Stepping through the doors of Donna Seager Gallery in downtown San Rafael, an afternoon visitor is greeted with a welcoming smile from gallery assistant Suzanne McSweeney. Beyond the entry and into the current exhibition space, Berkeley-based artist Emily Payne’s wire-ball sculptures hover sweetly, tucked amongst light-drenched paintings and installations by other emerging Bay Area artists. In the middle is an entire room dedicated to book arts, and nearby, two high school students lounge casually on the floor, sketching in notebooks. Seager, owner and director of the gallery since 2005, greets the girls warmly.
“Galleries have this reputation for being stuffy and intimidating,” Seager says, when asked about the inclusive environment. “But we definitely don’t have that reputation. I don’t want it to be intimidating. I want people to find a doorway into the art world.” It’s for this non-hierarchal approach, her dedication to the North Bay arts scene, as well as her passionate support for book arts, that we are glad to make Donna Seager a 2011 Boho Award recipient.
Raised in New Orleans, Seager bought her first print with money saved from babysitting after attending an exhibit by Francoise Gilot, Pablo Picasso’s former lover and a talented artist in her own right.
“It was a little piece called ‘Air,’ says Seager, today wearing a black shift and a hand-crafted silver necklace. “I’d just read Life with Picasso. I was 17. That print cost me $300 unframed. That to me, at the time, was a lot of money. They let me pay a little bit at a time and I still have it.”
Bit by the art bug, she spent a year saving money and working as cook on a charter sailboat, going on to double-major in Art History and English at the University of Texas. A love for art and books flourished, providing seeds that would grow into an annual “Art of the Book” show, an exhibition of handmade and altered books that takes over the gallery each spring.
“What started out as a fascination has really ended up distinguishing me as a dealer and opened a lot of doors for me,” says Seager of the book show. “It was just all so fortuitous.”
After some years spent directing a gallery in Boston, Seager moved to San Francisco in 1989. “I’d always had a love of Bay Area art, since first seeing some figurative Diebenkorns at the New Orleans Museum of Art,” says Seager. “I loved it and I still love it.”
She eventually landed at the Robert Green Fine Arts in Mill Vallley, spending 10 years cultivating relationships with artists and collectors. After a stint at CFA Gallery in Marin, she decided to break out on her own, leasing the current space on Fourth Street. “You start developing your own aesthetic. You want to make your own choices,” she says.
Being on her own allowed Seager to focus on the Art of the Book exhibitions; it was a medium she delved into after being introduced to Charles Hobson, an instructor in the Printmaking Department at the San Francisco Art Institute and a major book arts collector.
“As it happens, in the Bay Area, there is some of the richest history of people making books as a medium for art,” says Seager. “It was like discovering this rich vein of gold in the ground. . . Not only did I enjoy the work I was encountering, I enjoyed the community.”
Seager is soon switching things up a bit when she takes on McSweeney as a business partner; they’ll close the San Rafael location and reopen in Mill Valley on Nov. 1 as Seager-Gray Gallery. While change is afoot, her dedication to emerging artists and artist’s books remains as strong as ever.
“Marin and the North Bay is a huge community of artists,” says Seager. “A place like this, with its beautiful light and natural beauty, attracts people who have artistic sensibilities. They need galleries to show their work, give it context, and to bring it out to a larger world.”