A Sense of Place: American art and the Seattle Art Museum

November 2009 | When and where the Seattle Art Museum was founded greatly shaped its collecting of American art—far from the art centers of the East Coast and comparatively late in this slowly developing city on the Pacific Northwest frontier. Long a student of Asian art, which his mother had also avidly collected, the museum’s founding director, Richard E. Fuller (see p. 104, Fig. 7), wanted the new museum to focus on Asian art. With its collecting underwritten entirely by his family’s fortunes (his parents both had significant family wealth, and his father was a prominent urological surgeon in New York), he understandably pursued his passion, spurred on by his uncommon sense of an Asian art collection’s particular relevance in a city on the Pacific Rim, a city having, as he saw it, stronger ties to Asia than to New York or Europe. While Californians were famously seeing their state as the North American Continent’s end, the fulfillment of a country’s westward march to settlement, Fuller was quite unconventionally seeing still young Seattle as something of a beginning, a portal to Asia. It is relevant to Fuller’s point of view that he was a geologist by training—having earned his doctorate at the University of Washington—and his understanding of an interconnectedness among the cultures of the Pacific Rim surely stems in part from his knowledge of the extensive, continuous system of oceanic trenches, geologic plates, and volcanic arcs that comprise the Pacific “Rim of Fire.”

Building a world-class collection of Asian art for Seattle required focus, and Fuller was not going to be distracted by nominal collecting in other areas. Nevertheless, having participated directly in the design and construction of the magnificent art deco style museum building atop Seattle’s Capitol Hill, in Volunteer Park, he was receptive to complementing the architecture with suitably decorative modern sculpture. In this he relied in significant measure upon the advice of his sister, Eugenia (Mrs. John C. Atwood Jr.) of Philadelphia, who directed him to any number of contemporary American works. For the entrance to the galleries she commissioned decorative gates by the Philadelphia architectural sculptor Samuel Yellin (1885–1940), and she also made gifts in that inaugural year of bronzes by Boris Lovet-Lorski (1894–1973) and William Hunt Diederich and was likely behind her brother’s purchase of other Diederich works, too, including a cut-tin, iron, and brass fire screen that was acquired in 1933 for the new museum’s board room (Fig. 4).

Fuller did believe that the best measure of the value of the institution would be the collection’s influence on artists, Seattle artists, and he regularly mounted exhibitions of the region’s contemporary art. He gathered around him artists who shared his sensibilities—Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Guy Anderson, and Kenneth Callahan—who would twenty years after the museum’s founding be celebrated nationally as the Mystic Painters of the Northwest. From the outset, Fuller enthusiastically collected the work of his artist friends for the museum and encouraged museum patrons to do likewise, to the end that today the Seattle Art Museum is a leading repository of the work of these important modernists.

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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