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Bowen, Betty (1918-1977)

HistoryLink.org Essay 662 : Printer-Friendly Format

Betty Bowen was assistant director of the Seattle Art Museum, a civic activist on behalf of the arts and historic preservation, and an indefatigable promoter of Seattle artists. Two days before her death at age 58, Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935) named her First Citizen of Seattle and proclaimed Valentine’s Day in her honor.

Girlhood in Kent

Betty Cornelius was born in Kent, Washington, to a family that traces its roots to Western Washington’s early settlers. After earning an English degree from the University of Washington, she worked briefly as reporter for The Seattle Times, then as women’s editor for the Seattle Star. She married Captain John Bowen, captain of an AT&T ship that laid undersea cables.

During the 1950s, Bowen divided her time between volunteering and public relations work. Dr. Richard Fuller, founder of the Seattle Art Museum, hired her as publicist, then promoted her to assistant director. Bowen served as assistant director of the art museum until Fuller retired in 1973.

She Was There For Them

Her greatest legacy was her personal commitment to local artists. Often called “the den mother of the city’s arts,” she befriended the painters Mark Tobey (1890-1976), Morris Graves (1910-2001), and other local artists of their generation.

In the 1960s, she extended her friendship to a younger group, including Charlie Kraft and writer Tom Robbins (b. 1936). When she recognized talent, she did what she could to nurture it, sometimes dropping by studios or homes of cash-strapped artists to give them baskets of food or money.

A Friend Who Made Things Happen

An appreciative Bill Cumming (1917-2010) wrote: "She was a friend who made things happen, and I would be hard-pressed to even guess at how many people heard of my work initially from her and were brought around to meet me and to buy something out of the studio and to sit and talk and drink a little something and share a few kind and not-so-kind words" (Cumming, 208).

Betty Bowen played an active part in civic affairs, helping organize support for the arts and for historic preservation. She was an original member of the Seattle Arts Commission, a founding member of the Pacific Northwest Arts and Crafts Center, and a founding member and chair of the Allied Arts Historic Preservation Committee. She was one of the organizers of the successful effort to preserve the Pike Place Market as a designated historic district, and served on the board of Friends of the Market.

As a member of non-arts organizations, Betty spread her enthusiasm and appreciation for the arts to a broader spectrum of the community. She served as president of the McMillan Guild of Children’s Orthopedic Hospital. A member of the Audubon Society, she joined campaigns for bird sanctuaries and other programs to conserve the region’s natural environment.

Betty Bowen's Legacy

In 1977 at age 58, Bowen died of a brain tumor. Her good friend the architect Victor Steinbrueck (1911-1985) organized the creation of a small park with a spectacular vista as an outdoor memorial to her. Betty Bowen Viewpoint is located at 7th Avenue W and W Highland Drive on Queen Anne Hill. It includes sculpture by leading Northwest artists.

The Seattle Art Museum created a fund in her honor with the purpose of supporting Northwest art. Donations poured in, and the museum established the annual Betty Bowen Awards. The awards promote the discovery of unrecognized artists from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho who create singular works of art and who show great promise. A committee made up of Bowen’s friends, professional artists, art collectors, and philanthropists administers the awards, which include a $10,000 prize and two Special Recognition Awards of $1,500 each.

Mildred Tanner Andrews, Woman’s Place: A Guide to Seattle and King County History (Seattle: Gemil Press, 1994), 151-52; William Cumming, Sketchbook: A Memoir of the 1930s and the Northwest School (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984), 207-12; “Seattle Shrugs: The Luckiest of Cats Finds Cat Person,” The Seattle Times Magazine, June 24, 1979, pp. 4-5; Robin Updike, “Painter of Simple Houses Wins Betty Bowen Award,” Ibid., October 4, 1998, sec. M, p. 9.

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Thelma Lehman (l.) and Betty Bowen, 1950s
Courtesy Out of the Cultural Dustbin

Betty Bowen, Richard Fuller, Dorothy Malone, Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, 1968
Photo by Mary Randlett, Courtesy Seattle Municipal Arts Commission

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