Seattle goes boom: The Seattle Art Museum becomes a mecca for American art

Editorial Staff

Editorial Staff

November 2009 | In addition to its seventy-fifth birthday, the Seattle Art Museum is celebrating donations of a billion dollars’ worth of art, including what some think is the best Edward Hopper in private hands (Fig. 11) and multiple Willem de Koonings, Mark Rothkos, and Gerhard Richters. Not bad for a place that didn’t have a European painting department until 1990 or an American art department until 2004. In addition to the permanent collection, there’s an annually changing gallery of American art drawn from Seattle collections. “We’re unveiling works that are new even to scholars,” says Patricia Junker, Seattle’s American art curator. “I believe this museum will be a destination for historical American art.” (See Junker’s article on the American paintings, pp. 108–117.)

The Seattle Art Museum is the late bloomer of major museums. It is the peculiar legacy of its founder, Richard E. Fuller (Fig. 7), a man of vision who had blind spots the size of continents: Europe and America. “Most American museums are built on a foundation of European art,” says deputy director for art Chiyo Ishikawa. “Ours began with a focus on Asian art.”

Fuller, a stubborn original like his cousin, the inventor R. Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983), and great-aunt, the writer Margaret Fuller (1810–1850), founded the museum in 1933 to house what he’d collected on his Asian travels and ran it with an iron fist for forty years. He once decked a man at Seattle’s tony Rainier Club on New Year’s Eve. “The guy was blathering,” explains William Cumming, the last of the so-called Northwest Master painters, “and he got punched.”

Richard Fuller didn’t tolerate blather. He thought it was too late to get European masterpieces, so he exhibited photographic reproductions of the Mona Lisa. He hated contemporary American painting. “It didn’t appeal to him,” says Ishikawa. “He didn’t see it.” Trained as a geologist, he cherished three-dimensional objects. “He was only interested in Asian art, primarily teabowls he could hold in the palm of his hand,” says Charles Cowles, the museum’s first modern art curator, who went on to publish Artforum and run an eponymous New York gallery. Fuller spurned important donations. “It was a one-man show,” says Ishikawa. “He didn’t want to be answerable to anybody.”

But he did want the museum to take a global view. “What you try to do is reflect the history of the world,” Fuller said, “have odds and ends from everywhere.” And he supported local art that was distinguished for its Asian-tinged outlook: He paid Mark Tobey (1890–1976) a monthly wage to paint, hired Morris Graves—and according to legend fired him for growing a beard (see Fig. 10)—and made Kenneth Callahan (1905–1986) a curator. “Callahan also was the newspaper reviewer, so he was in a situation of reviewing the shows at the Seattle Art Museum that he had curated,” says Ishikawa. “Which we wish we could do today!” Although Fuller hated abstract expressionism and pop art, he was the indispensable patron of local painters, some of whose work must have puzzled or pained him. “I honestly don’t know if he liked that art either,” says Ishikawa. But his generosity and ambition could trump his aesthetic limitations.

And when powerful personalities tried to drag him into the future, Fuller sometimes went along without punching them for blathering. He hired the sharp-eyed Asian art expert Sherman E. Lee (1918–2008), who talked him out of exhibiting reproductions and into accepting the real Italian and Dutch masterworks collected by the five-and-dime store magnate Samuel H. Kress (1863–1955). “There had been just a handful of European paintings in the collection, but you couldn’t call it a collection,” says Ishikawa. “It didn’t have any shape.” Kress, a retailer, acquired with a systematic, shelf-stocking mindset, and the thirty-five works from his collection accessioned by the museum between 1951 and 1954 was a hint of things to come. In 1958 the pioneering Seattle art dealer Zoë Dusanne (1884–1979) got Fuller to accept Jackson Pollock’s Sea Change (Fig. 9) from her pal Peggy Guggenheim, giving Seattle its first shock of the truly new.

The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair was the next evolutionary leap in the museum’s history, and it highlighted the creative strife between Fuller and the single most important force in Seattle art history, the team of Virginia and Bagley Wright. Bagley begat the Space Needle; Virginia has a comparable eminence in Seattle art (though they do collect together).

“After the World’s Fair Seattle stopped being so parochial,” Virginia Wright says. “That was the first time a de Kooning had ever been put on public view.” It wasn’t easy to overthrow parochialism, however. “Until maybe the early 1970s, if anybody collected paintings in Seattle, they were collecting Northwest art: Tobey, Graves, Callahan, Guy Anderson,” says Ishikawa, “the whole Seattle interior color scheme of mushroom and taupe.” As Virginia Wright trenchantly observes, “There was a great world master in Tobey here, and so they were not going to bother with anything else.”

Seattleites found it hard to relinquish their taupe fixation long enough to consider the New York school paintings the Wrights championed. “They were regarded with suspicion for bringing in this alien, brightly colored art,” says Ishikawa. The Wrights were used to such resistance. In New York in the 1950s, a dinner guest of theirs demanded to move her seat at the table. “She did not want to look at that awful painting,” Virginia Wright recalls. (The offending canvas was a Rothko.)

But the Wrights founded Seattle’s Contemporary Arts Council and got a seat at the museum’s table. “Dr. Fuller allowed us to be the modern curators,” says Virginia Wright. “If we put up the money he would let us choose what exhibitions we would pay for, which was totally unprofessional, but it was fabulous for us. He was very generous and supportive of anybody in the Northwest who was active in the arts.”

Virginia Wright and Fuller backed dual World’s Fair art exhibitions, one on European art and one on American, and Fuller’s war with modernity raged on. The Wrights’ faction got their modern art curator in 1973. The day Charles Cowles arrived he asked to see the Jackson Pollock that the museum had had for fifteen years. “They said they couldn’t find it. It was in the janitor’s closet behind the slop sink. There were at least twenty if not twenty-five areas of paint loss.” He sent it to the Museum of Modern Art for restoration, and it is now a gem of the Seattle collection. The Wrights were way ahead of New York in the 1950s and Seattle in the 1960s. And yet brilliant vanguards usually acquire followers. “The personal example that they set and their leadership in other cultural institutions really opened people up to this idea of modern life and modern art and seeing the wider world,” says Ishikawa. “It has ended up making Seattle a kind of mecca for this kind of collecting.” Besides the 250-plus works in the Wright collection—a comprehensive record of five decades of art history, from color field to pop (a bit too much of the former and too little of the latter, Virginia Wright admits, thanks to the persuasiveness of their friend, the critic Clement Greenberg) to Korea’s Do-Ho Suh to the great Germans­—Seattle has been promised paintings from Chuck Close collectors Jon and Mary Shirley, from the collection of the early twentieth-century American painting maven Barney Ebsworth, as well as more than a thousand other works.

Seattle’s recent tsunami of wealth has helped trigger a tsunami of donations destined for all three of the museum’s venues: the recent Brad Cloepfil addition to the museum’s downtown 1991 Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates building (see Figs. 6, 8); the original 1933 building, now the Seattle Asian Art Museum (see Figs. 2, 4); and the new waterfront Olympic Sculpture Park. “It allows us now to show this unbroken sweep of American art from the twentieth century to the present,” says Ishikawa, and there is of course a wider world of paintings from elsewhere as well.

“I had come from the Met and MFA in Boston,” Ishikawa says. “Those are collections that had been around for such a long time, and it just seemed audacious to think of starting to collect American art now. But boy, there are some great things that have come into the Seattle community just because of that change in spirit.”

Audacity is precisely the legacy of Richard Fuller. His blind spots no longer matter. According to Cowles, he tried to prevent the museum from buying Double Elvis by Andy Warhol (1928–1987), but was outvoted. “It was the most symbolic changing of the guard that you could imagine,” says Ishikawa. For one thing, the museum now has guards, which Fuller had deemed a needless expense.

Yet paradoxically, the museum has become what Fuller wanted, a globally focused institution whose odds and ends at last cohere. “It’s in the top twenty [museums in America],” says Cowles. “He’d be kind of amazed if he came back and saw how the museum has grown,” says Ishikawa, “but I think basically it’s still responding to his vision.” There are no more photographic reproductions, although one major painting, the seventeenth-century Japanese Poem Scroll with Deer by Tawaraya So-tatsu (1576–1643), only half of which is at the museum, is supplemented with an electronic rendition of the other half, made up of fragments that reside in public and private collections throughout Japan. Fuller’s early attempt to use technology to extend art’s global reach has taken on new life. More important, the museum has become a collection of collections, each reflecting a stubborn individual sensibility and exemplifying what Fuller described proudly as his own practice of “collecting recklessly.”

Seattle’s donors are splendidly reckless. They find that the way to follow in Fuller’s footsteps is to march to your own drummer, and not let any blatherers get in the way.

TIM APPELO is an associate editor of the Poetry Foundation, senior editor of City Arts Seattle, and a contributing art critic for the Seattle Post Intelligencer.