Wright, Virginia (1929-2020)

  • By Traci Timmons
  • Posted 6/09/2023
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22741
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Virginia Wright was an iconic figure in Seattle's art community – a collector, educator, gallerist, curator, fundraiser, supporter, and founder of the Virginia Wright Fund, which championed art in public places. Along with her husband Bagley Wright, she built a renowned collection of modern and contemporary art and then donated much of it for permanent display at the Seattle Art Museum, the Henry Art Gallery, and the Whatcom Museum of History and Art. When she died in 2020 at age 91, Wright was hailed as, "the Seattle icon [who] changed the cultural landscape of the Pacific Northwest" (Kiley).

Seattle, Vancouver, New York

Virginia "Jinny" Prentice Bloedel Wright was born in 1929 in Seattle to Prentice Bloedel (1900-1996) and Virginia Merrill Bloedel (1902-1989). Wright’s grandfathers, R. D. (Richard Dwight) Merrill (1869-1964) and J. H. (Julius Harold) Bloedel (1864-1957), were successful businessmen in the Northwest timber industry, and Wright’s father followed suit. Wright spent much of her childhood in Vancouver, British Columbia, where her father oversaw the family’s Canadian timber holdings. The family returned to Seattle in 1950.

Wright was introduced to art history through books and took drawing classes as a girl. While attending The Masters School, a boarding school just north of New York City, she became further engaged with art through studio classes and museum excursions. After graduating from high school, Wright returned to Vancouver and briefly attended the University of British Columbia before making her way back to New York to attend Barnard College. She was interested in learning more about art history, and at Barnard she majored in the subject, taking classes with art scholars who would inspire a passion that lasted the rest of her life.

After completing college in 1951, Wright stayed in New York and worked at the Sidney Janis Gallery. She began purchasing paintings from New York galleries — works by Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), Philip Guston (1913-1980), Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Mark Rothko (1903-1970), and Northwest artists Mark Tobey (1890-1976) and Morris Graves (1910-2001). These works were hardly known outside of a few well-connected people and were affordable, with many being only a few hundred dollars.

During this time, she began dating journalist Charles Bagley Wright (1924-2011), known as "Bagley." They were married on August 29, 1953, at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle. They lived in New York from the beginning of their marriage and were recognized as collectors. They enjoyed going to galleries and museums and buying art together, although it was Virginia who ultimately determined the purchases.

Building the Collection

The Wrights started a family with twins Merrill and Charles in 1954. In 1955, they moved to Seattle, bought a home in Madison Valley, and continued to build their collection. Initially, they bought works by Northwest artists – Tobey, Graves, and William Ivey (1919-1992). The center of the contemporary art world, however, remained in New York, and Wright understood it was necessary to return there periodically to build the collection. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, she attended New York gallery shows and purchased works by Franz Kline (1910-1962), Arshille Gorky (ca. 1904-1948), Jasper Johns (b. 1930), and Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008). The Wrights had now acquired more paintings than could fit in their home and began considering how their purchases might complement the contemporary art holdings of local arts institution the Seattle Art Museum (SAM).

In 1957, Wright began a two-year docent training program at SAM and founded and became the president of SAM’s Creative Arts Council, a group of young collectors. In 1959, she completed her docent training and began giving tours. That same year, the Wrights made their first donations to SAM – works by William Ward Corley (1920-1962) and Morris Graves. In 1960, Wright joined the SAM Board of Trustees. Richard Fuller (1897-1976), the venerable founder and director of SAM, wasn’t interested in contemporary art beyond that made in the Pacific Northwest. Wright wanted to change that and help SAM develop a truly great contemporary art collection. Her leadership and tenacity would pay off.

When the World’s Fair came to Seattle in 1962, it introduced internationally recognized modern and contemporary art to a new audience. Both Wrights were involved with the Fair – Bagley was behind the Space Needle while Virginia helped to bolster the art section. The Fair featured an exhibition of art made in the previous decade. Many artists in the exhibition were collected by the Wrights, and they lent several works to the exhibit. Local art critics didn’t understand this new work and Wright, seen as a local contemporary art expert, was asked by a Seattle Times art critic how Seattleites could better understand it. Wright explained that hearing from the artists themselves was essential, "after I'd listened to [the artists] for a while ... I began to see things in a new light. I began to see how exciting their innovations were" (Todd, "Collectors Defend U.S. Show").

In 1964, Wright founded SAM’s Contemporary Arts Council (CAC), capitalizing on the contemporary art buzz of the Fair. The group consisted of 25 members who planned lectures and organized exhibitions. Wright recalled "We went to Fuller and said, 'If we raise the money each year, can we determine what contemporary art shows will come to Seattle?' and, amazingly, he said yes" (Riedel and Wright, Oral History Interview). The group secured funds through the Bloedel Foundation for operating expenses and utilized the SAM Pavilion, formerly the Fair’s British Pavilion, reclaimed as SAM exhibition space in 1963, for its exhibitions. In its first three years, the CAC held five exhibitions and sponsored 12 well-attended lectures. Wright used her connections to bring important exhibitions like "The Responsive Eye" in 1965, the first exhibition of Optical Art to be seen in the Pacific Northwest, and the groundbreaking exhibition, "557,087," in 1969, which was one of the first exhibitions of post-minimal and conceptual art in the country. The CAC existed until 1975, when SAM hired its first Curator of Modern Art, signaling the museum’s commitment to contemporary art, largely driven by Wright’s efforts.

During this time, the Wright's collection was becoming more experimental. Wright collected Pop Art, New Realism, Assemblage, Hard Edge, and more eccentric pieces. In 1963, she joined the Museum of Modern Art’s International Council. Her exposure to contemporary art grew and she sought the advice of experts to help shape her collection – gallerists André Emmerich (1924-2007) and Richard Bellamy (1927-1998), and art critic Clement Greenberg (1909-1994). These advisors exposed her to Pop Art, Minimalism, and Color Field paintings. The Color Field painters became favorites – Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), Morris Louis (1912-1962), Kenneth Noland (1924-2010), and Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015).

Bellamy also introduced her to the work of sculptors George Segal (1924-2000), Robert Morris (1931-2018), and Mark di Suvero (b. 1933). Wright formed a friendship with di Suvero and commissioned him to create a piece that her four children–Charles, Merrill, Robin, and Prentice – could play on. The piece, Bunyon’s Chess (1965), was a 22-foot-high structure of cedar logs and aluminum frame construction. Originally, it had an interactive swing element, but di Suvero eventually asked the Wrights to take that part down for fear it was too dangerous.

The Wrights began exhibiting their collection in the 1960s. In 1964, the Fine Arts Gallery of the University of British Columbia and the Portland Art Museum hosted exhibitions of the Wright Collection. In 1966, the Wrights lent works to the Festival of the Arts exhibition at the Washington State Capitol Museum in Olympia. In 1969, SAM hosted its first exhibition of the collection, "The Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection: Artists of the Sixties." In 1970, their collection was shown in Bellingham at Western Washington State College (now University). The exhibition in Bellingham would mark the beginning of a long relationship between Wright and the university.

In 1967, the Wrights and Fullers established an association that provided financial support to the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington. Later they would provide donations of art to the Henry as well. They sponsored events at Seattle’s Cornish School (now Cornish College of the Arts), including a weeks-long workshop with dance and music pioneers Merce Cunningham (1919-2009) and John Cage (1912-1992). With Bagley’s interest in theatre – the Seattle Repertory Theatre and, later, On the Boards – there were few cultural institutions in Seattle that weren’t impacted by the couple.

Wright wanted to explore the selling side of art and, in 1969 she became a gallerist. Recognizing the explosion of printmaking happening in America, she launched the Current Editions gallery in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. Dedicated to this more affordable medium, the bulk of her inventory came from high-end reproduction workshops that worked with many of the artists in Wright’s collection. She showed numerous exhibitions and put prints of the artists she loved into the hands of Seattleites. Wright ran the gallery until 1974.

The Virginia Wright Fund

In October 1969, Wright established the Virginia Wright Fund with a $1 million gift provided by her father. Its mission was to fund works of art for public places in Washington. It was the heyday of public art, and she used this opportunity to bring works to civic collections, museums, and universities. She ran it with a board and a small group of advisors. In 1973, Wright resigned from the SAM Board and devoted more time to the Fund. The Fund’s first purchase was Tobey’s Parnassus (1963). Other notable works included Newman’s Broken Obelisk (1967) for the UW campus, Alexander Liberman’s (1912-1999) Olympic Iliad (1984) for the Seattle Center, di Suvero’s Shubert Sonata (1992) for Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, and Day/Night (1992) by Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds (b. 1954) for Seattle’s civic art collection. The Fund endured for 30 years, gifting more than 270 works.

One of the most notable impacts of the Virginia Wright Fund was the development of Western Washington University’s outdoor sculpture collection, now considered one of the top 10 university sculpture collections in the country. By the late 1960s, the university was already a hotbed for artistic expression, and through the Fund, works by di Suvero, Anthony Caro (1924-2013), Nancy Holt (1938-2014), Robert Maki (b. 1938), Donald Judd (1928-1994), Bruce Nauman (b. 1941) and Richard Serra (b. 1939) were added.

In June 1971, Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935) formed the Seattle Arts Commission (SAC), which oversaw Seattle’s civic art program and shepherded a "1% for Art" ordinance through the city government. Wright was a founding member of the group and spearheaded the Art in Public Places Committee. Her involvement led to the City's first acquisition of an ordinance-funded monumental work by an internationally recognized sculptor – Moses (1975) by Tony Smith (1912-1980), for the Seattle Center. When the 1% funds were unable to fully cover the cost, the Virginia Wright Fund, along with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and others stepped in. Wright was instrumental in other 1% projects; she and her fund were involved with the selection, purchase, and installation of Michael Heizer’s (b. 1944) Adjacent, Against, Upon (1976) on the Seattle waterfront. She championed other large public works and sat on the committee that selected Oregon sculptor Lee Kelly’s (1932-2022) Untitled Cor-Ten Steel Sculpture (1976) for Louisa Boren Lookout on Seattle’s Capitol Hill.

Supporting Northwest Artists

Wright promoted and supported local artists in other ways, too. In the summer of 1970, the Wrights lent 25 paintings and sculptures by nine Northwest artists to the Washington State Capitol Museum in Olympia – works by Tobey, Ivey, Kenneth Callahan (1905-1986), William Cumming (1917-2010), Jan Evans (b. 1927), Paul Horiuchi (1906-1999), Lee Kelly, Jack Shadbolt (1909-1998), Charles Smith (1922-2009), and Margaret Tomkins (1916-2002). After being displayed in the capital, these works and others from the Wrights’ Northwest holdings were donated to the Whatcom Museum of History and Art in Bellingham. The Wrights increased their donations of work to the Whatcom Museum in 1976 with an additional gift of 29 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper.

In the early 1980s, Wright established a committee to help Northwest artists gain opportunities to work and exhibit in New York through a relationship with Project Studios One in Long Island City. She raised $10,000 a year to support travel, studio space, and resources for the artists to create solo exhibitions at New York galleries. It was important to Wright that local artists had opportunities to meet other artists, dealers, and art patrons in New York.

Wright continued to promote the exhibition of Northwest artists at home, too. She worked with SAM to organize a retrospective exhibition of Ivey’s paintings in 1975. In 1981, she was part of the committee that secured funding for Alden Mason’s (1919-2013) controversial murals for the Washington State Capitol building.

She also encouraged the collection and exhibition of nationally important modern and contemporary art in Washington when, in 1975, she established the Washington Art Consortium (WAC). She formed a collection of works on paper by American artists working after 1945 that could be shared by several venues throughout the state. A $100,000 endowment was established, funded jointly by the NEA and the Virginia Wright Fund. Five Washington institutions comprised the original consortium: the Cheney Cowles Memorial State Museum (Spokane), the Washington State University Museum of Art (Pullman), the Tacoma Art Museum, the Western Gallery at Western Washington State College, and the State Capitol Museum. The consortium was run by a board of directors with a mission to provide the state’s citizens access to the highest standards of contemporary American art. Exhibits were rotated among the consortium institutions and other museums in the state. Works were also added to the collection through personal donations, including those from the Wrights themselves.

By 1977, the WAC collection included 98 works by 52 artists, representing the major art movements of the mid-twentieth century. In 1978, 133 photographic works by 31 photographers were added, jointly funded by the NEA and the Wright Fund. In the 1980s, three additional institutions joined – the Whatcom Museum of History and Art, the Henry Art Gallery, and SAM. The consortium ran for 40 years, presenting more than 130 exhibitions and programs. In February 2017, the WAC was disbanded, and the collection and its endowment assets were distributed among six consortium institutions, along with the Museum of Northwest Art (La Conner) and the Museum of Glass (Tacoma). The final collection included 411 works by 175 artists, created between 1945 and the late-twentieth century.

Expanding SAM

The Wright Collection continued to garner national attention and so did Wright’s reputation as an art expert. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Wright Collection was shown at the Fine Arts Museum at WSU, the Tacoma Art Museum, and the Denver Art Museum. Wright was on the boards of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the American Federation of Arts, and the National Museum of American Art (now the Smithsonian Museum of American Art), and she consulted for corporate art collections, like the Seafirst National Bank. At SAM, she established the Collectors’ Forum, a private group that supported modern and contemporary art, and she chaired the museum’s Committee on Collections, the group that provided oversight for acquisitions.

In 1982, Wright was re-elected to the SAM Board of Trustees. Both she and Bagley, who had taken over the helm of the museum in the late 1970s after Richard Fuller’s death, recognized the need for an expanded museum space if modern and contemporary art, as well as other collecting areas, were to be a thriving, permanent part of the institution. In 1986, Wright became president of the board and serious work toward a museum site in downtown Seattle began. She oversaw the hiring of new SAM director Jay Gates (b. 1945) and the selection of the new building’s architect, Robert Venturi (1925-2018).

In 1991, the new downtown Seattle Art Museum building opened with several new galleries dedicated to modern and contemporary art. Wright’s leadership insured the success of SAM’s biggest project since 1933 and gifts from the Wright Collection raised the profile of SAM’s modern and contemporary art collection. That same year, the SAC realized "In Public: Seattle 1991," an artist-initiated program that marked SAM’s downtown opening and celebrated Seattle’s history of commissioning public art. The Virginia Wright Fund contributed nearly half of the program’s funding, which brought together 38 artists from all over the world to create temporary and permanent works throughout the city, including Jonathan Borofsky’s (b. 1942) Hammering Man, a 48-foot-high steel silhouette of a working man methodically hammering up and down, sited in front of the new museum at 1st Avenue and University Street. The work was funded by 1% for Art funds and the Virginia Wright Fund.

In 1992, Wright was invited to be an NEA panelist to assess applicants for sculpture fellowships. She had been involved with the NEA previously, but this panel experience was very different. In the early 1990s, the NEA experienced backlash over its sponsorship of exhibitions containing what some saw as offensive subject matter. Wright had always felt the panel process was a democratic, fair way of making selections, and knew that decisions stemmed from a dialogue between professional, knowledgeable people. The process, however, was undermined when prior to completing their deliberations, the panelists learned that the head of the NEA had vetoed other panel decisions that included internationally recognized, mainstream artists due to subject matter and lack of appeal to a wide audience. Wright believed that contemporary art never appealed to a wide audience, that it took risks and stretched boundaries, and was concerned that the NEA was censoring artists. She and her six panelists ceased deliberations in protest. The idea that someone could override panel decisions, because art lacked wide appeal, crossed a line. The protest raised eyebrows and Wright responded with an Op-Ed in the Washington Post. Wright returned to Seattle and faced her own backlash from local politicians and pundits. However, many Washingtonians supported her stance.

Undeterred by the negative reaction, she continued working on behalf of the arts in Seattle. In the 1990s, she became involved with Seattle’s inaugural art fair. She raised her voice in The Seattle Times in support of a new venue for the Seattle Symphony, and, ultimately, she and Bagley put significant financial resources toward the construction of Benaroya Hall. The Wrights hosted events at their home-built-for-art in Seattle’s Highlands (where they now lived) to benefit the Seattle Opera, where Virginia was a board member. They were also involved with Wright’s parents’ establishment of the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island.

The Wrights continued to support SAM with a focus on sustaining operating costs. A group of collectors, headed by Wright, established the Patterson Sims Fellowship and Curatorial Travel Fund in honor of SAM Deputy Director Patterson Sims, who had been a champion for contemporary art. Money from the fund was used to provide sustained support for curatorial work, travel, and exhibitions. The Wrights were also part of a group that provided millions of dollars toward SAM’s general endowment fund.

By the 1990s, Wright had been collecting for four decades and the collection kept pace with the art of the day. The Wrights purchased new works by John Chamberlain (1927-2011), Malcolm Morley (1931-1918), John Baldessari (1931-2020), Jeff Koons (b. 1955), and Cindy Sherman (b. 1954). The Wrights began collecting New Wave and Neo-Expressionist artists: Julian Schnabel (b. 1951), Eric Fischl (b. 1948), David Salle (b. 1952), Susan Rothenberg (1945-2020), and Robert Longo (b. 1953). German artists were brought into the collection: Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945), Gerhard Richter (b. 1932), and Katharina Fritsch (b. 1956). These new works were included in SAM’s 1999 exhibition, "The Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection," an exhibition described as "an invigorating, occasionally stomach-fluttering roller-coaster ride through the history of American art since the mid-century" (Updike, "An Eye on the Future").

Her Own Exhibition Space

Wright enjoyed the curatorial work she had done during the Current Editions gallery years, and, in 1999, in conjunction with the Wright Collection exhibition at SAM, she opened her own exhibition space, The Wright Exhibition Space, off Dexter Avenue in Seattle. She exhibited rotating exhibitions of the Wright Collection, but also curated exhibitions that brought in other works. She even encouraged her children, who had been acting as her ad hoc art advisors, to create exhibits in the space. The space ran for 15 years, closing in 2014.

For SAM, the Wrights had been in numerous leadership positions, provided financial support, continuously donated works from their collection, and, through the Virginia Wright Fund, had assisted the museum in purchasing a great number of works in many collecting areas. Virginia Wright was a significant force in getting the Seattle Art Museum building downtown constructed, establishing a new Seattle Asian Art Museum, and leading SAM’s endowment campaign. In 1999, Wright helped SAM take another leap forward. SAM entered a partnership with the Trust for Public Land to purchase a nine-acre parcel on the Seattle Waterfront with hopes of establishing a sculpture park. Wright committed her time and resources, joining the committee to develop what would become the Olympic Sculpture Park, giving ample time, money, and art from her collection: works by di Suvero, Roxy Paine (b. 1966), Tony Smith, Newman, and Caro. The park opened in January 2007 to international critical acclaim.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, SAM looked to further expand its downtown museum. The Virginia Wright Fund gave more than $5 million toward the expansion. In May 2007, the redesigned museum opened with more than 100,000 square feet of new display space, designed by Portland-based Allied Works Architecture. And, in 2008, SAM celebrated its 75th anniversary. In honor of this occasion, SAM announced nearly 1,000 gifts of art valued at more than a billion dollars. The Wrights donated works by Koons, Sherman, Kiefer, Fritsch, and Ellsworth Kelly. SAM was considered a world-class museum, owing much of that to Virginia Wright.

Leaving a Legacy

The Wrights continued to support the artistic endeavors at WWU into the twenty-first century. In 2005, they announced a promised gift of seven sculptures to the WWU art collection. Collection curator Sarah Clark-Langager said the Wright gift gave them a unique "opportunity to stop and think [about] what we are doing with the collection as a whole" (Farr, "Beautiful Burden"). The Wrights assisted the university with securing a $100,000 Kreielsheimer Foundation Endowment grant to care for the sculpture collection. In 2012, Wright gave the university $250,000 to create two new galleries and to renovate another.

In 2014, Wright was 85 years old. Bagley Wright had died in 2011. She had closed the Wright Exhibition Space. She assessed her legacy and began donating the remainder of her art collection. The Wrights had previously given a suite of lithographic prints by Mungo Thomson (b. 1969) to the Henry Art Gallery in 2009, and now she gave an additional 21 photographs – an area of specialty for the Henry. By 2014, the Wrights had gifted or been part of groups that gifted more than 100 artworks to SAM. That same year, Wright gave another 85 works by mid- to late-twentieth century artists. The SAM donation made headlines across the nation. Apollo: The International Art Magazine shortlisted the collection for its 2014 "Acquisition of the Year." SAM celebrated this gift in the long-term exhibition, "Big Picture: Art After 1945," which ran from 2016 to 2021.

Until the end of her life, Wright continued to support the arts. SAM continued to expand and change and, at the end of the 2010s, the museum renovated and modestly expanded the Seattle Asian Art Museum. The Virginia and Bagley Wright Foundation supported this effort at its top tier, giving more than $1 million. Between 2015 and 2019 promised gifts from the Wrights became fully donated to SAM, and other outright gifts and works funded by Wright were also acquired.

Virginia Wright died from Hodgkin lymphoma on February 18, 2020, at the age of 91. She was memorialized as "the Seattle icon [who] changed the cultural landscape of the Pacific Northwest" (Kiley, Seattle Times) and "[the woman who] built one of country’s most important collections of postwar and contemporary art and helped transform Seattle’s art scene" (Durón, Artnews). University of Washington Magazine columnist Quinn Russell Brown noted, "Thanks to [the Wrights’] generosity and vision, [their collection] will stay in Seattle – and at the UW – for the long haul ... it seems as if her authentic knowledge of the field informed how she collected and how she conceived of that collection living on past her own enjoyment of it" (Brown). Upon Wright’s death, 19 photographs from the Wright Collection were donated to the Henry Art Gallery and 40 promised gifts became part of SAM’s permanent collection. SAM honored Wright’s gift with the exhibition, "City of Tomorrow: Jinny Wright and the Art that Shaped a New Seattle," which ran from October 2020 through January 2021.

Wright’s son, Charles, explained, "art was an intense, private passion for her – the arts and collecting art ... The great thing is she found a way to channel that passion for the greater benefit of the community in Seattle" (Kiley, "Virginia Wright, Art Collector ..."). Her gifts live on in Seattle at the UW campus, the Henry Art Gallery, the city’s civic art collection, and the Seattle Art Museum, but they also live on elsewhere – in a renowned sculpture collection in Bellingham, in gifts of art and support to museums from Olympia to Spokane, and in a passion for modern and contemporary art that inspired a great many Washingtonians.


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