Seattle as Wrightscape

How Virginia and Bagley Wright brought Seattle into the 20th century.

IN 1973, I WAS ASKED by the members of the Empty Space Theater collective to join their number as business manager. I soon learned that being Empty Space's manager meant sorting through a cardboard box of unpaid bills and unanswered letters from the Internal Revenue Service, and discovering that the artistically admired ensemble had assets of $85.02 and more than $5,000 in debts—not to mention $3,500 owing on state and local taxes.

I had no choice but to call the investor and art collector Bagley Wright to explain the theater's situation, and to ask Mr. Wright to act as security for a one-year, $10,000 line of credit to help the Space get on its financial feet. After my brief presentation, Mr. Wright asked only one question: What is the name and branch of your bank?

In her Seattle magazine feature on Virginia and Bagley Wright, occasioned by the Seattle Art Museum's current show of works from the couple's 50 years of collecting, Sheila Farr tries to measure the Wrights' impact on their city by imagining away evidence of their presence. She concludes the city would be a far poorer place: "[F]irst, erase the Space Needle. . . . Take away Seattle Repertory Theater. Start eliminating the city's public artworks: the striking Barnett Newman 'Broken Obelisk' on the UW campus; Michael Heizer's landmark 'Adjacent, Against, Upon' at Myrtle Edwards Park on the waterfront, SAM's 'Hammering Man.' . . . Blur the profiles and take the bloom from the cheeks of the Seattle Art Museum, the Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera, and many other local arts organizations—all recipients of the Wrights' direction and largess. . . ."

All-embracing as Farr's tribute is, in some ways it doesn't go far enough. It's unlikely, for example, that you would be reading these words at all had Bagley Wright not made a substantial investment in the fledgling Seattle Weekly, and invested more during the long years when the paper failed to turn a profit. Perhaps as significant as all their acknowledged benefactions combined is the effect on others of their example, urging, persuading, irritating the sublimely complacent Seattle establishment into aspiring to something beyond the pale-beige tokens of the Northwest Good Life.

WELL BEFORE VIRGINIA Bloedel was born, the family-owned lumber firm founded by her grandfather had largely completed the deforestation of Whatcom County and moved on to Vancouver Island and the BC mainland, where, much amalgamated and merged, it continues its rape of the land as the multinational MacMillan Bloedel Ltd., one of the biggest and most powerful wood- and timber-product companies in the world.

No one batted an eye when young Virginia decided to study art history at Barnard; there was plenty of time to settle down and, when the time came, plenty of appropriate bachelor sons to choose from among the Northwest's tight-knit timber clan. But Virginia instead chose to marry "an outsider"—a Long Island-bred, Princeton-educated journalist, of all things.

Even that might have been forgiven in time. But when Virginia and Bagley decided to relocate to Seattle, accompanied by a pair of newborn twins and a small but select art collection, Seattle slowly became aware that they had picked up some pretty strong colors from their wild-oats years in the lap of the Harlot of the Hudson, and that they had no intention of adopting the compulsory beige of their new surroundings.

It wasn't that the Wrights were unconventional or flamboyant personally; that the establishment could have dealt with easily, simply closing the door on them as it has on so many others. But no, socially their behavior was irreproachable: It was their taste that rankled—or, more accurately, their casual assumption that taste was something civilized people have, something more definite and conscious than an uncompromised adherence to the customs of the tribe. They confronted you with the material consequences of their conviction (a dinner guest once demanded a different place at the table so she wouldn't have look at a Rothko as she ate); and they encouraged others to go and do likewise.

One of the first to feel the heat was Dr. Richard E. Fuller, founder and sole proprietor of the Seattle Art Museum, a gentle soul whose greatest artistic passion was for jade snuff paraphernalia, and for whom the pallid confetti whorl-paintings of Mark Tobey marked the outer limits of the modern in art. Mrs. Wright had no problem with Tobey; but she wanted more for the museum and for Seattle, and so was founded (more or less over the restlessly squirming body of Dr. Fuller) the Contemporary Arts Council. The battle for the soul of SAM began.

That might have been a sufficient beachhead for many, but Mrs. Wright, with the often bemused but always supportive Mr. Wright in the background, had only begun to fight. She opened a tiny gallery in Pioneer Square, devoted to affordable prints by New York's finest. It proved to be where many Seattle collectors apprenticed in the acquisition game. Through a foundation set up by her father, she assembled a collection of monumental outdoor sculptures for the campus of Western Washington University, which—going on a quarter-century—is starting to look distinctly world-class.

Other members of the moneyed-Seattle set—most of them inspired, challenged, irritated into action by the Wrights' example—began seriously collecting modern art. Instead of mere tolerance or distant disapproval from their peers, a certain spirit of competition, not always entirely friendly, set in. But it's never really been a contest. No one else in the Puget Sound area has so constantly, consistently, committedly purchased and promoted contemporary art. Hardly a year passed without an opportunity to hear one or another visiting great guru of contemporary critics—all his or her expenses paid by the Wrights—hold forth on what was latest and greatest. If the museum was short of funds to hire a modern-art expert, the Wrights recruited a candidate and ponied up the salary to pay him. When a public space looked empty to them, the Wrights came up with a project to fill it.

AFTER SO MANY DECADES of uphill campaigning against ignorance and indifference, it's perhaps understandable that the Wrights have grown indifferent to the delicate politics of "process." When the city found itself the involuntary recipient of Michael Heizer's mini-Stonehenge Adjacent, Against, Upon, there was some outcry about the Wrights imposing their taste on the public. But since only a tiny percentage of the public ever visits Myrtle Edwards Park or notices Heizer's huge tripartite doodad if they do, the outcry was short-lived.

The Rauschenberg "mural" for the lobby of Benaroya Hall is a more troubling example of unsolicited patronage: Not part of the plan devised by the Seattle Symphony's own public-art committee, the million-dollar photocollage is, rumor has it, the Wrights' way of overtrumping the equally unwanted "chandeliers" by Dale Chihuly that at one point, it was feared, would be hung in the lobby at the behest of the hall's principal benefactors. As it is, we have Rauschenberg and Chihuly, and another demonstration that in art as in business and politics, private interest can be depended on to override public procedure—as long as there are enough millions behind it.

None of this need much concern visitors to the Seattle Art Museum's current show of works from the Wrights' 50 years of collecting, now at last formally and publicly declared to be among the museum's future holdings. Many of these objects, and the ones at least temporarily open to public view at the new private showcase at 407 Dexter North, have formed the background for the Wrights' day-to-day lives for decades. Sometime in the new millennium, they will begin to play something of the same role in ours. May we come to love them as much as they have been loved by their collectors.

 
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