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

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!”

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[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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