Virginia Wright, who with her husband, Bagley, built one of country’s most important collections of postwar and contemporary art and helped transform Seattle’s art scene, has died. She was 91. The Seattle Times, which first reported the news, said the cause was Hodgkin lymphoma.
The Wrights, who appeared on ARTnews’s Top 200 Collectors list each year from 1990 to 1999 and then again from 2004 to 2006, were among the last of a generation of American collectors who witnessed the rise of the New York scene in the postwar years—and purchased work by leading Abstract Expressionists of the time.
Wright, who was known as Jinny, was one of the rare collectors who formally studied art history. Having gone to New York’s Barnard College, she went on to work for the esteemed Sidney Janis Gallery, which itself was instrumental in helping to establish Abstract Expressionism as the leading art movement of its day, giving solo shows to Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Mark Rothko, all of whom she and her husband would go on to collect. Her first major purchase was Mark Rothko’s #10 (1952) for around $1,000 from the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1953; she would later donate the work to the Seattle Art Museum.
In 1951, Wright met her future husband, C. Bagley Wright, a newspaper man, while working at the gallery. They married in 1953, and then two years later, in 1955, relocated to Virginia’s hometown of Seattle, where the couple would become influential in the city’s development as a major urban center—Bagley, who died in 2011, through real estate development, including the city’s iconic Space Needle, and Virginia through her support of the Seattle Art Museum, whose board she joined in 1960.
Their philanthropy manifested in three major ways for SAM: supporting its financial campaigns, helping to fund acquisitions of artwork, and donating over 200 works from their own collection to the museum. Indeed, the couple often said that they built their collection with SAM in mind. In a 2016 interview with NPR’s KUOW station, Wright recalled, “I don’t remember how it came about but I think Bagley and I both thought the museum would be the ultimate destination if we did build a collection.”
In addition to the Rothko painting, they also gave SAM works by Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Sigmar Polke, Frank Stella, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell Agnes Martin, Eva Hesse, Robert Morris, Anselm Kiefer, and many others. Many of the works donated over the years are exhibited as part of SAM’s ongoing exhibition “Big Picture: Art After 1945,” which first opened on 2016 and has rotated works over the years.
“It’s always been the main arena,” Wright once said. “I never wanted to break off and start a museum. I wanted to push the museum we already had into being more responsive to contemporary art.”
Virginia Wright was born in Seattle on January 1, 1929, to Prentice Bloedel and Virginia Merrill Bloedel. The family would eventually move to Vancouver because of the lumber industry, in which they would amass a fortune.
As a child, Wright expressed an interest in drawing, and her parents supported that, as she told Mija Riedel in an oral history for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest when she did, Wright didn’t have much exposure to art. It wasn’t until she went to boarding school in Dobbs Ferry, New York, that she began visiting world-class museums on school trips to New York City, among them the Frick Collection. After boarding school, Wright returned to Vancouver for two years to study at the University of British Columbia, and then transferred in her junior year to Barnard College, where she studied with the legendary art historian Meyer Schapiro.
In her oral history with Riedel, Wright compared Schapiro’s lectures to “the conversion of St. Paul,” particularly in the way that it changed her thinking of modern art. Prior to the course, she wasn’t interested in it. “He showed how modern art really had its roots in the 19th Century and made a logical case that this was—what we were seeing in the ’50s was a direct development that went far back in our history.”
After graduating from Barnard in 1951, Wright worked at Sidney Janis Gallery until 1954, then relocated to Seattle the following year. Wright was dedicated to helping teach others the appreciation of contemporary art. She became a docent for the Seattle Art Museum in the late 1950s, leading tours, giving lectures about art at the museum, and teaching art appreciation courses at the Lakeside School. In 1968, she opened her own art gallery in the city, Current Editions, which ran until 1975. In 1999, she opened the Wright Exhibition Space, a free venue that showed selections from the collection; it closed in 2014, at which point the remaining works from the collection made their way to SAM.
All the while, Wright was heavily involved with the board of SAM, on which she served from 1960 until 1972, when her husband joined. She later rejoined in 1982, serving as its president from 1986 to 1992. Among the many initiatives she oversaw was the cofounding of the museum’s Contemporary Art Council in 1964 and the hiring away of Patterson Sims from the Whitney Museum in New York to be SAM’s associate director for art and exhibitions and curator of modern art in 1987. She also helped grow the museum’s endowment to over $100 million and spearheaded the museum’s move to its downtown building in 1991.
“Virginia Wright is the ideal arts patron,” Chiyo Ishikawa, SAM’s deputy director and curator of European painting and sculpture, said in a statement. “She has incredible taste as a collector—the Wright collection is practically a textbook of the art of their time—and a vision that is turned outward to the public good. Not super-wealthy by today’s standards, she and Bagley used their resources to make the city of Seattle a better place to live through the arts, and their generosity inspired others to follow their example.”
Wright’s philanthropy also extended beyond SAM—and even Seattle. She established the Virginia Wright Fund in 1969 as a project to buy public art throughout the state of Washington, which included Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk in University of Washington’s Red Square in Seattle and pieces by Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, and Nancy Holt at the Western Washington University in Bellingham, near the Canadian border. In 1976, she founded the Washington Art Consortium, made up of seven art museums in Washington State that was an attempt to help raise the profile of smaller museums. When it was disbanded in 2017, it had grown to include over 400 works of 20th-century American art and a $2.3 million endowment, which was divided among its members.
Wright, who was an active board member at SAM until her death, told the museum earlier this month, “When I think about the future of the Wright Collection at SAM, I put my trust in the artists. I trust that future generations will value their work, that SAM will continue to provide meaningful access to it, and that the conversations that their work has inspired will continue.”
Correction, February 21, 2020, 10:50 a.m.: An earlier version of this article misstated Patterson Sims’s position at the Seattle Art Museum. He was associate director for art and exhibitions and curator of modern art, not director. The post has been updated to reflect this.