"I always wanted to be a comedian. I thought that would be the best job in the world—to make people laugh."
It's not a statement you might expect to hear from a successful businesswoman and arts supporter. But "unexpected" is sort of what Marita Holdaway is all about. With her upbeat, energetic patter and infectious laugh, it's not difficult to picture Holdaway on stage riffing her way through a stand-up routine. In fact, it's easy to imagine her accomplishing just about anything. What Holdaway has accomplished—a reputation for being unusually artist-supportive—is no laughing matter.
Positioned smack in the bustle and noise of First Avenue in downtown Seattle, close enough to bite the ankles of the Seattle Art Museum's Hammering Man, Holdaway's Benham Gallery is housed in a modest, four-room storefront. The gallery's steady rise in stature since it was founded in 1986 as a commercial passport and portrait studio parallels an increase in Holdaway's own knowledge and experience, two areas in which she was self-admittedly lacking when she started out.
"I started the gallery in a different way from most people," says the Seattle native and photographer. An Ansel Adams quote, since lost, that called for more artist-accessible venues inspired Holdaway to branch out of portraiture and into gallery work. The quotation fired her instincts for opportunity and community involvement, she says, and she approached the gallery idea much as she had the passport and portrait studio: Follow your instincts, seize the opportunity, then learn as you go.
"When I opened the gallery, I didn't even know I had to have a new artist every month!" she exclaims. "I really had to learn as I went. I didn't know what it takes to put a show together. You've got to edit collections, mat images, frame them, number, inventory, and title them—there's a lot of work involved, and it's very expensive. I was shocked."
Learning backwards has had its advantages, however. As a gallery neophyte, Holdaway was initially more accessible to local photographers than someone more experienced might have been.
"Marita approaches the whole gallery scene differently than any other gallery owner," confirms Kelly Atkinson of Seattle's Rainier Photographic Supply. He has known and worked with Holdaway for more than 10 years and he notes that "her approach puts the photographer first—she's brought a lot of up-and-coming artists through her gallery who have gone on to bigger and better things."
Phil Borges is probably the most famous example of Holdaway's high-powered influence. Borges's work now commands thousands of dollars per piece, but when he approached Benham, "no other gallery was exhibiting him," Holdaway recalls. "I liked his work. His first couple of shows were here, then he had one in Portland, then it just took off."
Borges, whose first Benham show was in 1989, notes that "there aren't too many photo galleries of Benham's stature that will take a chance on a new artist. Marita's done that for me and for several others as well. A gallery that will take on new and emerging artists is not just a service to the artist, but really a service to the community."
And her accessibility to photographers has never abated. Years later, with an established gallery, a stable of 15 to 18 artists, including Bruce Barnbaum, Edna Bullock, Michael Gesinger, and Denis R. Kempe, it would be easy, one might say expected,. for Holdaway to coast a bit, to draw traffic with the names she has helped make famous, and not chance her future success on unknowns. But though she rotates her regulars throughout the year, she remains steadfast in her insistence on taking risks by helping new photographers break into the business, and using her gallery as a platform to launch ideas and promote issues.
Once a year in January Holdaway puts on a group show—one of the gallery's best attended—featuring promising up-and-coming photographers who lack the experience or the collection to justify a solo show. She also spends one week a year reviewing hundreds of portfolios from people who would like to show in the gallery.
"It's absolutely amazing. People will come from California and Alaska," she says, explaining that her criteria for determining whether an artist will be invited to show is based on whether something "clicks" for her and the other reviewers. "I usually end up dividing the work into 'yes, this is something I want to show' and 'no, this isn't going to work, but what can I [do to] help?' "
That help can range from showing artists how to edit collections into cohesive bodies of work, to sending them to stock companies or other galleries, or to just giving advice. "It can be really simple things," she explains, "like how to put together sums and learning to save a card or invitation [for future contacts]. Or hard stuff like trying to file the collection down, then having it up on the wall, having the opening, having people talk about it, look at it, react to it. If something is wrong or needs to be fixed, we talk about what we can do next. I always encourage the next step."
Davis Freeman, a commercial and professional photographer who had his first solo show at Benham in January, describes Holdaway as "a tireless worker." He commends her "particular interest in helping emerging and mid-career artists. For a long time her gallery was really the only gallery of any size in town that showed and helped these people move along."
Another of Holdaway's goals is to keep the gallery community-oriented as well as photographer-oriented. She takes chances when she sees a need, and has mounted themed shows on AIDS, homelessness, and women's issues. "I love to connect people and things," she says, growing serious as she touches on some of the issues that have drawn her attention and support, such as helping homeless women in Seattle. "I see my role in the community as being an advocate. I'm able to plug into a lot of organizations, and the gallery gives me a platform to advocate issues and help organize events."
"Marita is a great facilitator and a networker," says Natalie Fobes, a nationally prominent photographer active in the Northwest. "People get together because of Marita. She's the center of the wheel."
And though she seems to thrive on the unanticipated, one thing Holdaway always strives for is a consistency of talent, so that someone can walk into her gallery at anytime knowing that what they will see has a level of integrity and passion behind it, even if the names aren't famous ... yet.