Francine Seders, Accidental Art Dealer

Francine Seders showed some of the region’s premier artists at her Greenwood Avenue art gallery. In December 2013, after 47 years, she closed its doors, leaving an indelible mark on Northwest art history.

By Sheila Farr July 1, 2014 Published in the July 2014 issue of Seattle Met

In the late 1960s on Friday afternoons, Francine Seders used to sit in her University District gallery with aspiring young artists Wesley Wehr, Jay Steensma, and Joe Goldberg and play poker. The artists were broke, so even though they were only betting small change, Francine first had to advance them the money, then try to win it back. She usually did.

As Seders tells it in her charming French-inflected syntax, she was a terrible poker player. “I don’t know what I am doing and could go and feel very happy like I have a good hand and people think I have a good hand, and I could take them every time.” 

In a way that’s the story of how Seders—a petite, genteel, shy but irrepressible Parisian—came to live in Seattle and run a gallery that represented the Northwest’s most famous artists. Seders may not have known what she was doing at the start, but she believed she’d been dealt a good hand and played with such enthusiasm that it turned out to be true enough. 

Born in 1932, Francine Rose Blanche Seders lived through the dark years of World War II with the sound of airplanes flying overhead and the fear of being separated from her family in basement air-raid shelters. To this day, Seders hates the sound of fireworks. She grew up a voracious reader who loved the French classics—Rousseau, Chateaubriand—and contemporary writers St. Exupéry, Sartre, Camus, and (in English) Ernest Hemingway. She enjoyed visiting the Louvre, especially the Egyptian collections, and she studied piano with an eye to a career on the concert stage. 

The smallest in her class, Francine had an open face, a sweet, mischievous smile, and wore little bows in her dark, pin-curled hair. Perhaps because she is diminutive in stature (just over five feet tall today), Francine felt the need to prove herself. Studying law, at a time when few women ventured into law school, was one way to do that. “I’m going to show those guys what a woman can do,” she thought. With her degree, she found work as a legal secretary for the Citroën automobile company. But she chafed under the conservative corporate environment and seized the chance to travel to the United States. Her sister, Annie, had moved to Idaho at the invitation of a war-time acquaintance and married an American. Francine joined the couple in Wallace, Idaho — which struck her as much like the Old West of cowboy movies — and eventually the three of them moved to Tacoma, where Annie’s husband had taken a job. Francine enrolled at the University of Puget Sound and after earning her BA went on to pursue her love of research, studying library sciences at the University of Washington. 

And so it was that in 1962, Francine spotted a help-wanted ad on a bulletin board at UW seeking someone who could write in English, French, and German. By that afternoon she had landed a part-time secretarial job for Otto Seligman, an Austrian expatriate and proprietor of one of Seattle’s premier galleries. The courtly, aging art dealer and the bright young Frenchwoman had much in common. Both had studied music and both held degrees in law. And Seders seemed to be good at any task, from corresponding with international patrons, to managing inventory and bookkeeping, to dealing with artists. In August 1965, Seligman invited Seders to work full time as his assistant. 

What an apprenticeship! Seders’s first assignment was to help Seligman organize an exhibition for Mark Tobey, then at the height of his celebrity and easily the Northwest’s most acclaimed artist. Tobey, along with Morris Graves, Guy Anderson, and Kenneth Callahan, was a leading figure in a loosely defined style that joined European modernism with Asian and Native American influences. When a Life magazine feature on “The Mystic Painters of the Northwest” appeared in 1953, it cemented Tobey’s stature in the U.S., earning him renown for his seminal abstractions and calligraphic “white writing.” In 1959, Tobey won first place at the Venice Biennale—one of the art world’s top honors. A groundbreaking retrospective at the Louvre in 1961 placed him at the 
pinnacle of art-world prestige. 

In 1965, Tobey was living in Basel, Switzerland, but still kept a studio in Seattle, where he had lived on and off since the 1920s. Even though he had plenty of local acolytes—his early Pike Place Market scenes were always popular—Tobey’s abstract paintings got some people riled up. A Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist once reputedly strolled through Seattle Art Museum’s Northwest Annual flicking cigar ashes on the museum floor, then likened Tobey’s painting Form Follows the Man to “a tangled bale of barbed wire, or chicken tracks across a salt flat.” 

Such local prejudices didn’t exist for the young Frenchwoman helping assemble Tobey’s Seligman Gallery show. Seders was new to the Northwest’s contemporary art scene, and for her the high-profile exhibition was a crash course in how to run an art gallery. She found it exciting to choose frames, catalog inventory, send out announcements, and drum up publicity. 

Tobey traveled to Seattle to attend his opening in December of 1965 and, to Francine’s surprise, was not the intimidating celebrity she expected. Maybe the sometimes irascible Tobey was simply charmed by the witty and intelligent young woman who had so carefully tended all the details of his show. He wrote to Seligman telling him to “keep that French girl. She’s efficient.” 

Seders mounting a show for Michael Griffen in 1966.

Two months later, Seders was working in the gallery when the news came: Otto Seligman had died in his sleep. In shock, Francine later that day turned over the keys to Seligman’s attorney and went home, mourning the loss of her friend and worrying about her future. But the next day the attorney phoned for help with the security system, then asked her to stay on and keep the gallery open. Eventually he offered to sell Seders the business—basically the name, a mailing list, and a storefront lease on University Way—for $10,000. Tobey and Anderson, along with UW professors Michael Spafford and Michael Dailey, were among those who encouraged her to go for it. “Challenges have never been a problem for me,” she said recently about that life-changing decision. “I kind of like that.”

She borrowed money from her brother-in-law and signed the papers. Suddenly Francine found herself the proprietor of a stable of fascinating, unpredictable, often brilliant, and occasionally outrageous artists.

Then in her 30s, Seders still looked as fresh-faced and candid as a schoolgirl. With her high heels and lilting French accent, she was appealingly mediagenic. One local reporter described her as “dark eyed and fragile…like a figure from a Degas painting.” A bit reserved with strangers, she was still more comfortable around artists than customers who needed to be coddled and convinced. In a business known for competitiveness, calculated maneuvering, and backroom deals, Seders was straightforward and transparent. If someone asked about the future value of a painting (akin to predicting the stock market), she’d answer bluntly: “I have no idea.” She cared about the art, not the ingratiating rituals of salesmanship. 

Under Seders’s watch, the newly renamed Seders/Seligman Gallery transformed from an exclusive and rather intimidating old-school European showroom to a lively and welcoming destination. She moved her desk from the back office to the front of the white-box gallery, posted firm prices on the walls, and initiated written contracts with her artists. 

From the beginning, Seders assumed a protectively maternal attitude toward her artists, who made themselves quite literally at home. In addition to playing poker on Friday afternoons, Wes Wehr (1929–2004)—an eccentric painter, paleobotanist, and behind-the-scenes art-world operator—used the gallery as his personal mail drop, bathroom, and office; Jay Steensma (1941–1994)—a gifted Northwest painter later in life bedeviled by manic depression—sold vintage collectibles from the adjacent storefront window; Joe Goldberg, then a UW art student and later acclaimed for his burnished, elemental encaustic paintings, lived rent free in the back room, where he took advantage of the opportunity to enhance his art education. One memorable night, Goldberg and a friend took LSD and spent the late-night hours gazing at Tobey paintings. “It was profound,” he said. “They were fantastic, endlessly amazing. We don’t get to see Tobeys of that quality here anymore. Real masterpieces. It gave me a great insight into his work.”

Goldberg’s memory of other events from that time is foggier. Like the night he was out tooling around in Seders’s 1966 burgundy Mustang “totally plastered” on something and got pulled over for DUI. The police called Seders, and she assured them the car wasn’t stolen. But she refused to bail Joe out. “I told them I thought a night in jail would do him good,” she said. “If he were my own son, I would have done the same thing.” (Goldberg then phoned Pioneer Square gallery owner Richard White, who fronted him the money.)

The Pioneer Square art scene was just starting to coalesce in the late 1960s with White’s eclectic gallery, Virginia Wright’s sleek, upscale Current Editions, and the hipster Manolides Gallery setting up shop there. Other galleries were scattered about the city—Gordon Woodside in a house on First Hill, the Little Gallery at Frederick and Nelson downtown, Attica Gallery on Broadway. In the U District, at the Seligman/Seders Gallery, some clients were beginning to complain about the drug scene on the Ave. 

So when Francine lost the lease on her space in 1970, she happily relocated to a different part of town. Pioneer Square didn’t appeal to her and, against the advice of many, she chose a quiet neighborhood north of Woodland Park Zoo. She set up shop in a house at 6701 Greenwood Avenue North. With a parking lot in back, an upstairs living space, a basement for storage, and an entrance on a commercial street, it seemed custom made for her purposes. Until she earned enough money for a down payment, she paid rent, then took out a bank loan and bought the place. That risky decision remains, she says, “the best investment I ever made.” 

Ready to establish herself, Seders dropped Seligman from the name and opened her new gallery with a dynamic show of paintings by one of the Northwest’s premier artists, Guy Anderson, whose grand, abstracted imagery resonated with archetypal themes. Anderson, like Tobey and other gallery artists, always trusted Seders’s eye when it came to selecting works and installing the show. The reviews were enthusiastic and sales hot. One reviewer pointed out that although the galleries were decidedly unconventional, with art hanging in the high-ceilinged former living room, in hallways, niches, and even the bathroom, maybe it was easier to imagine how a painting would look in your own home.

Seders's attention to detail in the gallery earned the admiration of Mark Tobey (far left) and her mentor Otto Seligman (beside Tobey).

In the early years Seders saved on expenses by living upstairs. Her office was on the main floor, adjacent the kitchen, and she always had a dog or cat around. Just as the U District gallery had been a draw for artists and art lovers, Seders’s new gallery quickly became a magnet. I remember first going there in the early ’70s, smitten with Anderson’s paintings, but never having enough money to buy more than a postcard. Francine didn’t seem to mind. Goldberg installed himself in the basement, his various girlfriends and buddies coming and going. Occasionally the itinerant Skagit Valley poet and calligrapher Robert Sund would crash there for the night. Before long, Francine’s father, Georges, arrived from France and moved in too. 

Georges became something of a gallery fixture himself. Like a typical Frenchman of his era, he expected Francine to have his lunch ready when the noon hour arrived, whether she was busy with clients or not. He would stroll downstairs and try to catch her attention, gesturing at his watch that it was time to eat. At other times he might be found in the gallery, dressed in a vest, tie, and suit jacket, chatting with visitors in French—although Francine doubted whether those conversations were understood by either party. He took up painting and began staging one-act plays in French at the gallery. Despite the pleasure he derived from his daughter’s art business, he remained skeptical. “He thought I was crazy,” Seders said. “He never understood how I could survive. My whole family felt that way. My sister used to say, ‘If only Michael Spafford would paint flowers, you could sell more paintings.’ ”

Spafford paint flowers? Not likely. The acclaimed UW professor’s depictions of mythological heroes and marauding pagan gods were lightning rods for puritanical outrage right from the start. At a print show Francine mounted in the U District in the late 1960s, someone called the police to complain about a Spafford etching of a nude male figure—maybe Hercules, Francine doesn’t remember. When a young officer showed up to investigate, Francine stood him in front of the print and asked simply, “When you look in the mirror, isn’t that what you see?” The embarrassed policeman apologized for troubling her and left. Francine’s deep admiration for Spafford’s work kept her busy standing up for him over the years, from a censorship dispute at the Bellevue Arts and Crafts Fair in 1967 to the state’s most expensive and prolonged public art battle over Spafford’s murals for the state capitol building in Olympia in the 1980s. 

Like Francine’s sister, some dealers might have felt inclined to offer Spafford advice on what kind of subject matter to paint, but Seders endeared herself to artists by rarely commenting on their creative process. Risk taking and new approaches appealed to her. Seattle artist Fred Birchman remembers being temporarily hooked on the velvety black surface of tar paper, which he used for a series of drawings. When Francine wondered if the material was archival, Birchman quipped: “How long does a good roof last?” Francine shot back: “That’s good enough for me!”

The first real blow of Seders’s career came in 1974, when she learned that Foster/White Gallery was advertising a special exhibition of Mark Tobey paintings from the 1940s. Though Tobey didn’t approve his paintings being shown by a rival gallery—the works were on consignment from a private collector—the heavily publicized exhibition undermined Seders’s standing as his dealer. When Tobey died in 1976, his estate went to Seattle Art Museum, which consigned the remaining work through Foster/White. It was a devastating loss, but Francine admits she might have done more: It just wasn’t her style to take part in death-bed wrangling over control of the estate.

Seders was more engrossed in securing a different kind of legacy for her artists. In 1977, the Francine Seders Gallery debuted its first publication, a monograph on the poetic, figurative paintings of Fay Jones. It was an expensive project, and Seders picked up the tab. To launch the book Jones hosted a celebration at her house, and Fay recalls Francine arriving in a short skirt and white go-go boots, and belting out boogie-woogie at the piano. Seders’s perspective of the evening is a bit different: “I don’t remember the boots.”

In general, though, Seders didn’t socialize much with artists or clients outside the gallery. “She was kind of like an artist,” Goldberg said recently. “She liked her solitude.” To Seders, spending a lot of money wining and dining art collectors made no sense. If clients were serious and liked the work, they could buy it. And she always stuck with a rule she made for herself early on: Never get romantically involved with any of them—artists or customers. It seemed like a good policy at the time, but there was a drawback. “All my life I am just thinking about the gallery and the artists, and that’s all I think about. That’s why I have not had time to look for love. And,” Seders concluded wryly, bursting into peals of laughter, “love has not found me.”

Such devotion was a huge boon to Northwest art history. Francine eventually produced books for 10 of her artists. Along with the extensive archives she kept, those books provide the first tier of research material for scholars and journalists. In the 1980s Seders partnered with the University of Washington Press to publish the definitive monograph on Guy Anderson, written by then–Seattle Art Museum curator Bruce Guenther. An even more ambitious and nationally significant project was Jacob Lawrence: The Complete Prints. Lawrence—the country’s preeminent African American painter—moved to Seattle in 1971 to teach at UW and soon joined the Seders gallery. “It’s a very intimate gallery, very warm,” Lawrence once told a reporter. “You don’t get a feeling of commercialism there.”

Lawrence became a celebrity in 1941, when at 23 he became the first black artist to exhibit in a mainstream New York venue. His extraordinary 60-panel Migration Series depicting the black exodus from the rural South in symbolic, high-contrast dark and light hues was boldly composed and deeply emotional. When the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, jointly purchased the entire exhibition, Lawrence earned the distinction of being the first African American artist to be represented in MoMA’s collection. 

Lawrence’s reputation had ebbed a bit by the time he came to Seattle, but Seders helped reignite it. She facilitated a number of major museum exhibitions around the country for Lawrence and traveled with him to attend the openings. 

Unfortunately Seders was not able to translate those national contacts into shows or sales for other gallery artists. That’s one complaint often repeated about Seders: that her approach was too scholarly and curatorial, not enough about selling. A few artists moved on—Goldberg, Jones—looking for more assertive representation. But that happens in every gallery. Still most Seders artists, like Tobey, remained loyal to the end. Seders eventually lost the estates of Anderson and Lawrence as well, as their heirs and executors jockeyed for the possibility of bigger returns. But the artists themselves stuck with Seders because of the tremendous respect she had for their work and her care for their place in history. “I always felt that she looked for art that had integrity, substance,” says Seattle poet and painter Alan Lau. “Like every dealer, she made a few concessions. It is a business. But she never sold out.”

Greg Kucera was still a Federal Way high school student when he began to frequent Seders’s gallery. That’s when he got hooked on collecting art, buying on time from Francine. When Kucera opened his own Pioneer Square gallery in 1983, Seders remained his mentor and inspiration. “Francine is the most historically important member of our dealer community,” he said recently. “She has a great regard for historical record keeping and legacy.”

“She is the archetype,” said artist Barbara Earl Thomas, deputy director and major gifts officer at the Northwest African American Museum. “Other galleries looked to her as a template: How do you want to be like or different from her? What do you want to add to be avant-garde?” 

On Christmas Eve, at the age of 81, Seders closed her gallery doors for the last time. Yet even now she remains an admirable role model. You might find her tending her garden or up in La Conner, overseeing the historic Armstrong House, a bed-and-breakfast she recently purchased. She still sells art to a select group of clients from a showroom at her home and plans to publish at least one further book on an artist. She has begun writing her memoirs and delights in telling stories about the old days of the Northwest art scene: about going to the Basel Zoo with Mark Tobey and how she would help Gordon Woodside with his bookkeeping (he was hopelessly adrift), and...well, let’s just say she has a lot to tell. Her open, quick, mischievous expression hasn’t changed since she was a girl; her accent is still as melodiously French, and she remains just as willing to speak her mind as ever. The familiar upward cadence of her laughter punctuates each anecdote she tells—particularly if the joke is on herself.

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