Seattle Art Museum

Seattle, WA

(206) 654-3166


Seattle Collects Paintings: Works from Private Collections

May 22 to Sept. 7, 1997


"I hold that few human activities provide an individual with a greater sense of personal gratification than the assembling of a collection of art objects that appeal to him and that he feels have true and lasting beauty" -J. Paul Getty

Lucien Freud, Bruce Bernard, 1996


Over the past 30 years, Seattle has emerged as a leading city in art collecting in the United States. The expansion of high-tech businesses in the Seattle area has attracted a number of individuals who, in addition to established collectors, are building substantial private collections. In order to honor and nurture outstanding local collectors, Seattle Art Museum presents Seattle Collects Paintings: Works from Private Collections from May 22 through Sept. 7, 1997. The exhibition, which is generously supported by Christie's, will be on view in the Special Exhibition Gallery.

William Glackens, Summer, 1914


Curated by Trevor Fairbrother, Deputy for Art/Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern Art, and Chiyo Ishikawa, Curator of European Painting, the exhibition promises to be a ground breaking event that will be just cause for civic pride. About 80 paintings ranging from the 17th century to the present from over 40 of Seattle's private collections provide the opportunity to compare outstanding, jewel-like early works on wood panels with much larger, expressively brushed canvases.

Mark Innerst, In a Young Forest, 1988


The exhibition, which demonstrates Seattle's strong support for 20th-century art, includes Modernist, Abstract Expressionist, Color Field and Post-Modern works. Among the paintings on view are Francis Bacon's Portrait of Pope, 1957-58; Edward Hopper's Chop Suey, 1929; Mark Tobey's Northwest Phantasy, 1953; and Mark Rothko's Red Grey, White on Yellow, 1951-52. Other artists represented include Lynda Barry, Roger Brown, Chuck Close, Howard Finster, Philip Guston, Robert Helm, Neil Jenney, Lee Krasner, John La Farge, Sherrie Lavine, Roy Lichtenstein, Claude Monet, Gerhard Richter, Susan Rothenberg, Lucas Samaras, and Rufino Tamayo.

Edward Hopper, Chop Suey, 1929


One of the outstanding cultural properties in America is the abundance of private art collections. From such public benefactors as the Mellon family, whose paintings form the core of the National Gallery painting collection in Washington D.C., to Gertrude Stein, a renowned connoisseur of early 20th-century paintings, no other society has assembled works of such quality and variety and shared so generously with the public. In Seattle, works from the collections of Virginia and Bagley Wright, Jane and David Davis, and Richard and Betty Hedreen are pursued by museums throughout the world for major exhibitions. Seattle Collects Paintings will ensure that these and many other treasures will be available for local viewing as well.

Mark Tansey, Chess Game, 1982


The exhibition at Seattle Art Museum showcases Seattle's growing stature as a center for art collecting, as well as the generosity of the collectors in sharing their art with the public. The mixture of paintings of regional, national and international stature is intended to open the world of art collecting and appreciation to a wide audience and this to encourage others to become themselves.


Collecting Art in Seattle: Yesterday and Today

by Melissa Mohlman, Seattle Art Museum


Seattle today is a vibrant city, aglow with culture, art and affluence. Brand-new fortunes, fueled by biotechnology, coffee, grunge rock and computers, have turned this Northwest lumber-and-aircraft city into the Pacific Rim boom town of the '90s. Performing arts, science centers, major museums and art galleries all contribute to its growing cultural electricity. An special exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum reflects one aspect of this energy: a fascination with collecting painting. Seattle Collects Paintings: Works from Private Collections, curated by Trevor Fairbrother, Deputy Director for Art/Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern Art, and Chiyo Ishikawa, Curator of European Painting, will be on view May 22 to Sept. 7, 1997.


Seattle's interest in collecting art began slowly. For the first half of this century, Seattle was still a young city regarding its hills and paving dirt streets. Four names stand out in this early period: Horace Henry, who collected traditional paintings and initiated the Henry At Gallery; Charles Frye, collector of European academic art who, with his wife Emma, founded the Frye Art Museum; Nellie Cornish, who established a progressive art school, the Cornish College of the Arts, and Dr. Richard Fuller, who lovingly amassed an extraordinary collection of Asian art objects. In the midst of the Great Depression, Dr. Fuller and his mother Margaret gave the city the incredible sum of $250,000 and their Asian collection to establish the region's major art museum. The Seattle Art Museum, designed by Seattle architect Carl Gould, opened in 1933.

Dr. Fuller set the stage for Seattle's early public exposure to visual art. His fascination with three-dimensional objects (Chinese jades, Qing dynasty funerary figures, jade carvings, snuff bottles), formed the basis of the collection he placed on view. But Dr. Fuller's compassion for struggling local artists in the lean Depression also led him to generously collect and exhibit their work, expanding their visibility--and the collection. This fed public interest in Northwest painters, especially Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan and Guy Anderson (who became national figures after LIFE magazine in 1953 featured them as the "Mystic Painters of the Northwest"). Dr. Fuller's original interest in objects was echoed over the years by later collectors. Among those who helped expand the museum's holdings were Kenneth and Priscilla Klepser, John Hauberg and Katherine White, who donated nationally known collections of ceramics, Northwest Coast Native American art and African art, respectively. Examples of pre-modern European and U.S. art further expanded the collection, thanks both to museum purchases and gifts from the Kress Foundation.

It wasn't until mid-century that Seattle's art consciousness made its next leap forward--thanks, many feel, to the World's Fair and to Seattle native Jinny Wright. Now an internationally know collector of modern art, Wright and her husband Bagley have loaned paintings by Andy Warhol and Tom Wesselman for Seattle Collects Paintings. Her passion for art began during the late 1940s in New York, where Abstract Expressionism was gaining critical attention. She started collecting while a student at Barnard College and honed her skills as an assistant to Sidney Janis, whose Manhattan gallery dealt with such emerging artists as Hackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline.

In the early '50s, Jinny and Bagley Wright moved home to Seattle. "If there was little real market for Abstract Expressionism at that time in New York, there was none in Seattle," Jinny recalls. She did find some kindred souls here, however. These included Anne and Sidney Gerber, who gravitated to European avant-garde, minimal and conceptual art; John Denman, who was intrigued by David Hockney and se Kooning; and gallery owner Zoe Dusanne, who shoed modern European and American art.

Then, in 1962, the World's Fair came to town. In the art pavilion, exhibits of both old masters and avant-garde art excited the public. The enthusiasm for contemporary art lasted long after the Fair, sustained by a new wave of collectors fascinated by the cutting-edge art of the day. Jane Davis and her late husband Richard Lang, Robert and Honey Dootson and Richard and Betty Hedreen were among the new collectors who caught "the bug."

Jinny Wright gained a reputation for setting high standards in her own collecting and for actively encouraging others. She opened a gallery, Current Editions, and was instrumental in the formation of the Seattle Art Museum's Contemporary Arts Council (CAC), an organization of postwar-art lovers. A movement to hold contemporary exhibitions at Seattle Art Museum grew. A reluctant Dr. Fuller finally agreed, and The Responsive Eye, and op art show from New York's Museum of Modern Art, opened at the Seattle Art Museum in 1965. This exhibition paved the way for further shows, and according to Wright, "the Contemporary Arts Council became the contemporary art department of the museum" until the first curator was hired in 1976.

Bob and Honey Dootson, early members of CAC, have loaned several pieces for Seattle Collects Paintings, including a work by Chicago artist Roger Brown. Bob Dootson remembers John Denman and Jinny Wright providing guidance as he and his wife began to acquire art. In 1968, Denman accompanied the novice collectors to New York to introduce them to Manhattan's dealers, since there were still few in Seattle. Then the Dootsons settled into a time of intense self education: reading, learning, discussing and traveling to New York and California to seek out the contemporary mid-career artists they admired. Like most major collectors in Seattle, they became deeply involved with the Seattle Art Museum, joining its board and the Collectors Forum, an offshoot of CAC, which had expanded dramatically. "That really hooked us on collecting," Bob Dootson laughs. "Now we're addicted!" Traveling across the country with the Collectors Forum was an inspiration for Dootson and his wife. "There is nothing like visiting people's homes to see them living surrounded by their art."

Local collector Cathy Hillenbrand lives surrounded by art. Her home is a lively visual experience that integrates the contemporary art that covers the walls with the day-to-day dynamics of raising two small sons. Hillenbrand came of age in the early '70s. Interested in art since her Alabama childhood, she met a number of young, local artists at the University of Washington, where she received a law degree in 1974. The allure of the free-wheeling '60s still hung in the air, and Hillenbrand hound the local art scene exciting. She owned the Comet, a tavern and artist hangout, joined the CAC and the Collectors Forum, and then started publishing art books in 1980. "Publishing was another entree into the art world," she says. "I worked with artists, traveled to New York, read art books and magazines--and bought art from artists I knew." Drawn to subjects she embraces (women's issues, language, the South), Hillenbrand's collection predominantly features current Northwest artists, inlcuding Lynda Barry and Sherry Markowitz. A painting by the Rev. Howard Finster is also among those she has loaned SAM's exhibition.

Like Wright and the Dootsons, Hillenbrand buys from the heart. Most of Seattle's longer-term collectors share their passion--and their interest in contemporary art. The current SAM exhibition, Seattle Collects Paintings, reflects this passion: postwar avant-garde painters are heavily represented in the show. In this relatively small community, local influences have been powerful. The Seattle Art Museum's Contemporary Arts Council and Collectors Forum have trained many eyes, and community leaders who are active contemporary art collectors, such as the Wrights, the Hedreens and Jane Lang Davis, have set the pace.

But today Seattle's art world has widened, and private collections are not the whole story. A new element entered with the prosperous 1980s: the corporate collector. Companies, law firms and banks invested in art; the Seattle Sheraton Hotel became renowned for its first-rate collection of studio glass. Microsoft is now a major regional collector, inspiring young collectors and boasting a staff curator.

And a new generation of private collectors has emerged. Some, like Jon and Mary Shirley, are also fascinated by postwar art. Now leading collectors of Chuck Close, the Shirleys are loaning several pictures for Seattle Collects Paintings. Other collectors are turning to older, more traditional art, and American, Barbizon and Impressionist paintings are being acquired.

There have been private collectors of traditional, pre-modern art in Seattle in the past, but their number have been few. One collector (who prefers anonymity, as do many) has focused on 19th- and early 20th-century art since the early '70s and is represented in Seattle Collects Paintings. He is excited about Seattle's future as a center for art. "The public is learning rapidly, and the Seattle Art Museum is playing a major role," he says. "Exhibitions and educational programs expose people to great art, and with this exposure, everyone learns." He is confident a local collecting movement in more traditional, pictorial art is developing, as exhibitions continue and public awareness grows.

Exhibitions are not the museum's only educational role. SAM also offers crucial guidance to collectors by offering, through its curators, a second pair of eyes that helps validate their purchases. Jon and Mary Shirley and Bob and Honey Dootson are among many who have turned to the museum for advice and reassurance. As in all great modern cities, the collecting of art in Seattle now involves a vigorous dialogue between private collectors and curators.

One private collector recently predicted that Seattle will thrive in the next 25 years. "Culture, and it most important expression--art--is a crucial part of making a city great," he says. "Seattle is on the threshold of true greatness." Seattle Art Museum's director, Mimi Gardner Gates, believes that "there is no great city without a great art museum," and SAM is doing its part, encouraging a hungry public with an active schedule of first-rate exhibitions and programs. Seattle has astounding collections of art today, as demonstrated in Seattle Collects Paintings. What will tomorrow bring?


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Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 1997 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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