Bill True looks slightly stricken when it is pointed out that Western Bridge, the nonprofit gallery he and his wife, Ruth True, are opening in the Georgetown neighborhood, will be Seattle's third-largest space to see visual art, behind only the Seattle Art Museum and the Henry Art Gallery. "There's the Frye," Eric Fredericksen offers quickly. Fredericksen recently left a successful magazine-writing career in New York to be the Western Bridge gallery's director. OK, then, the fourth-largest. "Well, the Wright Exhibition Space is pretty big, too," says Bill.
It's typical of the Trues' low-key approach that they would not want their new gallery to be seen as some outsized, hubristic intruder into the Seattle art world. Genial and famously approachable, the couple have collected art seriously for about 10 years and are known for sizable donations to the Seattle Art Museum and the Henry Art Gallery (in the form of both cash and artwork). They are particularly close to the Henry, which is showing a selection of pieces from the Trues' collection in honor of the gallery's opening.
Western Bridge is in a renovated warehouse behind the headquarters of Gull Enterprises, a petroleum retailer and property development firm that has been in the True family for four generations and which Bill runs with his brother, Doug. The gallery building, which housed a construction company also called Western Bridge (found objects and found names are a big deal in the art world), has been completely redesigned by local artist and furniture designer Roy McMakin. (McMakin also recently had a show at the Henry that offered a covert preview of Western Bridge in the form of some unlabeled computer images.) Initially showcasing a selection of the Trues' extensive holdings in contemporary art—which tend toward photography and video and include both local and international artists—the gallery will eventually commission new, site-specific work and invite artists to take up residence in the roomy second-floor apartment. All that will come later, though. "We just have to get the place open first," says Ruth.
The gallery is a direct outgrowth of the Trues' collection—many of their video pieces require bigger screens than could fit in their house—but also the distinctly domestic experience they bring to art. The Trues live in an upscale but unostentatious 1927 Madison Park house where visitors are apt to encounter the kind of art you would ordinarily see only at the Whitney Biennial—a Tony Oursler projection piece murmuring grumpily to itself under the staircase, for instance—mixed with the everyday detritus of family life. (Both previously married, they have five children between them.) It is a home that can beguile even those who find most contemporary art a closed loop of mental wankery with nothing to offer anyone outside its rarefied circle (not that I know anyone like that). And it is impossible to resist the Trues' well-known hospitality. "They treat everyone like a member of the family," says SAM Deputy Director Lisa Corrin.
McMakin makes the domestic connection with a broad gesture: a main entrance shaped unmistakably like a double-hung house window. The giant window is a good fit with eccentric, oversized Georgetown and seems destined to take its place with other neighborhood icons, like the giant cowboy hat and boots and the train-car dining rooms of Andy's Diner, right across the street. The designer's sly touches, once you get past the enormous window, reward but do not demand careful attention. "It was a challenge to make it a compelling piece of architecture and at the same time make it recede back in the right way for art to be in there," says McMakin. "My aesthetic has a good cheer about it, but with an edge that is not totally overt. [The Trues] are similar in that they collect not the cuddliest art in the world, but they are very generous and they love to entertain. The space was definitely a response to knowing them."
Some of the noncuddly art on view in Western Bridge's opening show, "Possessed," includes New York–based Zoe Leonard's army of used and abused dolls, standing in solemn rows, as well as unsettling video pieces by English artist Sam Taylor-Wood and Iranian Shirin Neshat. Fredericksen hopes that people will take away from these works something of the Trues' sensibility, comparing Western Bridge to home galleries, like the Barnes in Philadelphia, that are strongly imprinted with the owners' personalities. "Usually there's a house that someone lives in for decades and then dies, and then the public can come see the art. Well, here everyone can see the art right now, and no one has to die!"
Western Bridge, 3412 Fourth Ave. S., will hold its public opening from 6 to 8 p.m. Thurs., May 27, and thereafter will be open noon–6 p.m. Thurs.–Sat. 206-838-7444.