Fuller, Dr. Richard Eugene (1897-1976)

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 1/02/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7190
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Richard Eugene Fuller founded the Seattle Art Museum, along with his mother, Margaret MacTavish Fuller.  Richard Fuller served as the museum’s president and main benefactor from 1933 until his retirement in 1973, after which he held the title Director Emeritus until his death.  Many other Seattle cultural organizations were also beneficiaries of Fuller’s generosity, as were the Northwest artists whose work Fuller unfailingly purchased and whose careers he nurtured.  The Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Richard Fuller First Citizen of 1939.  He was the first recipient of the prestigious award.

Family Inheritance

Richard Fuller was born on June 1, 1897, in New York City.  His father, Eugene Fuller (1858-1930), was a respected urological surgeon and medical professor.   As a young woman his mother, Margaret E. MacTavish Fuller (1860-1953), accompanied her father on a trip around the world.  This experience gave her a lifelong yearning for travel and a taste for Asian antiquities. 

Eugene Fuller met Margaret MacTavish as one of her father’s attending physicians during what proved to be his final illness.  They married in 1890 and had four children: Dorothy, who died in infancy, Duncan, Eugenia, and Richard.  Richard Fuller’s ancestors included Reverend Timothy Fuller, who voted against the Constitution at the Massachusetts convention because the document recognized slavery, and pioneer feminist Margaret Fuller.  The philosopher/inventor/architect Buckminster Fuller was a second cousin.

World travel was a Fuller family priority.  By the time Richard was a teenager they had been abroad five times during summer vacations.  They spent alternate summers in Victoria, British Columbia, with Margaret Fuller’s mother. 

Richard Fuller graduated from the Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, in 1915.  He matriculated at Yale but withdrew in early 1917 to volunteer as an ambulance driver in France during World War I.  The United States had not yet entered the war and voluntary ambulance work was one way concerned young Americans could lend aid. 

Fuller’s sister Eugenia went to France as a Red Cross volunteer, and their parents went to Paris as well.   Dr. Fuller tried to volunteer his services at a Paris hospital but was unable to do so.  He and Margaret Fuller returned to America.  During this period, Duncan Fuller was training for a medical career.  After America entered the war on April 2, 1917, Richard Fuller served as a First Lieutenant with the Army Reserve in the Artillery.

In 1919 the Fuller family took a yearlong trip to Asia, sailing from Vancouver, B.C. to Yokohama on the Impress of Russia.  Margaret and Richard, in particular, began collecting the jades and other Asian antiquities that would one day form the basis of the Seattle Art Museum’s permanent collection. 

While in Nikko, Japan, Richard was stricken with acute appendicitis.  “My brother Duncan took out my appendix," Dr. Fuller said, "in the hospital of a Japanese copper mine … his first operation outside a regular hospital. … My father assisted” (The Seattle Times, May 28, 1972).  The operation saved Richard Fuller’s life.

To Seattle and Beyond

Upon the family’s return from Asia, Dr. Duncan Fuller moved to Seattle and established a surgery practice.  Richard Fuller returned to Yale, graduating in 1921 with a bachelor's degree. Along with his parents and sister Eugenia he followed his brother to Seattle in 1923.  During the early 1920s, the Fuller family traveled widely: to South America, Spain, Portugal, and France, and later to Egypt and Palestine. 

In 1924, Dr. Duncan Fuller died in Seattle of pneumonia, “which he had contracted from carrying a young patient in his arms and driving him to the hospital” (Fuller, A Gift to the City, 20).  In 1928 Eugenia Fuller married John C. Atwood Jr. and moved to Philadelphia.  She would go on to become a major (and lifelong) contributor to the Seattle Art Museum.

Geology and Art

Richard Fuller earned a second bachelor's degree (in geology) from the University of Washington in 1924, followed by a master's degree in 1926 and a Ph.D. 1930.

In 1928 Richard Fuller joined the board of directors of the Seattle Fine Arts Society.  The Society was founded in 1908 and had by 1928 amassed a small permanent collection.  The Seattle Fine Arts Society had also established a tradition of community arts education, including touring exhibitions that traveled throughout the state, free local art exhibitions, encouragement to local artists, and a lecture series.  The Society’s permanent collection moved many times through the years. 

When Fuller joined the board, the collection was housed in The Little Gallery.  The Little Gallery was a salon in the 1117 Harvard Avenue home of Horace C. Henry (1844-1928).  It had formerly housed Henry’s private art collection.  In 1927 Henry donated this collection to the University of Washington and built the Henry Gallery on the University campus to house it.  He then invited the Seattle Fine Arts Society to use The Little Gallery.  Upon Henry’s death in 1928, the Society expanded into the remainder of the house.

In 1930 Eugene Fuller died, leaving Margaret a considerable estate. Also in 1930, Richard Fuller was elected president of the Seattle Fine Arts Society board.

An Art Museum for Seattle

Fuller hired Lawrence Vail Coleman, Director of the American Association of Museums, to study the need for a permanent museum to house the Seattle Fine Arts Society collection.  Coleman’s answer was affirmative.  Fuller told the board, “Provided the City of Seattle deems it desirable to have the much needed civic art museum constructed on the site of the pergola in Volunteer Park, we are willing to contribute jointly the sum of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars to the project … in the development of a plan of cooperation between the institution and the city along the lines already established by precedents such as that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the City of New York” (Calhoun, 98).

The City accepted immediately.  Carl Gould (1873-1939), a former Seattle Fine Arts Society president and founder of the University of Washington School of Architecture, was hired to design the building.  Gould had hired Eugenia Fuller to lecture on architecture at the University of Washington in 1926, and it was under his auspices that Richard Fuller had joined the Seattle Arts Society board.

An architectural model of the forthcoming museum was exhibited at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair -- thus putting the world beyond Seattle’s isolated corner on notice that great plans were afoot.  “The model, 22 by 46 inches in size, will give concrete proof to the existence in the Pacific Northwest of a public recognizing the importance of art.  The East has for too long looked at this section of the United States as a lumber and fishing center, inhabited for the most part by people who balance peas on their knives and fight Indians” (Town Crier, May 3, 1933).

On June 29, 1933, Richard Fuller and his mother Margaret Fuller officially presented the completed building to the city. They also created an endowment to pay the museum’s operating expenses.

Art and Artists

The initial collection of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) consisted of the Fullers’ Asian art and the Seattle Fine Arts Society’s small collection of American paintings and sculpture.  From the museum’s inception, Fuller planned to invite one local artist to exhibit each month.

Fuller was Seattle Art Museum’s founding director and he served as president for 40 years.  For this he took no salary.  He continued to build the Seattle Art Museum’s collection at his expense and erase budget deficits out of his own pocket.

Painter Kenneth Callahan (1905-1986) was the museum’s assistant director of publicity, and later a curator.  Over the years Fuller employed many artists to hang paintings for exhibitions and do other odd jobs around the museum.  The artists thus employed were grateful for the chance to earn these small sums, which sometimes made the difference between painting on a full stomach or an empty one.

Fuller was a crucial early patron for many local artists such as Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves (1911-2001), Helmi Juvonen (1903-1985), William Cumming (b.1917), and Mark Tobey (1890-1976).  Aspiring artists of every stripe made the pilgrimage to his office in the basement of the museum.   During the 1930s Fuller gave Mark Tobey “a monthly stipend which he repaid many times in paintings” (Fuller, A Gift To The City, 33). Arts patron Betty Bowen wrote, “Dr. Fuller’s encouragement and patronage of Northwest artists was crucial to many of their lives, particularly in early years when few galleries and collectors existed.  This resulted in the building of perhaps the largest regional collection in the country” (Betty Bowen).  He purchased their work for SAM’s permanent collection.  As artist William Cumming put it, “Few artists ever went away empty handed from his office” (Sketchbook, p. 186).

Fuller as Geologist

Beginning in 1926, Fuller taught part-time in the geology department of the University of Washington.  He was promoted to research professor of geology in 1940.  His specialty was petrogenesis (the origin of rocks).  He assisted the National Research Council and studied the Mexican volcano Paricutin. 

Fuller often took promising University of Washington geology students along on his field trips at his own expense.  Many of these mentored students went on to achieve prominence within the field.  “His expertise was immense, but he had more than expertise.  To him the worlds of the past were real with an intensity which he could not accord the present … he was really much more than some conventional figure” (Cumming, 189).

Seattle's First "First Citizen"

The Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Richard Fuller First Citizen of 1939. He was the first recipient of the award.  The Association went on to award it annually.  Fuller was a fitting first recipient -- the mantle of leadership, generosity, and public service he spread across Seattle exemplified the outstanding civic service the award stood for.  Of all his many honors, Fuller counted the First Citizen Award, along with the 1961 Alumnus Summa Laude Dignatus awarded to him by the University of Washington, “my two major local honors” (Fuller, A Gift To The City, 47).

During World War II, from 1942 to 1943, Fuller served as a Major in the Army Specialist Corps.  He then served as the Director of the Seattle War Chest and the Seattle British War Relief effort, as well as serving on the Seattle Committee for Russian War Relief from 1943 to 1945.

In 1951 Richard Fuller married Elizabeth Morrison Emory, known as Betti. She had formerly worked in the public relations department of the Seattle Art Museum. The marriage gave Fuller a stepdaughter, Elizabeth Hansen Friday, and four grandchildren. Margaret Fuller died on November 20, 1953, at the age of 92. She left the Seattle Art Museum a substantial endowment.

A Leader in the Arts

Throughout his life Richard Fuller took a national leadership role among art museums across the country.  He was president of the both the Western Association of Art Museum Directors and the National Association of Art Directors and a member of the International Council of Museums.  At the request of President Eisenhower in 1959 he served on the prestigious committee charged with planning a national cultural center in Washington, D.C.  This cultural center was dedicated in 1971 as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Richard Fuller was the backbone of many local arts efforts.  In 1946 he founded the Seattle Foundation, a non-profit foundation charged with distributing charitable gifts within the community.  He was one of five incorporators of the Pacific Science Center Foundation.  He was a lifetime trustee of the Seattle Opera Association, the Seattle Symphony, and of PONCHO (Patrons of Northwest Civic, Cultural and Charitable Organizations). 

The list of Seattle institutions and organizations that honored Richard Fuller is lengthy, including the University of Washington, Pacific Lutheran University, the Seattle World Affairs Council, the Salvation Army, the Seattle Arts Commission, and many, many others.

In addition to his patronage of the arts and his scholarship in geology, Richard Fuller had business interests in Seattle.  During the 1930s he was president of the Barkon Tube Lighting Company.  From 1948 to 1968 he was chairman of the board of the Northwestern Glass Company.  He was a member of the National Bank of Commerce board of directors from 1949 to 1972, and of the Virginia Mason Hospital board of directors from 1968 to 1972. 

In January 1961, Richard Fuller and Mark Tobey (then living in Switzerland) were among the 155 artists, scientists, writers, and directors of cultural institutions across the nation invited to attend John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration.

Fuller’s commitment to building the Seattle Art Museum’s collection was lifelong.  Speaking to SAM members after an extended 1961 art and antiquities buying trip to Japan, Europe, and the Middle East, Fuller said, “The market is in the process of drying up … fewer and fewer fine things are available.  When one sees something unique, one must get it when it is available.  Such things as we have in our collection are not available any longer, and the time to get them was when we did … If I ever thought I was extravagant in the past, I know now that I was wise” (The Seattle Times, January 29, 1961).  Over the years Richard Fuller described collecting as both “a disease” (Puget Soundings, April 1951, 16) and “a lot of fun” (Seattlife, February 1939, 55).

In May 1968 the Fullers donated $103,116 to the Seattle Symphony Endowment Fund.  The Symphony was at the time raising $2 million to qualify for a Ford Foundation matching funds grant.  “ ‘It’s important for Seattle to meet the challenge represented by the Ford grant,’ said Fuller, ‘and I’m happy to be in a position to be able to give’” (The Seattle Times, May 31, 1968).  The Fullers’ donation was the largest contribution to the Endowment Fund to date. Fuller was also paying for a new air conditioning system and construction to the Seattle Art Museum at this time.   In December 1968 the Fullers donated $62,000 toward the Pacific Science Center’s planetarium fund. 

Richard Fuller belonged to the Yale Club in New York City and to the Rainier, Rotary, Tennis, Broadmoor, and University clubs in Seattle.

In 1973 at the age of 75 Richard Fuller retired as the Director of the Seattle Art Museum.  Heart disease and Parkinson’s disease forced him to slow his pace, but he retained a strong role in the Museum’s operations.  Upon his retirement Fuller was named the Seattle Art Museum’s president and director emeritus. 

Richard Fuller's Legacy

On December 10, 1976, Richard E. Fuller died at the age of 79.  (Betti Fuller had died the year before, in 1975.) Fuller’s longtime friend, colleague, and artist advocate, Betty Bowen (1918-1977), wrote in tribute:

“When Dr. Richard Fuller, with his mother, built the Seattle Art Museum (which opened in 1933), assembled a major portion of its collections and bestowed it upon our city, he gave Seattle a gift of unparalleled worth and beauty.  He also set a standard of taste and quality that is in itself a legacy and a challenge to maintain … busy and important as he was, he remained accessible to the public which he chose to serve in a way unheard of today.  He would drop work … to see the poorest treasure brought for his scrutiny, an unknown artist, almost any petitioner” (Northwest Arts, April 1, 1977).

Hundreds gathered at St. Mark’s Cathedral to memorialize Fuller.  The Very Reverend John C. Leffler eulogized him:

“Fuller did not wear his heart on his sleeve.  He was a man who was warm but kept his counsel.  He had stoic grace.  He was known through his deeds and his life.  He considered himself a missionary in the arts and believed in the ability of mankind, with leadership, to improve itself.  He was a humble and shy and private gentleman but thank God his works will last after him” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 16, 1976).

In 1991 the Seattle Art Museum opened a new building in downtown Seattle at 100 University Street.  The original building in Volunteer Park was renovated and reopened in 1994 the Seattle Asian Art Museum.  It houses the Seattle Art Museum’s extensive Asian collection, thus bringing full circle Margaret and Richard Fuller’s original fascination with Asian antiquities.


Richard E. Fuller, A Gift To The City: A History of the Seattle Art Museum and the Fuller Family (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1993); William Cumming, Sketchbook: A Memoir of the 1930s and the Northwest School (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984), 184-190; Richard C. Berner, Seattle 1921-1940 From Boom to Bust (Seattle: Charles Press, 1992); Capitol’s Who’s Who for Washington 1949-50 (Portland: Capitol Publishing Company, 1949); Wesley Wehr, The Eighth Lively Art (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000); Anne E. Calhoun, A Seattle Heritage: The Fine Arts Society (Seattle: Lowman and Hanford Co, 1942); Margaret Callahan, “Who Are The Fullers?” The Seattle Times, October 26, 1952; “Kennedys Invite Tobey, Fuller To Inauguration,” Ibid., January 16, 1961; Anne G. Todd, “Dr. Fuller Recounts Trips for Museum,” Ibid., January 29, 1961; Wayne Johnson, “Dr. Fuller Donates $103,166 To Seattle Symphony Fund,” Ibid., May 31, 1968; “Fullers Add $62,000 To Planetarium Fund,” Ibid., December 13, 1986; Wayne Johnson, “Dr. Fuller’s Full 75 Years,” The Seattle Times Magazine, May 28, 1972; “Dr. Richard Fuller, Civic Leader, Dies,” The Seattle Times, December 11, 1976; Pat Baillargeon, “From Fossil To Fine Arts,” Puget Soundings, April 1951; “Alumnus Summa Laude Dignatus,” Washington Alumnus, Winter 1961; Betty Bowen, “Tribute To Dr. Richard E, Fuller,” Northwest Arts, April 1, 1977; Dr. Richard E. Fuller, “Growth of a Museum,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 13, 1966; Rolf Stromberg, “Dr. Fuller: A Gentle Man of Memorable Accomplishment,” Ibid., May 28, 1972; Sally Hayman, “The Seattle Art Museum Is Richard Fuller,” Ibid., May 5, 1968; R. M. Campbell, “Fuller Leaves Legacy of Arts Philanthropy,” Ibid., December 15, 1976; “Hundreds Hear Fuller Eulogized,” Ibid., December 16, 1976; “More Than 30 People and Institutions to Share In Fuller Estate,” Ibid., December 17, 1976; Regina Hackett, “SAM Goes Downtown,” Ibid., November 21, 1991; “Richard E. Fuller, Collector,” Seattlife, February 1939, p. 55; Hans and Thelma Lehman, Out of the Cultural Dustbin (Seattle: Crowley Associates Inc, 1992); Deloris Tarzan, “Seattle’s Art ‘Establishment,’” The Seattle Times, January 18, 1976; “Mrs. Eugene Fuller and Dr. Richard E. Fuller,” The Town Crier, June 24, 1933; “Museum to be Exhibited,” Ibid., May 6, 1933; Martha Kingsbury, “Seattle and the Puget Sound,” in Art of the Pacific Northwest From the 1930s to the Present, (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1974).
Note: This essay was corrected on March 19, 2015, to state that Richard Fuller had four grandchildren.

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