SEATTLE—When the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) announced it had received gifts of art valued at more than $1 billion, the event was hailed by some art watchers as the sign of a new golden age of philanthropy for the city.
In March, in honor of its 75th anniversary and recent expansion, the museum announced that more than 40 patrons had pledged nearly 1,000 works of art—among them the 1920s icons Bird in Space, by Constantin Brancusi, and Edward Hopper’s Chop Suey (currently on loan for the Hopper retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston); Die Welle (The Wave), by Anselm Kiefer; Mann und Maus, by Katharina Fritsch; and the 17th-century Saint Augustine in Ecstasy, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. Other gifts supplemented the collections of art characterized as Northwest Coast Native American art; American; African and Oceanic; and Asian.
Though market values of individual works are not known, prices at public auction may offer a glimpse into the value of certain works; for instance, a 1922-23 Brancusi sculpture, Bird in Space, sold for $27.5 million at a Christie’s New York auction in May 2005.
Ebsworth Promises 65 Pieces
For museum watchers the cliff-hanger was cruise ship mogul Barney Ebsworth’s prized collection of American modernism, which includes Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1918 Music—Pink and Blue No. 1, and Marsden Hartley’s Painting Number 49, Berlin, as well as Hopper’s Chop Suey. Ebsworth, 72, who moved to the Seattle area from St. Louis in 2000, now serves on SAM’s board. He has other museum loyalties as well, including the St. Louis Art Museum and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., where his collection has been shown. Ebsworth recently pledged 65 paintings and sculptures to SAM; they will be transferred to the museum upon his death.
Ebsworth always intended for the American modernism collection to stay together and go to a museum, he told ARTnewsletter. Additionally, he has collected New York school and Pop art, including works by Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. When he buys now, Ebsworth says, he simply follows his inclinations. His most recent major purchase, from a London dealer, was Francisco de Zurbarán’s Flight from Egypt.
Other gifts to SAM have long been anticipated. The extensive collection of Seattle art collectors Virginia and Bagley Wright, based on Post-World War II abstraction, was formed with the Seattle museum in mind. Since the 1960s the Wrights have been active leaders at SAM, where a major exhibition of their collection was mounted in 1999. They also have displayed works during recent years at their private gallery in Seattle, the Wright Exhibition Space.
Virginia Wright began buying art in the 1950s while working at the Sydney Janis Gallery, New York. Her first major buy was Mark Rothko’s Number 10, for $1,200 from Betty Parsons Gallery. Initially the Wrights’ collection reflected the taste of their mentor Clement Greenberg, but their collecting activity has long since branched out to include a cross section of significant late-20th century and contemporary artists such as Jim Dine, Maurizio Cattelan, Robert Gober, Kiefer, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter.
Among works from the Wright collection currently on display are Johns’ Thermometer, 1960; Ellsworth Kelly’s Blue, Green, Red II, 1965; Polke’s Wachturm (Watchtower), 1985; and David Smith’s sculpture Royal Incubator, 1949.
The Wrights’ collecting has slowed down in recent years as they have grown older, Virginia Wright reports, noting that their most recent acquisition is Alfred Jensen’s 25-foot-wide painting Cheop’s Testament, 1964. “Other acquisitions all have been related to works of art already in our collection,” she explains, such as “an Ed Ruscha drawing of Vanishing Cream (we have his painting of same text) and a Smith drawing of our sculpture of 1949 [Royal Incubator].”
Another substantial portion of SAM’s recent pledges came from former Microsoft president and SAM board chairman Jon Shirley and his wife, Mary. The Shirleys led the drive to build the museum’s downtown Olympic Sculpture Park, which opened in January, donating $30 million to create and endow the park as well as contributing several sculptures, including the centerpiece of the park, Alexander Calder’s Eagle. They have promised the bulk of their personal collection to SAM.
In the past the Shirleys focused on collecting works by Calder and Chuck Close, and today they have significant holdings of both. Close’s 2002 oil Lisa is promised to the museum and presently hangs in its celebratory exhibition “SAM at 75.” Other promised gifts now on display include Rothko’s Orange on Red, 1956; Johns’ oil-and-collage Harlem Light, 1967; and Pollock’s Number 20, 1949. Brancusi’s Bird in Space and Alberto Giacometti’s The Dog, 1951, also are from the Shirley collection.
For current purchases, Jon Shirley reports, he and his wife mostly avoid the auctions, where “the prices are so crazy,” and seek out lesser-known artists. At a recent edition of Art Basel Miami Beach the Shirleys bought a piece from the “Aggregations” series by Korean artist Kwang-Young Chun and an oil by Spanish artist Manolo Valdés. They also have shopped at galleries or through dealers for works by artists they admire, including a Close tapestry portrait, Cindy Sherman; April Gornik’s Light on the Sea; a Gordon Parks photograph of Calder; and an early 1930s oil painting of a horse by Morris Graves.
Other important gifts to the museum have come from the Ann and Tom Barwick collection of American art: the Marshall Hatch collection, with significant paintings by Graves; the Jane Lang Davis collection of post-WWII paintings; Susan and Jeffrey Brotman, whose collection contains contemporary German art; Sam and Gladys Rubinstein, who focused on early European modernism, including works by Marc Chagall, Robert Delaunay, Max Ernst and Alexei Jawlensky; and the Griffith and Patricia Way collection of modern Japanese paintings.