A Little Bit of Hungry: An Interview with Michelle Dunn Marsh
Note: This story was originally published on May 27, 2015. Michelle Dunn Marsh is now the Chief Strategist of the Photo Center Northwest.
Michelle Dunn Marsh is the Executive Director of the Photo Center Northwest in Seattle. Over the last two decades, she has served in executive and creative roles in the fields of art photography and publishing. Her professional experience includes fifteen years with Aperture Foundation in New York City, first as a designer and later as deputy director for the organization. She also was Co-Publisher of Aperture magazine. After leaving Aperture, she was senior editor of art and design at Chronicle Books in San Francisco and later was a tenured professor in graphic design at Seattle Central College. She recently launched Minor Matters Books, a community publishing platform for contemporary art.
I sat down with her last week to talk about her work and her thoughts about photography and philanthropy.
Tim Greyhavens: What would you like people to know about where you work?
Michelle Dunn Marsh: Photographic Center Northwest [PCNW] is an educational institution that facilitates creation, conversations, and experiences of significant photography. For me, the word facilitation is really important. We’re an unusual educational environment in that we have core students, but we are also open to the public. Anyone can take classes with us or take workshops with us. They can also come into our facilities and use our labs, use our dark rooms, rent out time at our studios. That’s a really important component of who we are as an institution — we are not trying to replicate the outside world. We are the outside world. From the staff to the faculty to the board, nearly everyone’s engaged with photography inside and outside of our roles at this institution. And of course, our exhibitions are always free to view, and open to the public until 9 pm five nights a week.
PCNW occupies an unusual space by being both a receiver of philanthropy and a giver of philanthropic services in terms of what you’re doing for the community and for arts education in general. What’s it like to strike that balance of both asking and giving around this central core of photography?
Thank you for recognizing that we give as well as receive. I think a very important moment for me was an exhibition that we did in the beginning of 2014. It was a two-part exhibition. There was a video piece called Question Bridge: Black Males that we brought in from a group of artists from outside of this area. With Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes we developed a companion photographic exhibition called Seen: Explorations of the Inside and the Out, the Then and the Now by the (still) Invisible Men where we invited local men of African diasporic descent to submit images. We printed the photographs here so people did not have to be “photographers” in order to participate.
The intention was to try and create a visual dialogue within our community. There were a lot of challenging conversations around doing that. As someone who grew up in the Northwest and understood that where PCNW is located is part of the central district, it was interesting to have to explain to people today that actually we exist within the historically black neighborhood of Seattle, and that it was important to me that we engage with our community in that manner. That was a moment that definitely felt like we were giving something important to a lot of people, particularly the current transplant population of Seattle.
So it’s important to you that what you’re doing is engaging a community beyond just photographers?
Yes. The opportunity to experience art from noon to 9 pm five or six days a week for free is a public service that I’m most proud of, and that this is a haven and a space available to people both in love with and casually interested in photography. It’s a place where people can come, they can sit, and they get to be surrounded by photography that hopefully makes them think, maybe makes them laugh, might sometimes make them cry. But it’s here. And it’s been here for them to experience for almost three decades now that PCNW has operated in the city of Seattle.
[The Photo Center Northwest is] “a place where people can come, they can sit, and they get to be surrounded by photography that hopefully makes them think, maybe makes them laugh, might sometimes make them cry.”
What about the balance between giving and receiving?
About 30% of our operating income comes from individual gifts as well as some government and foundation giving. That’s a big chunk, though it’s not as much as some organizations need to take in through donations. We are fortunate in that two-thirds of our income is earned, but when it comes to moments like the recent Terminal exhibition, it’s challenging when you have no reserves to draw on, and no one wanted to fund that show. Everyone believed that it was important, but nobody really wanted to write checks for it.
It was a huge risk to mount that exhibition. I had to make a commitment to Richard Misrach at the end of October when the show was going up in January as to whether or not I would be able to transport pieces from California up here. He was doing everything he possibly could to make it feasible for me, and in fact, wanted to give me a different piece than the piece that I really wanted because the piece he was offering was smaller and was something he could FedEx.
I ended up calling a collector in San Francisco when I could not get support here and asking that person to cover the amount that would bring this one particular photograph that was a kind of linchpin to the exhibition so that I knew at least I would have that covered. Two smaller donations were also made in December toward the show. We were very, very fortunate in that we received a grant from the Satterberg Foundation that covered the entirety of the cost of the exhibition. That award was made in early February for the show that we opened at the beginning of January.
Is that sort of after-the-fact funding unusual?
Yes. But they let us apply for that project anyway. I am enormously grateful to them for recognizing the importance of the show and for choosing to support the entire amount that we had requested. We have not been recipients of giving from them before, and so it was a large gift for us and a large gift for them to make to an institution that they had not supported in the past. It was absolutely critical and close to 1,000 people who experienced that show benefited from the vision of Satterberg.
Had we had a commitment of funds sooner we could have brought one of the artists who was in that exhibition to also participate and lend their voice to the dialogue. But instead, we had some really great public programs that for the most part did not involve photographers at all. Terry Novak, who organized the panels, brought in a palliative care neonatologist, a lawyer specializing in estate planning, a priest from the local Hindu temple, a professor from the School of Ministry at Seattle University, among others, and there was this important exchange about death and dying that accompanied these amazing photographs.
Arts funding, in general, is highly competitive, and photography is only a small slice of that funding. It sounds like you had a positive experience with that particular grant, but I’m sure there are others where that hasn’t gone as well. What would you say are some of the challenges of finding foundations as well as individual donors who believe in what you’re doing?
It’s enormously challenging, particularly if people do not have a personal connection to photography. We have to balance the amount of time that it takes to fill out any given grant’s application and the likelihood of receiving support because all of them have similar but slightly different desires for how they would like to receive information, or what exactly they’re looking for, or how they want that information put together.
We had a particularly frustrating moment when we were looking for funding for the Seen exhibition. We were told by one source that essentially we didn’t have enough outreach within the African American community to warrant the funds that we were requesting to do outreach to the African American community.
I spend the majority of my time talking about why photography is important. But there are a lot of people who don’t feel that photography as an art form relates to them, though everyone can think of a photograph that’s important whether it’s a famous image, a wedding picture, or a selfie on their phone. Building a narrative around both the history and future of photography and why that’s relevant to this region specifically is what I am trying to do more often than not.
Last year the Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, which is similar to PCNW in some ways, was told by a court that under Oregon tax law photographic education in and of itself is not a charitable activity. How do you respond to that line of thinking?
There are aspects of the education conversation that are particularly relevant because of the rise of for-profit educational institutions in the United States. I’m going to parse that apart a little bit to say that one of those conversations can be “what is the difference between nonprofit education and for-profit education?”. There’s a clear distinction in my mind between those two: when the base educational model exists to make money, versus the base educational model fostering greater public good.
We’ve chosen a very particular kind of model which is about a reality of a life in the creative arts, and I definitely believe we are building ways of thinking, creating, and surviving that are essential for creative practitioners of today and tomorrow. I don’t love that there is a cord hanging down in the middle of this room [points to a projector cable coming down from the ceiling]. I would much prefer that that cord gets taped over to the wall and down and plugs into the sides, so I don’t have to stare at it. But on the major scheme of technological things that we need to deal with, that is not the priority.
That is a reality of running a creative studio. That is the reality of running a small business. That is the reality of your creative life — you are going to be looking at things and identifying things that you would like to be different and they will enter a priority cue. Some of them will get done and some of them won’t. Our ability to provide that kind of not only the environment but open dialogue with people I think is a real service because there are very few places where they’re actually going to get that.
There’s a lot of very smart business people who spend time in our facilities. To be able to speak with them in a language that they understand outside of this facility, and help them understand that business decisions are still a reality inside this facility has been a big part of the last year for me. We’ve collectively come a long way, I think, in all learning from each other.
That’s a really good perspective, especially in terms of what the community gets and receives from the work that you’re doing here. You came into this position without being a photographer yourself, but you had both publishing and foundation experience. How did those backgrounds prepare you for this work?
My last two roles with Aperture were as deputy director of the foundation and then as co-publisher of the magazine. I am also a committed educator and was a tenured professor in design at Seattle Central, so all of those roles contribute to my position now. At Aperture, I was working in a business capacity and on the magazine side specifically looking at a set dollar amount that we needed to be bringing in per issue, either through sponsorships or advertising or some combination of both. I started in that role shortly before the recession hit, which was a very interesting time to go into that kind of position. We made some interesting things happen there, and we’re making some interesting things happen here.
“We’ve introduced language here around the idea of ‘significant photography,’ because I also think that the historical terms of commercial and fine art are also somewhat obsolete.”
Yesterday I had a conversation about a project with a representative from Canon who said, “Yep, in theory, your project sounds great, and I love this idea. Here’s why it doesn’t quite work for us, but let’s think it through. Your inclination is right. The execution isn’t quite. Let’s talk through this together because I appreciate that you’re thinking about what’s good for us, and what creates business opportunities for us, that can also help you.” I think that type of conversation — crossing from the nonprofit sector to the corporate sector to the private individual — is very important for philanthropic thought process right now.
What’s one of the most important skills that you brought with you?
Comfort with the hard decisions that sometimes have to be made around numbers. The year that I spent in the deputy director role at Aperture was a transition period between the executive directors. I was brought in precisely because I had been with the organization for such a long period of time and had in many roles crossed between the creative conversations and the practical conversations. It’s difficult to do both, but it’s also enormously important to be able to do both.
I think that having leadership that has a core connection to the heart of what the institution is about — that it is about photography and photographers and their needs and their passions and their struggles and challenges — that staying connected to those essentials is important. My ability to speak authentically to the people who may be able to support us financially has to come from that.
What does having a core connection mean to you?
I had an interesting conversation recently with the leader of an arts organization. We were talking about the Terminal exhibition. I was speaking about how powerful it was to read people’s responses to this show or conversations that I had with people as a result of the exhibition, and just the diversity of people who experienced the exhibition, precisely because death is something that we all share. It was developed with that in mind, and, though risky, as we discussed earlier, because of funding, it was, in the end, exciting to have achieved the broader audience we hoped for.
I was also speaking however about the challenges of funding. And this person said, “Well, you know, basically it’s nice for you to have been able to do a show like that. But, you know, it can’t always be about the art. There are other factors at play, that are financial realities that have to be contended with.” I’ve spent a long time thinking about that statement. How can it NOT be about the art? I think that we lose something really fundamental when the top leadership of a cultural organization feels that running the institution is no longer about the primary function of the organization. But I can also understand that feeling when it is often so challenging to fund what seems obviously important artistically and culturally.
That speaks a lot to the challenges of any nonprofit these days in terms of being able to find the resources necessary to carry out the mission and yet not let the drive for those resources essentially taint or in some way affect what the mission is.
I think that’s one of the great challenges of the cultural sector. I’m glad that I’m not responsible for a larger institution. I would not want to be. I myself struggle with what’s the right amount of hungry in this field. A little bit of hungry is good, a little bit of hungry means that you have to figure out what you’re going to eat. On a very base animal level, that keeps your hunting or your foraging skills sharp. If you aren’t a little bit hungry then you might get a little too comfortable. On the other hand, starving is not a place of strength.
Within our institution and maybe within my life, I am in the midst of trying to work out how we move toward a place where we’re only ever a little bit hungry — but not starving. It’s been an interesting conversation. I think that we need to know that there’s a set amount of money coming in, so that a certain amount of operational planning can occur that is not dependent upon factors that can always change.
A key thing that you talked about several times is the business of running a nonprofit organization. You bring that business background here, but you’re also weighing that against that ability to go beyond the dollar as the bottom line of what you’re trying to do. What makes you hopeful about the future of photography for a local institution like this?
That’s a good question. I desperately believe that the vocabulary of image-making must expand, and we’re in the position to facilitate that. This region is home to great minds in the areas of technology — they are influencing how we live, how we communicate, and photography is a central language in that. For instance, any image-making that I do on my phone I call a “capture,” not a photograph. Because I need it to be — not only I need it to be but in my life experience, it is — not the same as thing as a Minor White photograph or a Robert Adams photograph or a Sylvia Plachy photograph. I don’t even want that word to be used in the same way because they’re not the same things for me. I think that that’s an element of image-making today that’s exciting.
We’ve introduced language here around the idea of “significant photography,” because I also think that the historical terms of commercial and fine art are also somewhat obsolete. There is very little more commercial than the art market right now, for instance. That said, I’m glad that art is being seen as something with currency. I’ve believed that for a long time. So if the rest of the capitalist system has woken up to it, good for them.
Looking at the totality of the spectrum of photographic image-making, I think that my background as an editor is going to serve me, and our institution, well into the future because we are in a period of time culturally that is about either lack of filters or a desperate desire for filters. And what we can do as an institution is to introduce people to both.