After the upheavals of World War II and a postwar French economy that remained sluggish for years, Francine Lavinal Seders, a young 1955 graduate of the University of Paris Law Faculty faced an impasse. If she stayed in Paris, she anticipated a lifetime job as either a civil servant or a corporate drone. Instead, she emigrated to the US, joining her married sister in Tacoma, Washington and eventually becoming the Pacific Northwest’s most enduring art dealer.
Recalling her dilemma in a city Americans were flocking to at the time, Seders, now 80, sipped decaf espresso in her office and smiled at photos of her younger self. “I was already twenty-three! I didn’t have a lot of choices and didn’t really like the city life. Oh, yes, I later missed the ‘festival city,’ but at the time it was a different feeling in Paris.”
Like Existentialism? I asked.
“Yes, [philosopher Jean-Paul] Sartre was big. People followed him. I saw him only once in a café, surrounded. It wasn’t for me. You could not go back to school in France that easily in 1960.”
Soon after, she was teaching French and music at Annie Wright Seminary, the posh girls’ school in Tacoma. “On my first visit to Seattle, we went to Volunteer Park, to the Seattle Art Museum. It was beautiful,” she said of the French Art Deco-style building. “Like the old [Musée] Guimet in Paris with all the Asian art.”
A succession of jobs including at the Washington State Historical Society led Seders to pursue a librarianship degree at the University of Washington in Seattle. She answered an ad for someone who could speak French and German. The ad had been placed by Otto Seligman, a Viennese-born émigré who had just opened, with the help of Mark Tobey, the most important gallery in the city in his own apartment near the university and later at 4727 University Way NE.
“I just walked in off the street and he hired me. I began part time, helping with the correspondence to the European artists he represented, like Georges Mathieu and Henri Michaux. By then [July 1965], I was working at a job in Tacoma and helping at the gallery on weekends. Otto decided for me: he offered me a full-time job and I accepted, much to the surprise of Marcia Katz who worked there as a kind of saloniste or party planner. Otto left the gallery keys with me when he went to Europe. Marcia was very put out and Otto was not right on that. He should have told her. She and I reconciled soon after that.”
Within a year, Seligman was dead of a heart attack at age 77. Arrangements were made to sell the gallery to Seders who, after a few more years near the UW, bought a house at 6701 Greenwood Ave. N. on Seattle’s Phinney Ridge. She moved herself into the cramped bedrooms upstairs, converted the main floor to a dramatic bi-level gallery space and used the basement for inventory storage. Francine Seders Gallery was open for business.
Barbara Thomas, a painter and printmaker, has been with the gallery since 1984. She remembered fondly the early years: “I think that the one thing about the gallery was Francine, her [French] assistant Brigitte Mansfield, and Francine’s father, Georges. I just loved listening to them. It was such a cultural center! That’s what galleries were supposed to do! Also, you could go and see what your professors were doing when they weren’t in class.”
Seders became known for showing UW faculty and their graduates. First, though, the estates of some of the original generations of “university moderns” began appearing in exhibitions there, leading to serious critical reconsideration of Walter F. Isaacs, Raymond Hill, Boyer Gonzales and Wendell Brazeau.
Next, a younger generation encouraged by Tobey stepped off campus into the gallery. Later nationally known, Professors Norman Lundin, Michael Dailey, Robert C. Jones and Michael Spafford were joined in 1970 by a new colleague and co-exhibitor Jacob Lawrence. For the ensuing 43 years, Seders sold and championed all their art, especially that of Lawrence, who she represented exclusively for long periods of time.
Besides what art historian Barbara Johns referred to as Seders’ “professionalism and integrity,” she has “represented diversity in artists of color without a big to-do. She pays attention to them and is loyal to them.”
On top of all that, she was the first Seattle dealer to publish full-scale monographs, beginning with Bruce Guenther’s on Guy Anderson (1986), not to mention over 20 catalogues. “Publications matter a lot and I wish there were more because there is less good writing now than ever. Blogs do not matter that much. Most of the people who read them do not buy,” Seders added. “The Lawrence biographies and catalogues raisonnés had to be done.”
Helping assist with out-of-town museum shows has mattered, too, for current and former stable artists like Fay Jones, Lawrence, Spafford, Lundin and others. In 1981 Spafford's recently completed mural "Twelve Labors of Hercules" was summarily ripped out of the Washington State House of Representatives building and relocated to Centralia College in Centralia, Washington. One scene depicts the Greek hero's killing of the Amazon Queen Hipppolyta, and a Representative objected that the image was a glorification of rape. Seders’s loyalty and quiet diplomacy helped Spafford survive the national censorship scandal and accept the offer of a large Seattle Art Museum survey.
Seders’s attitude toward the cause célèbre today is a mixture of sadness and wit. “That was a terrible episode, but I should’ve seen it coming. One day years earlier, a young policeman came into the gallery because someone had phoned in a complaint about a Spafford male nude. I said to him, ‘Don’t you see it in the mirror every morning when you wake up?’ He got red in the face and left. There was no problem after that except, later, another painting was removed from the Bellevue [Arts and Crafts] Fair - and it had won the top prize!”
“We used to say, ‘If only he had painted the murals red, then he could’ve been accused of being a Communist and would have had a lot more supporters!’” she chuckled.
Lawrence’s widow, Gwen Knight suddenly removed her husband’s work from the gallery after 27 years. It turned out that an arrangement had been made with Midtown Payson Gallery in New York [and later D. C. Moore]. Seders was shocked, but says she softened on the betrayal later.
“Gwen wanted her own art to be shown in New York. That was part of the deal. And maybe it was the best thing to have the estate there. I have no hard feelings because, seeing my sister, who has early dementia, I now understand that sometimes I was dealing with Gwen; other times I was not.” Knight died in 2005 at age 88.
With such longevity, who are other art dealers with whom Seders can be compared besides Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the cubist dealer who was so loyal to his artists? According to another Seattle art dealer, Greg Kucera, New Yorker Antoinette Kraushaar, who lived to 89, comes to mind immediately. “Francine is like her, part of that dwindling old guard who don’t seek the limelight, but go to work every day.”
Kucera continued, encapsulating what he and others have learned from Seders’s example: “She was my role model for buying my building. I only wished I could have persuaded her to move downtown! Her hands-off attitude I also picked up from her. Was it a good strategy? Well, she championed who she believed in and she’s stayed with them. There is a longevity in her gallery that is very gracious. She’s the longest standing dealer right now. Another thing that affected me: She operates in a very personal way. She extends that generosity to her clients and others.”
“I’m going to have a collector giveaway party!” Seders laughed as she wound down our meeting and contemplated the future. “Let them each choose one work as a thank-you. With more group shows now I can help younger artists without fully committing to them. And I can continue to show installations by Marita Dingus, Gail Grinnell and Bradd Skubinna.”
“I am not one who will have the gallery forever. I had thought first of a nonprofit space but then decided, no. I do not plan to sell the gallery, but if I sell the building, they can make it into a condo building and I can buy a small farm, not in France, but here. I want an English cutting garden, a French kitchen garden for vegetables and berries, and an herb garden. Then I will be happy. Until then, I keep working.”
With that, Francine Seders stood and formally shook my hand. The interview was over.