After winning $25,000 in the annual Neddy at Cornish Awards, Seattle painter Matthew Offenbacher decided to plow it back into art: he and his partner, Jennifer Nemhauser, purchased seven works of art and donated them to the Seattle Art Museum.

Share story

It’s hard to make a living as an artist.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, job growth for artists is slower than the national average and many “artists have at least one other job to support their craft or art careers.”

Yet cities like to boast about their cultural scenes as a sign of urban health and a lure for tourist and business dollars.


2015 Neddy Awards finalists

Matt Browning, Paul Komada, Elise Richman and Robert Yoder, painting; Leo Saul Berk, Wynne Greenwood, Mark Mitchell and Rodrigo Valenzuela, open medium. One artist in each category will receive the Neddy Artist Award, an unrestricted cash award of $25,000. All finalists’ art will be in the Neddy Artist Awards Exhibition, opening Sept. 9, at Cornish College of the Arts (

It’s a paradox that Seattle painter Matthew Offenbacher and his longtime partner, University of Washington associate biology professor Jennifer Nemhauser, were determined to do something about. In 2013, when Offenbacher received a $25,000 Neddy at Cornish Award, they saw their chance.

The Neddy grant is supported by the Behnke Foundation in memory of Robert E. (“Ned”) Behnke and is housed at Cornish College of the Arts. (Full disclosure: I teach at Cornish College of the Arts, but am not directly involved in the Neddy process).

The Neddy is awarded annually to two artists from the Puget Sound region and it is unrestricted. The recipients are allowed to do anything with the money — pay bills, go on vacation, whatever they’d like.

Offenbacher did none of those. In collaboration with Nemhauser, he invested the money right back into other artists, ultimately purchasing seven works by six locals.

And they didn’t stop there. Offenbacher and Nemhauser donated the works to the Seattle Art Museum in a gesture that sheds light on collecting, donating and participating in the cultural life of a city.

Even more intriguing: The couple conceived of their project as a work of art in and of itself. The entire process — identifying the art in collaboration with SAM curators, the acquisitions, the donation — is a conceptual work of art that Offenbacher and Nemhauser have called “Deed of Gift.”

They arrived at the title at the end of the two-year process, when SAM sent them a “deed of gift,” a standard document that made their donation official, to sign in March.

It’s a win-win-win situation, but make no mistake — it was not borne entirely from generosity. (Offenbacher and Nemhauser deny that the move was generous, but I beg to differ.)

It stems from — and raises — questions about the way society values art, the biases that affect how art is collected, and the interplay between individual and institutional responsibility.

Offenbacher and Nemhauser say that when they approached SAM curators Chiyo Ishikawa and Catharina Manchanda, their project was greeted with enthusiasm. In fact, Offenbacher says that, “in the realm of museum donorship, the amount of money was a drop in the bucket, but I think we received a special amount of attention because they were interested in the ideas and themes that the art project brought up.”

Offenbacher says the couple was most concerned with “asking how we might create a more robust art ecosystem” in Seattle and fostering diversity within collecting practices.

Nemhauser added that they wanted to “include people who are absent or underrepresented in institutions of power because of current day and historical inequity and injustice.”

For curator Manchanda, it was a “striking and unusual proposal” that developed into an extended conversation. At one point, she suggested they focus on feminist art, in order to dovetail with her desire to strengthen that area of the museum’s collection. Offenbacher and Nemhauser agreed, then broadened the scope to include queer art.

With that goal, they all proposed names, visited artist studios and agreed upon seven works of art.

The final selection: a print by Daft Kuntz (Dawn Cerny and Victoria Haven), a softcover book by Anne Focke, a watercolor by Klara Glosova, a video by Wynne Greenwood, two watercolors by Ann Leda Shapiro and a fabric piece by Joey Veltkamp.