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Ted Potter: The Poet, His Muse, and Her Purse
(portrait of Jonathan Williams),
1974 acrylic on canvas, approx. 60 X 48 inches

Words for Ted Potter —
on the side of,
top of, and bottom of
many Tarheel angels

during his years as Director of SECCA
Ted knew about James Harold Jennings,
Richard “C”, Tom Suomaleinen, Elizabeth Matheson,
Raymond Coins, David Spear, Lee Smith, John Menapace,
Tom Patterson, Roger Manley, Caroline Vaughan …

two adjectives Ted always brought to mind:
industrious and steadfast…

he kept good company:
Douglas Lewis, Thorns Craven, Phil Hanes, Gordon Hanes, Rege Hanes, DeWitt Hanes…

I am sure he was the same in Winston-Salem,
New Smyrna Beach, New Orleans, and Richmond

“What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross.”

Hail and Farewell …

Jonathan Williams
Skywinding Farm 2006

A version of this obituary by Tom Patterson
originally appeared in the Winston-Salem Journal
Sunday, November 12, 2006



     Ted Potter’s death wasn’t unexpected by his family, colleagues and many friends, but that doesn’t diminish the sadness we all feel over his loss.
     Potter, the former longtime director of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer about a year ago. His health had continued to erode despite his determined fighting spirit and aggressive attempts to treat the disease. He died 10 days ago, on the night of Nov. 2.
     Many people in Winston-Salem and the across state had missed Potter ever since he left SECCA 15 years ago for another directorial position at an arts center in Florida. During his 25 years here, he virtually created SECCA and, in the process, transformed national perceptions of contemporary American art.
     Technically, SECCA had existed for a little more than 10 years when Potter was recruited from the West Coast to be its first full-time director in 1967. But until he arrived, it was a relatively little-known local art gallery occupying rented space in a former bank building downtown, tagged with the not-so-important-sounding name, the Winston-Salem Gallery of Fine Arts.
     Potter promptly dropped the local designation and updated the name by changing it to the Gallery of Contemporary Art. Seven years later he gave it the name by which it has remained known. In keeping with these changes, he guided SECCA through an era of steady growth, increasing sophistication and expanding influence.
     In the 1960s and ‘70s there was still a widespread assumption that this country’s only first-rate contemporary art was produced in New York and perhaps a few other major cities. By transforming SECCA into a nationally recognized forum for quality work by artists from across the country, Potter demonstrated the wrongheadedness of that notion. As an artist raised in the Midwest, artistically nourished on the West Coast and professionally established in the Southeast, he maintained a resolutely independent stance toward New York, refusing to recognize it as the be-all and end-all of contemporary art.
     After overseeing SECCA’s move into the former James G. Hanes home, architecturally expanded to become SECCA’s new headquarters in 1977, Potter established an ambitious exhibitions series, artists’ fellowships and other programs. He also led the drive to build the new wing opened in 1990, adding new galleries and the auditorium to the facility. These developments attracted avorable attention from coast to coast, putting Winston-Salem on the national contemporary-art map.
     All of this is particularly remarkable in view of the fact that Potter had virtually no arts-administration experience when he came here. At that time, he was a little-known painter who had worked briefly at a commercial gallery and curated a single group exhibition in San Francisco a few months before he moved here. His subsequent achievements mark him as a true visionary among arts administrators.
     During his last three years at SECCA Potter was challenged by an unforseen attack on the center--and the entire structure of public arts financing in this country--by right-wing crusaders against transgressive art. The flash point for the controversy was New York artist Andres Serrano’s(cq) big color photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine, included in a nationally traveling group show that SECCA sponsored.
     In response to the outcry, Potter mounted an articulate defense of SECCA, Serrano and freedom of expression, but the controversy and its internal impact at SECCA were at least indirectly responsible for his resignation in 1991. Details about his reasons for resigning were never publicly clarified, however.
     In the wake of his departure, SECCA was unfortunately never able to regain the kind of momentum and “buzz” that he generated during his 25-year tenure there.
     After leaving SECCA, Potter went on to directorial positions at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Fla.; the Contemporary Art Center of New Orleans; and, in Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth University’s Anderson Gallery, which he directed from 1996 until 2005. For the last 10 years he was also an associate professor of art history at VCU’s School of Arts, living in Richmond with his wife Laura and their twin daughters Kenan and Sarah, now six.
     Plenty of other artists make their livings as arts adminstrators, but Potter enjoyed one of the late 20th century’s more remarkable American art careers. Setting him further apart from other artist-adminstrators was the extent to which he remained dedicated to his work in the studio. A relentlessly prolific artist, he exhibited regularly, and much of his work found its way into public and private collections across the country.
     I was honored to have the opportunity of curating Potter’s last exhibition, a career retrospective that was at SECCA for most of the summer. Working with him on the show was a welcome opportunity to reconnect with him and learn many new things about the development of his own art. As our work proceeded last spring, I was well aware of his illness, and that made the experience particularly rich and poignant.
     Potter enriched and elevated the cultural life of Winston-Salem in unparalleled ways, and the work he did here continues to have a strongly positive impact on the city. I’ll miss him, and so will a great many of his fellow artists and others whose lives he changed.