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

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.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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