Behnke: A Family Foundation Evolves to Focus on Supporting Local Artists

The Behnke Foundation describes itself as a private family foundation whose purpose is to help improve the quality of life in the communities where the Behnke family lives and works. Since 1996, the Behnke Foundation has awarded The Neddy, an annual artist award program in memory of Robert E. “Ned” Behnke. In a recent year, the foundation gave away a little under $140,000 to a handful of grantees, largely in the Seattle area.

I recently spoke with Behnke Foundation Director Michelle McBride to find out more about the foundation’s grantmaking and the family behind it.

McBride began by telling me a bit about the Behnke clan. While their foundation was established back in 1956, its origins date back even further. McBride explained that the Behnke Foundation was originally part of the Skinner Foundation. The Skinner family helped steer Skinner & Eddy, a Seattle-based shipbuilding corporation. The company spun off into building warships during WWII, and thereafter, into a Pepsi bottler. The family started giving 10 percent to charity at that time and launched the Skinner Foundation, steered by the Skinner family as well as the Nordhoff and Behnke families.

Eventually, the Skinners sold their bottling company back to Pepsi and the Behnkes took over the Skinner Foundation, renaming it the Behnke Foundation, which gave back to the local community where the family lived and worked. In the early days, McBride tells me that the foundation really focused on smaller organizations. “Instead of larger organizations that usually get the spotlight, they really focused on organizations that are missed.”

The foundation would change its focus theme annually, and later, every two years, to do a deeper dive into smaller organizations working in areas like senior care, the arts, and children. The family received proposals from different organizations and annually gave about $50,000 each year.

In 1996, the Behnke Foundation also began the Neddy Award, which started as one unrestricted artist award for $10,000 to a local artist. The award continues to this day, but has now grown to two unrestricted $25,000 awards and is stewarded by the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. The Neddy Artist Awards at Cornish College of the Arts provides cash awards annually to visual artists based in the greater Puget Sound region (Island, Jefferson, King, Kitsap, Mason, Pierce, Skagit, San Juan, Snohomish, Thurston and Whatcom counties).

One award is given in painting and another in any medium or combination of media grounded in the visual arts to artists creating outstanding work and who demonstrate commitment to and development of their artistic practice over time. Six finalists, three in each category, receive $1,500 each.

The forces behind the award are deeply personal. The Neddy is named in honor of Ned Behnke, son of Robert and Sally Skinner Behnke, who passed away in 1989 due to complications from AIDS. “It’s become a focal point for the family,” McBride explains. Deaf from birth, Ned was drawn to the visual arts from an early age. He received several arts degrees and lived and worked in Seattle, where he taught art to hearing-impaired students at Cornish College of the Arts, and other institutions. A Cornish painting studio was named in his honor in 1982.

Since 2012, the foundation stopped its general funding to focus primarily on the Neddy Artist Awards. In a recent fiscal year, nearly $129,000 went to Cornish College of the Arts. McBride, in explaining the shift, says that ”unrestricted artist awards are so few and far between so that became more of the focus. Other than discretionary giving by trustees, we only give a small amount every year. The Neddy is by far the focus.”