In 1988, collector and former Microsoft president Jon Shirley acquired his first work by the preeminent 20th-century sculptor Alexander Calder. The 1970 mobile, titled Squarish, has long resided in the Shirley family room. In the 35 years since, Shirley, first with his late wife Mary Shirley and now with Kim Shirley, has amassed one of the most important collections of Calder, always waiting for the right works by Calder to become available so he could purchase them.
Some years, they might acquire only one Calder or none at all. In others, like in 1999, the Shirleys would acquire as many as seven pieces, like Dispersed Objects with Brass Gong (1948), which hangs in the dining room. These are just some of the major works, like Fish (1942), Gamma (1947), and Bougainvillier (1947), that make up the Shirleys’ Calder holdings.
“Jon has been looking for great Calders for decades,” Alexander S. C. Rower, Calder’s grandson and president of the Calder Foundation, said in a recent interview. “He’s been taking his time, building his collection, never in any rush. He trusted his own eyes and bought magnificent works.”
But soon, the Shirleys will say goodbye to their Calders as they leave their home in Medina, Washington, and head to their new home of the Seattle Art Museum, where Jon and Kim are both currently trustees. As part of their gift, the Shirleys will give SAM 48 works by Calder, spanning the artist’s career, with mobiles at various sizes from the large-scale to the intimately small, as well as works on paper. (The approximate value of the 48-work donation is $200 million, according to Christie’s West Coast chairman Ellanor Notides, who did its appraisal.)
The donated works will go on view at SAM in November as part of an exhibition celebrating the gift that the Shirleys have also given $1 million toward realizing; it will be accompanied by a catalogue. “I’ve been collecting the works of Alexander Calder for 35 years, and it seemed like a good time to consider giving that part of our collection to the museum, but in a way that would help activate the museum now,” Jon Shirley said in an interview with ARTnews.
SAM director Amada Cruz said that the museum aims to be “the ultimate repository for important local collections,” like that of the Shirleys, adding that the donation will allow visitors to the museum to “see the breadth of creativity and the development of one artist—how he moved forward in his career. A gift like this is so important and a unique opportunity because it’s such a concentrated view and in-depth study of one artist’s work. That’s unusual for most museums.”
Cruz continued, “Every piece in the collection is a stellar example of that type of work. With this many works, it’s very rare to see that level of quality. It took extraordinary discipline to wait for the right piece. Jon very much thought carefully about what he was adding to the collection. Nothing is there by accident.”
Shirley, who has appeared on the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list 22 times since 1995, has long planned of donating his art collection to SAM, his local institution. But since the pandemic, he has been considering how the museum might best benefit from a major donation like this, one that they could “do great things” with as soon as possible, especially with an artist like Calder who is both beloved by people of all ages and whose art is accessible and approachable to seasoned art lovers and burgeoning ones too.
“Unlike New York, our museums don’t exist because of tourism but because of local visitors,” Shirley said. “Like many cities, our downtown is suffering because people are working from home. I was thinking of ways to energize the museum and bring in more people and bring people who might not otherwise come in the door.”
Part of the plan to bring visitors to SAM continuously is also embedded into the Shirley gift, as it is accompanied by a $10 million endowment and an annual commitment from the Shirleys of $250,000 to $500,000 for programming and research related to Calder and his lasting impact on art history.
“In this case, we wanted to make the Seattle Art Museum a great West Coast Calder venue,” Shirley said. “In using the works and the funds, we want to broaden what we show and broaden the understanding of the influence that he had on other artists.”
How these yearly activations around Calder are still taking shape, but Cruz said that this aspect of the gift provides an exciting opportunity for the museum. “In terms of legacy, you think about Calder and innovation: bringing motion into sculpture. What is motion? Motion can lead to a lot of places. There are so many entry points to this work. The beauty of the visionary aspect of the gift is that it does give us the means to be much more innovative and exploratory,” she said.
Describing Shirley as a “tremendously generous collector” who has never hesitated when asked to lend works to exhibitions on Calder, Rower said that “having a perpetual gift that funds that kind of work is truly exciting because it keeps everything alive.”
Shirley has had a decades-long association with SAM and served as the museum’s board chairman from 2000 to 2008. During his first year as chairman, Shirley and his late wife Mary donated a monumental 1971 outdoor sculpture by Calder, The Eagle, to the museum. That donation ultimately led to the couple spearheading the development of the Olympic Sculpture Park, a waterfront nine-acre park for which they provided the founding gift. Opened in 2007 and now consisting of more than 20 public artworks, the Olympic Sculpture Park has become a beloved space for the city’s residents, with The Eagle as its icon.
“It’s very rare to have someone who has a vision of their philanthropy that comes with a civic responsibility,” Cruz said, adding that the creation of the Olympic Sculpture Park and now the Calder donation exemplify a collector who is focused on “how he can give back and have impact in a positive way in his community.”
Shirley’s love of Calder began some seven decades ago when he a student at the famed Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. As part of the humanities curriculum, Shirley learned about art, and quickly realized that sculpture and the work of Calder in particular where what he connected with most.
“They just stuck with me,” Shirley said. “To me, Calder represents so many wonderful things: beauty, humor, grace, elegance. I find it soothing—that’s one way to put it—to live with them, to have them in the house.”
Shirley already owned several works by Calder when the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. opened its acclaimed 1998 retrospective, “Alexander Calder: 1898–1976,” timed to the centennial of the artist’s birth. Shirley was a lender to the exhibition, with Bougainvillier on the checklist.
“That exhibition more than anything else led us to start concentrating on putting together a great collection,” Shirley said. “To me, that meant combing through all the years of his work, with a special emphasis on the years right after the war when he did special things. To have the breadth and the depth is what we aimed for.”