Seattle Art Scene: From Century 21 to the Seattle Art Museum

  • By Vicki Halper
  • Posted 4/18/2022
  • Essay 22437
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Seattle is home to myriad art galleries and art museums, but it wasn't always so. In this original essay, historian Vicki Halper surveys the city's burgeoning art community in the years following the 1962 World's Fair and explores the influential role played by women such as Virginia Wright, Lucy Lippard, Anne Focke, Anne Gerber, and Zoë Dusanne in fostering the region's widespread appreciation for modern art. 

A Growing Art Community

To enter the new Seattle Art Museum when it was built in the 1930s, you'd have walked between a monumental pair of Ming Dynasty seated stone camels and through doors with Art Deco metalwork. Inside you'd see remarkable examples of Asian art from the founding director's private collection, photographic reproductions of European art, and perhaps an exhibit of paintings from the Northwest Annual, Northwest Watercolor Society, or Women Painters of Washington. Seattle was a young city, officially founded in 1853, and lacked the collections of American and European art that had been and were being amassed by the wealthy in older and richer Eastern and Midwestern states. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, was founded in 1870, when Seattle barely had paved streets.

If you'd exited the Seattle Art Museum during the 1962 Century 21 World's Fair, the camels would still be framing the doorway, but in the distance, over the reservoir, down the hill, and across the city, you'd see the Space Needle, Seattle's celebration of the future, backed by the Olympic Mountains. The Fair included three major art exhibitions — "Masterpieces of Art," mostly European painting before 1900; "Northwest Art Today: Adventures in Art," which demonstrated that regional artists (if not the public) were at ease with abstraction; and "Art Since 1950," usually considered the region's first major public exposure to recent work created in America (almost exclusively in New York), and Europe.

It is generally accepted that New York became the international center of twentieth century art creation and sales in the wake of World War II. Loans to the American section of the exhibition came from well-established New York galleries, and national collectors and institutions. Mark Tobey and Morris Graves, the most significant regional artists with national coverage, were represented. Only two Northwest collections were lenders — Seattle Art Museum (SAM) loaned Tobey's "Serpentine" (1955), and Virginia (Jinny) and Bagley Wright loaned Jackson Pollock's "Moon Vibrations" (1953). Jinny Wright was, until her death in 2020, overwhelmingly influential in bringing contemporary art to regional attention through collecting, donating, lending, advising, and serving. She was at the top of the upper stratum of Seattle society.

There were of course many strata in Seattle's art community. Portland artists gravitated to Gordon Woodside (established in 1961); University of Washington professors showed with Francine Seders Gallery (who took over from Otto Seligman in 1966), while the professors' former students and Californians showed with Linda Farris (1969); Northwest School artists exhibited at Foster/White (1968). Two galleries that exhibited important non-regional work — Zoë Dusanne's pioneering home-based gallery (1950-58) and Jinny Wright's Current Editions (1967-73) — were relatively short lived and unprofitable. Seattle residents in the market for modern, non-regional art made almost all of their purchases in New York, as many still do.

The Wonders of "557,087"

By the mid-1960s much of the art that was nationally prominent was non-commercial by design. This included land art, performance art, conceptual art, and installation art. Art that needed acres, or was mailed on a postcard. Art that was performed once before a live audience, or was conceived by an artist but never produced. In 1969, a SAM support group, the Contemporary Art Council, used a Century 21 building that had been acquired by the museum after the fair, as well as other sites around the city, to present an exhibition of this work. The conceptual art show, "557,087," was curated by the now-acclaimed art historian Lucy Lippard, recruited from New York, and was a stark contrast to the visual richness and tactility of the World's Fair exhibitions. Some pieces existed only as thoughts on paper; one consisted of empty space; another of stickers marking a large, low-income area of the city. For example, British conceptual artist John Latham contributed a report on an action he had taken at the St. Martins School of Art, London, where he taught. Latham had removed a copy of critic Clement Greenberg's influential book, Art and Culture (1961), from the school library, then asked colleagues, critics, and students to chew on selected pages before spitting the results into flasks. (Greenberg was an esteemed and articulate supporter of abstract painting, a friend of the Wrights, and a major influence on their art collecting.) 

After receiving an urgent overdue notice from the library, Latham returned the chemically-neutralized remains, and was fired from his teaching position. He wrote the story of his action in the catalog for "557,087," which was an unbound set of randomly-ordered index cards, one per artist, plus other materials on cards. The title was the population of Seattle at the time, since Lippard refused to designate a descriptive umbrella for the show.

The exhibition was met with humor, confusion, and derision by the public, and by excitement and concentration by local artists. A good percentage of the artists in the show became highly established — Richard Artschwager, John Baldessari, Hans Haacke, and Eva Hesse are such examples from the beginning of the alphabet. In the 2013 publication Biennials and Beyond — Exhibitions That Made Art History, 1962-2002 (Phaidon Press), author Bruce Altshuler calls "557,087" one of the twenty-five most important exhibitions worldwide during the late twentieth century.

SAM's large-scale introduction of conceptual, relatively non-commercial art to the area was regionally enhanced and continued by the non-profit space, and/or (1969-85), started by Anne Focke. As a SAM staff member during "557,087," Focke "was often able to rescue bewildered people who really wanted to understand," reported Anne Gerber, the exhibition chair of the CAC (CAC annual report, February 25, 1970). In a city many considered provincial, business-centered, and sports-obsessed, and despite the 1969 collapse of Boeing, the area's main employer, the visual arts in Seattle gained strength. Private collections, commercial galleries, institutions, percent for art in public spaces, and studio crafts contributed to the city's layered art community.  

An Assortment of Collections

Some museum patrons who went on SAM-sponsored tours in the 1970s and 1980s remarked on the repetitiousness of private collections in cities such as Chicago, where the same artists appeared in home after home. "In Los Angeles, you could switch people's collections in the middle of the night and the owner wouldn't notice," said New York art advisor, Laura Paulson (Paulson interview with author). Given its youth, Seattle was remarkably diverse in the art sought by its major collectors, in addition to the art produced locally. This resulted in a welcome camaraderie and lack of competitiveness, contributed to the encyclopedic nature of SAM's collection, and enhanced other public collections in the region.

Virginia Wright was committed to having her collection housed within the broad context of world arts rather than isolated in a contemporary or private art museum. Seattle Art Museum was the beneficiary of her inclusive vision and taste. Marshall and Helen Hatch concentrated on Northwest School artists, Morris Graves in particular. Their collection was donated to SAM. John Hauberg's outstanding Northwest Native American art collection is also at SAM. Anne Gould Hauberg's collection of pioneering studio glass is at Tacoma Art Museum. (Together with Dale Chihuly, the Haubergs founded Pilchuck Glass School in 1971. It remains one of the premier glass institutions in the world.) Joseph and Elaine Monsen concentrated on studio ceramics, and later dispersed their collection in favor of photography, now at the University of Washington's Henry Art Gallery. In 1981 Katherine White, who had recently moved to Seattle, presented SAM with a gift of her unexcelled African art collection in partnership with the Boeing Company. Many of the collectors formed close relationships, travelling together on museum-led trips, working with each other as SAM trustees and members of PONCHO (Patrons of Northwest Civic, Cultural, and Charitable Organizations), and wintering near one another in Palm Springs or Hawaii.

Of those who had ongoing relationships with local artists as well as the national art scene in the '70s and '80s, Anne Gerber was unique. Known as Seattle's "Artnik," she championed and was loved by local avant-garde artists and institutions such as and/or. As a exhibition chair of SAM's Contemporary Art Council, she was the driving force behind "557,087­." "How terrible if we should be ignored," she said about that exhibition. "I'd like to get a lot of hippies to attend. We can always count on the staid, middle-class, middle-aged people" (Duncan). 

Gerber was not part of SAM's social scene. Her politics were left wing, and her party-going minimal. Before her husband Sidney died in 1965, the Gerbers had been committed to challenging the redlining of Seattle real estate by providing loans and houses to African-Americans rejected by banks and excluded from certain neighborhoods. Nevertheless she became a SAM trustee (after complaining about being ignored to board chair John Hauberg) and active member of the modern art council. She rounds out a collectors' community that could sometimes seem isolated within a cultural bubble.

Seattle Art Museum

Dr. Richard Fuller's initial response to donations offered outside his Asian art comfort zone appears to have been rejection. The Gerbers's Native American collection went to the Burke Museum when Fuller turned it down for SAM. He grudgingly accepted three pieces from Anne Gerber's offer of her contemporary art collection in 1967, then reversed himself and accepted it all the next day when challenged by his exhibition designer, Neil Meitzler. Fuller complained that the Wrights's paintings were too big for his museum, "It's such a problem of storage," Jinny reported him saying. He relented in the face of these prominent Seattleites: "He suffered us in silence," she said in 2014 (Wright interview with Gail Joice, 2003). 

Fuller's championing of regional painting appeared more of a civic duty than a heartfelt attraction, although he generously employed artists during the Great Depression. He also purchased a home from John and Margaret Baillargeon that contained a set of 1939 murals by Mark Tobey. The wave-like patterns in the murals indicate that Fuller could live with abstraction, or semi-abstraction.

Zoë Dusanne, an African American who opened Seattle's first modern art exhibition space in her home gallery after being exposed to European modernism in New York, called Fuller "one of my greatest and staunchest friends ... who in his quiet way contributed much to my success" (Ridley, 42). Fuller's quiet way included exhibiting 22 paintings from her collection in 1947, and purchasing pieces from Dusanne starting in 1956, a year after the Wrights arrived in Seattle, which enabled her to keep her gallery afloat. As a result of Fuller's friendship and financial support of Dusanne, SAM acquired fine, if modestly-scaled, examples of European modernism that included pieces by Jean Arp, Franz Marc, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Francis Picabia, and Marcel Duchamp. Dusanne was also instrumental in connecting the museum with Peggy Guggenheim, the American heiress who donated an important Jackson Pollock canvas to SAM in 1958. The amity among members of the Seattle art community was therefore fostered quite early by a man for whom friendships and sense of civic responsibility could outweigh his personal taste.

As a wealthy benefactor during the Great Depression, Fuller was able to refuse monetary donations. "He discouraged people giving anything more than about twenty-five dollars," John Hauberg wrote (Hauberg, 302). He wished to have sole control of the museum, and felt his role would be compromised by accepting money from others.

Richard Lang, who described Fuller as a close friend, declined the director's offer of a seat on the board, saying that Fuller "was going to run the board and I'd have nothing to say and I didn't want to waste his time or mine by disagreeing or agreeing with him." Until Fuller retired in 1973, he was effectively the museum's curator and only member of the collections committee. He was known to write board minutes before the meetings, then have the trustees sign off on his decisions.

After the 1962 World's Fair, Virginia Wright approached Fuller with a proposition. In 1964 she had established the Contemporary Arts Council (CAC) to support modern art at the museum. The group started with a restricted membership of 25 collectors and friends interested in recent art. If the Council could raise $10,000 per year, Jinny asked, would Fuller allow it to host modern art exhibitions in the building it was occupying on the Seattle Center site? He agreed, and between 1965 and 1976 the CAC sponsored and often curated a series of shows focused on modern art, including "557,087."

The Seattle public remained resistant to modern art. On September 24, 1973, John Hauberg, president of SAM's board of trustees, received a letter (probably from Robert Dootson, chair of the CAC): "If Seattle is not ready for and is not interested in Contemporary or Modern Art as it is being executed and shown in the remainder of the country, and is ONLY interested in regional art and crafts, then the Council must be forced into re-evaluating its existence as it is today and its relation with the Museum" (CAC files). Thomas Maytham, acting director of SAM, wrote to Dootson that November, praising the council for its work, but proposing more cultivation of the press: "Both the publicity and the public interest in the majority of exhibitions of modern art that have been shown in the past several years have been bad. The Lichtenstein retrospective was a disaster and had attendance as I recall of about 5,000 people. The Moholy-Nagy show was even worse. Anne Gerber tells me the same was true of the '557,087' show" (CAC files).

The Council persisted but its executive committee, eventually frustrated by the difficulty in obtaining traveling shows because of its amateur status, pushed for SAM to hire a professional curator, and committed to pay one-half of the salary for two years. After Charles Cowles, publisher of Art Forum magazine, accepted the position in 1975, the heady days of the CAC as a restricted club and producer of exhibitions ended. It remained a sponsor of shows, catalogs, lectures, and tours, and developed a large membership that included many local artists. While council membership became opened to all, circles of upper-level museum contributors and trustees retained the status and exclusivity that patrons expected. Still, the continued expansion of Seattle Art Museum meant that donors from then on would work in tandem with the museum's professional staff.

Also by Vicki Halper: Collectors Richard and Jane Lang -- An Unanticipated Leap into Art


Trevor Fairbrother, Virginia and Bagley Wright's Campaign for Contemporary Art in Seattle, The Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection (Seattle and London: Seattle Art Museum and University of Washington Press, 1999); Annual report of the Contemporary Arts Council, February 25, 1970, Seattle Art Museum library files; Laura Paulson interview with author, August 11, 2020; Don Duncan, "557, 087: Apt Title, Unpredictable Art," The Seattle Times, undated clipping, Seattle Art Museum library file 557,087 (; Virginia Wright videotaped interview with Gail Joice, 2003, Seattle Art Museum library. (; Jo Ann Ridley, Zoe Dusanne: An Art Dealer Who Made a Difference (McKinleyville, California: Fithian Press, 2011) 42: John Henry Hauberg Jr., Recollections of a Civic Errand Boy (Seattle: Pacific Denkmann Company, 2003) 302: Contemporary Art Council files, Seattle Art Museum library, box 40.2.

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