If the local arts scene ever needed a superhero, that time is now. But don't go looking for glimpses of red satin capes, bat signals in the sky or anything faster than a speeding bullet. The dynamic duo most dedicated to keeping Spokane's arts organizations afloat is a likeable South Hill couple in their 70s who live in a home filled with original art, behind a gate designed by Harold Balazs.
Lee and Jody Sahlin have helped fund more arts organizations than perhaps any other private entity in town. Look at any program, major art show card or other published arts guide and chances are, the words "Sahlin Foundation" will be on it. They've benefited everything from Allegro to the Spokane Symphony, they've given prints to the Jundt Art Museum's renowned print collection, and they're the first donors every year to write a check for the MAC's annual ArtFest. In addition to that, they help bring internationally respected contemporary artists to town through partnerships like the Visiting Artist Lecture Series.
"I'll be honest with you: I never had any interest in the arts, but she's an artist and we're very interested in -- particularly the fine arts -- but all the arts really," says Lee, nodding at his wife, Jody. "Now we've been married 55 years. So it's been going on a long time. But I have known artists and known something about the art, and that's pretty much my background."
The Sahlins met while attending Washington State University. Jody was an art student (alongside fellow artist and longtime friend Harold Balazs). Lee was an economics major. While Jody continued to pursue art, Lee went on to become an investment banker. In 1981, they launched a charitable foundation for the arts.
"Because we understood something about art and because we're acquainted with a lot of artists and art advocates, we decided we would dedicate [the foundation] to arts organizations and art projects," says Lee. "I think it's worked out pretty well."
The Sahlins say that their process for choosing which organizations to support is fairly subjective, but that it has more to do with familiarity than deciding whether a cause is worthy.
"Sometimes we're asked to donate to something that we just don't know a lot about," says Jody. "It's not that the project or organization isn't deserving, it's just that we might not know a whole lot about it."
In fact, knowing firsthand the inner workings of what arts organizations are up against is where the Sahlins often do the most good.
"We've been interested in organizations like the Spokane Art School, and the reason there is [that] every once in awhile we see that the school is not able to fund an art program for the children," says Lee. "And when that happens, you have to try to make up for it with the private organizations. That funding has got to come from somewhere. On the national level, you see it all the time with the attacks that are made on the National Endowment for the Arts. The attacks on funding come from both political parties, and you think to yourself, 'Well, a lot of this has to be made up at the local level.' So we try to do our part."
And in true superhero fashion, the Sahlins are as modest as they are helpful. "What we have to give doesn't count for all that much," Jody says with a smile and a shrug. "But you know, every little bit helps."
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