [or infrastructure] to support — so the institution can almost go broke trying to accommodate that gift.”
The real legacy, Grinstein hopes, isn’t for the institutions — it’s for their audiences. Like her mother, she’s a true believer in the power of culture.
“If you’ve been through trauma or something very sad or upsetting, the best drug in the world is to sit with a symphony or some other music you like, or go by yourself to a museum,” she said. “Wander through, take a brain vacation, get out of the noise. Just get away from that constant avalanche of noise.”