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

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.

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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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