Seattle Art Museum (Part 1)

  • By Traci Timmons
  • Posted 8/24/2022
  • Essay 22521
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Creating an art museum in Seattle began with a modest gathering of like-minded art and cultural enthusiasts in the early years of the twentieth century. Through two predecessor organizations and the philanthropic generosity of two Seattle citizens during the height of the Great Depression, the dream of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) was realized. The leadership of one man, Richard Fuller, propelled the institution for more than 40 years and set the stage for decades of growth, the building of architecturally significant sites, and countless exhibitions that brought the cultures of the world to Seattle. From meager beginnings, SAM became the largest visual arts institution in the Pacific Northwest and one of the most respected museums in the United States.

The Seattle Fine Arts Society

In the early 1900s, when Seattle was still a young town in the farthest reaches of the northwestern United States, there was a "movement on foot for organizing a society ... where people of similar interests and tastes could get together and form a nucleus ... of art activities" (Calhoun, 16). Art dealer Will Conant and studio owner William W. Kellogg organized an informal group of enthusiasts that met regularly and held small exhibitions at the Seattle Public Library. As the group grew and its activities became more formalized, members organized officially as the Seattle Fine Arts Society on March 17, 1908. The initial group numbered 42 members, and included artists Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976), Roi Partridge (1888-1984), and architect O. H. P. (Oliver Hazard Perry) LaFarge (1869-1936), son of famed stained-glass artist John LaFarge (1835-1910). For the next two decades the organization developed, holding regular exhibitions and talks, forming a small art collection, and moving to different locations as the size of the organization expanded. In 1912, the Society joined the American Federation of Arts, which allowed it to bring traveling exhibitions from other parts of the country to Seattle, furthering the notion that the Society was a bona fide visual arts organization.

During this same time, another organization, the Washington State Art Association (WSAA), had formed as a natural outgrowth of the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. The group was working toward building a museum of arts and sciences and had created plans and formed a collection of global art. In 1911, a bond issue to raise $500,000 was put to Seattle voters to fund the museum, but due to reports of ill-advised business practices and "assets that were largely imaginary" (Calhoun, 51), the bond measure failed. The organization was disbanded in 1917. Although the two organizations did not officially merge, WSAA members were invited to be a part of the Seattle Fine Arts Society, and many did. With the dismantling of the WSAA, the Seattle Fine Arts Society declared itself, "the only organization of its kind in Seattle" (Calhoun, 55). That same year the Society was officially incorporated.

The 1920s were a time of great change for the Society leading up to the period when it would truly transform itself. In 1925, during a time of institutional uncertainty, the Society reached out to thousands of community members and asked whether the Society should continue as an organization. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Re-energized, the Society focused on increasing its membership and finding a more permanent home. After donating his collection to the University of Washington in 1927, art collector and philanthropist Horace C. Henry (1844-1928) turned a gallery space within his home on Capitol Hill over to the Society. The "Little Gallery," as it was referred, was immediately used by the Society for loan and other special exhibits. Early in 1928, the Society took over the entire Henry estate. The new Seattle Fine Arts Society quarters were formally opened with the Fourteenth Annual Exhibition of Northwest Artists.

The Art Institute of Seattle

In 1929, under the leadership of Society president Raymond G. Wright and new vice-president Dr. Richard Eugene Fuller (1897-1976), the Society recognized that its purpose was changing from one that supported the interests of a few to one whose mission it was to educate the community. It changed its name to the Art Institute of Seattle. "[W]ith many extended activities ... the name Seattle Fine Arts Society has become more and more inexpressive of the character of our work. The word, 'society,' seemed to designate an exclusive organization and to prevent the public ... from using it as freely as the might otherwise" (Annual Report, 1929-1930, 7).

In 1930, Fuller, a geologist and dedicated Asian art collector, became president of the Institute and set out to take that next step toward establishing a true museum. He engaged the American Association of Museums Director, Lawrence Vale Coleman, to analyze the situation in Seattle. Coleman's report, stating that with certain conditions met, a museum could thrive in Seattle, was presented to the Institute's board on October 6, 1931. Fuller announced that, based on this report, he and his mother, Margaret MacTavish Fuller (1860-1953), would offer $250,000 to build a permanent museum home, believing that the organization should "progress from a more social organization to the more important status of a civic institution" (Annual Report, 1930-1931, 6). The site of the museum would be Volunteer Park, not far from the Henry house, and "following the guidelines of the Metropolitan Museum in New York ... the city of Seattle agreed to service and maintain the building if the Fullers and the museum would be responsible for its construction, operation, and art" (Sims, 9). This agreement still exists today.

A Foundation in Asian Art

Both Richard Fuller and Margaret Fuller had been collecting Asian art in earnest for some time. Margaret had been collecting since the family’s time in New York at the turn of the century. Richard recalled his mother’s "small cabinets containing Far Eastern object d’art which she had gradually accumulated, with increasing discrimination" (Fuller, 15). World travel played a major role in both of the Fullers' passion for Asian objects. Margaret’s interest began when her father, Duncan MacTavish (d. 1889), took his daughter on an around-the-world trip in 1880, spending time in Asia. Richard’s passion was forged from his mother’s love of Chinese ceramics, snuff bottles, and jades, but it truly blossomed when, on a Fuller family trip in 1919 to Japan, Richard was struck with acute appendicitis (his brother Duncan performed the operation that saved his life) and the family stayed on for three months to allow Richard to recuperate. The family made the most of this unexpected stay working to expand its Asian art collection. Specifically, the family "collect[ed] netsukes, hundreds of which were shipped from various dealers throughout the country" (Fuller, 17). Little did they know that this devotion to Asian art was building the founding collection for a new museum.

The Seattle Art Museum

Now, after more than 20 years, the dream of a permanent museum, the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), was finally realized. In addition to being a co-founder, Richard Fuller was made Director and simultaneously President of the board, and wished to do so without drawing a salary. The original staff of the museum was small — only eight employees — and included artist Kenneth Callahan (1905-1986) as Assistant Director, and Dorothy "Dottie" Malone (1912-1997) as Executive Assistant. Malone served the museum for the next 55 years.

Fuller selected architect and former Society and Institute board member Carl F. Gould (1873-1939) to design the building. Gould, of the firm Bebb and Gould, had trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and was well known for designing many of the buildings on the University of Washington campus. Architect Peder Gjarde conceived the structural design. Fuller, who had a keen interest in architecture, selected one of Gould’s 10 original sketches, but removed the ornamentation from the design that had been added by Seattle sculptor Dudley Pratt (1897-1975). The result was an austere art moderne style building with intimate wainscoted, skylighted galleries whose design would stand the test of time. Fuller’s input on the final design was significant enough that he was later elected as an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects.

The Seattle Art Museum opened on June 29, 1933. Thousands turned out for the opening and "so great was the throng that all could not be accommodated ... at one time and hundreds stood patiently outside until they could win a point of vantage inside" (Seattle P-I, "Big Throng"). Vail’s report was right — Seattle was ready for an art museum.

Building the Collection

The Fullers' collection comprised the bulk of the permanent collection: works from China, Japan, India, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia. The Fullers also gave American and European paintings, sculpture, prints, bronze castings, and ancient Mediterranean works. Asian art was featured prominently in the first works on view, along with the work of Northwest artists, and a series of facsimiles representing European masterworks. Facsimile reproductions would have no place on museum gallery walls today, but Fuller was intentional about their use:

"By this accession, at a relatively modest cost, the outstanding masterpieces of many of the most important museums and private collections have been assembled. In fact, I believe the collection to be thus more important and more catholic than that possessed by almost any single collection if it is viewed from its artistic merit and not from the monetary standard ... As a rule, in this country, any photographic reproductions are classed as merely educational material and considered unworthy of public display, and yet the education of the general public is, undeniably, one of the primary functions of museums ..." (Annual Report 1932-1933, 6-7).

Asian art continued to be a focal collecting area during Fuller’s time as director. His family’s collection continued to be added to the museum’s permanent collection as the Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, a tribute to Richard’s father. Margaret Fuller purchased the monumental Chinese Civilian Guardian and Military Guardian figures (mid seventeenth to twentieth century) and two Camel sculptures (late fourteenth- to mid-seventeenth century), that now symbolize the museum, through Gump’s in San Francisco. Travels to Asia with museum trustee Emma Baillargeon Stimson resulted in a collection of Chinese ceramics which became part SAM’s Thomas D. Stimson Memorial Collection. During this same trip, Fuller was introduced to Mataichi Miya, the chief buyer for Yamanaka & Company, a Japanese firm that imported art from Asia to the United States, and from whom Fuller bought many objects during the 1930s and 1940s, including the iconic pair of early seventeenth century Japanese screens entitled Crows. Importantly, buying Japanese art from dealers based in the U.S. at the time was problematic. Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces in 1941, the U.S. Government retaliated against Japanese commercial interests operating in the U.S. Firms like Yamanaka & Company were forced to liquidate their inventories, with all proceeds going to the U.S. Government. Fuller bought during this time and took advantage of more affordable prices.

The following decades demonstrated an excitement for building the new museum’s permanent collection. Seattle banker Manson F. Backus (1853-1935) bequeathed his collection of more than 300 etchings and engravings by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Rembrandt (1606-1669), and James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), among many others. In the mid-1930s, Fuller developed his interest in South Asian art and bought his first Hindu sculpture, Uma-Maheshvara (The God Shiva and His Wife Parvati) (late tenth to early eleventh century) from art dealer Nasli M. Heeramaneck (1902-1971), looking to widen the scope of what Asian art was for the museum. In 1944, the museum hosted its first large-scale exhibition, Art of India, filling the museum’s galleries. Fuller gradually acquired much of the work from this exhibition for the museum.

Seattle gallery owner Zoë Dusanne (1884-1972) introduced the museum to contemporary European and American artists, beginning with an exhibition of her collection in 1947. Key works were gifted to or purchased by the museum through the 1960s. Blanche M. Harnan, a European porcelain scholar, founded the Seattle Ceramic Society in the 1930s. The Seattle Ceramic Society held five exhibitions of its European porcelain collections at the museum between 1949 and 1964, and Harnan became the museum’s honorary curator of decorative arts in 1954, laying the groundwork for future European porcelain gifts from Seattle Ceramic Society members.

Even as Fuller was running the museum, he was still active as a geologist and was elected president of the Section of Volcanology of the American Geophysical Union. He made several trips to Mexico between 1944 and 1948 to study the Parícutin volcano in Michoacán state. Never to miss an opportunity, Fuller learned more about Mesoamerican art from his journeys and while en route to and from Mexico, purchased work in this area from dealers in Los Angeles and New York, including Heermaneck. These works became the foundation for SAM’s Mesoamerican collection.

The War Years

In 1943, as World War II raged on, Fuller met a young Asian art scholar and ensign in the U.S. Navy, Sherman Lee, when he visited Seattle. Fuller was so impressed with Lee that after giving him a tour of the collection, Fuller offered him a job as Assistant Director once the war was over. Lee served as a Monuments Man in Asia before returning to Seattle in 1948. His ties in Tokyo had aligned him with art dealer Junkichi Mayuyama, who helped the museum acquire "top-quality" objects for the museum. Over the next four years, Lee shepherded some of SAM’s most important works into the collection. He worked with Mrs. Donald E. Frederick to acquire a 30-foot section of the early seventeenth century Japanese masterpiece, Poem Scroll with Deer, by Tawaraya Sotatsu (1576-1643) and Hon'ami Koetsu (1558-1637). He also oversaw a bequest from LeRoy M. Backus (1879-1948), son of Manson Backus, of Old Master paintings and drawings, including Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Judgment of Paris (ca. 1516-18).

Fuller had already served in World War I and, despite being an art museum director, volunteered again during World War II. He served abroad as a Major in the Army Specialist Corps and at home as Director of the Seattle War Chest and the Seattle British War Relief effort, and on the Seattle Committee for Russian War Relief. During his time abroad, Fuller elected Emma Baillargeon Stimson as Acting Director, the first woman to lead the museum. Stimson was charged with moving a part of the art collection to Denver during this time as Seattle was seen as a target, being on the Pacific Rim.

The Kress Collection

Businessman and philanthropist Samuel H. Kress, founder of the S. H. Kress & Co. five and dime stores, had amassed a significant collection of European masterworks during his lifetime. He created a foundation and, beginning in the 1930s, gave his collection to regional museums and academic art institutions across the country — including the Seattle Art Museum. Lee brokered and handled the initial loans from Kress to SAM and, along with his successor Millard Rogers (d. 1987), ultimately secured works thought to have been bound for other institutions. These works included both a sketch and a finished work by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), entitled Triumph of Valor Over Time (ca. 1757), and Peter Paul Rubens’s (1577-1640) The Last Supper (1620-21). Rush Kress (1877-1963), who took over leadership of the Kress Foundation after his brother Samuel became incapacitated by illness, visited Seattle to see the work in situ and remarked that he was displeased that the gallery holding the collection was too small. Seattle entrepreneur and philanthropist, Norman Davis (1897-1991) helped fund construction of a larger gallery space to house this noteworthy European art collection, which opened in 1953. Thirty-six Kress paintings and sculptures were officially accessioned into SAM’s permanent collection in 1961, establishing the foundation for its ongoing European art-collecting efforts.

A Fondness for Northwest Art

Extending the support afforded to Northwest artists during the Seattle Fine Arts Society and the Art Institute of Seattle years, Fuller continued to purchase and exhibit work from Northwest artists and supported their livelihoods as well — he brought artists Kenneth Callahan, Guy Anderson (1906-1998), and Morris Graves (1910-2001) on staff and gave stipends for work around the museum to artists like Mark Tobey (1890-1976). The Northwest Annual Exhibition, begun in 1914 and shown consistently at the SFAS and AIS, continued on at SAM until shortly after Fuller’s death in 1976. The museum also hosted other regional annual exhibitions — The Northwest Watercolor Society Annuals (1942-1976), The International Exhibition of Northwest Printmakers Annuals (1929-1971), and The Seattle International Exhibition of Photography exhibitions (1942-1973) during Fuller’s time. During Fuller’s tenure as director, solo and group exhibitions of Northwest artists were a constant part of the museum’s artistic program.

Japanese Art in Seattle

In 1953, less than a decade after war ended with Germany and Japan, Fuller and Lee helped bring the exhibition, the Official Japanese Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture, to the museum. Some may have thought this was a risky endeavor, but the exhibition, organized by the National Museum in Tokyo, in its short one-month run brought in a record attendance of more than 73,000 visitors. Shortly thereafter in 1960, the museum hosted another large-scale Japanese art exhibition, the Treasures of Japan, to celebrate the centennial of Japanese-American relations. It consisted of Japanese haniwa sculpture from the National Museum in Tokyo, and Japanese art from the permanent collections of the Honolulu Academy of Art and the Seattle Art Museum. The exhibition was significant enough that the opening was attended by Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko of Japan. The museum’s contribution of more than 208 objects is documented in one of the institution’s first serious collection catalogs: Japanese Art in the Seattle Art Museum: An Historical Sketch, with Illustrated Catalogue of Examples Selected from the Museum's Collections (Seattle Art Museum, 1960).


In 1952, Lee announced his resignation, heading to the Cleveland Museum of Art, where he would become "one of the most esteemed museum directors of his time and one of the foremost authorities on Asian art in the world" (Sims, 13). His legacy at SAM is still recognized.

In the fall of 1953, Margaret Fuller died. Her contributions to the museum were memorialized in the annual report of that year:

"Mrs. Eugene Fuller, co-founder and Life Trustee of the Seattle Art Museum, and to whose farsighted generosity much of its renowned collection is owed, departed this life on November 20, 1953 ... Over and beyond this generosity [of donating funds to build the museum], Mrs. Fuller was a co-donor of the Museum's Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, in the enlargement of which she took a constant interest, and also endowed the Museum to help meet its minimum budget needs for art activities. These constant gifts, which never appeared on the balance sheet of the Museum, have been largely responsible for its growth and national renown" (Annual Report, 1953, 1).

The 1960s and 1970s

The 1960s and 1970s were an era of considerable change for the museum. In 1962, the World’s Fair, the Century 21 Exposition, occupied the Seattle Center. SAM Trustee Norman Davis oversaw the fair’s Fine Arts Exposition and organized an impressive international loan exhibition: an exhibition of Northwest art, Northwest Coast Indigenous art, and one on contemporary art — seen as the first of its kind in Seattle. These exhibitions raised the "cultural temperature" of the city and museum dramatically and demonstrated a growing interest in modern and contemporary art, an area the museum had not yet explored beyond the artists currently working in the region.

In 1961, Virginia Wright joined the SAM board. She and her husband, Bagley Wright, were contemporary art collectors who set the museum off in a new trajectory. In addition to being a museum benefactor, eventually adding works in many different areas to the collection, Wright established the museum’s Contemporary Art Council (CAC).

The museum outgrew the space at Volunteer Park and, following the fair, in 1963 SAM hosted an exhibition of Washington State artists in the fair’s former United Kingdom Pavilion, making use of the venue on a trial basis. It worked well and on June 6, 1965, the museum officially opened the Seattle Art Museum Pavilion at the Seattle Center. Its artistic program was focused on modern and contemporary art, but it was also used for loan exhibitions. The Contemporary Art Council assumed programming of the space and opened with The Responsive Eye, an Op Art exhibition jointly organized between the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the CAC. The venue quickly became known as SAM’s Modern Art Pavilion and hosted many contemporary art exhibitions, including the groundbreaking, 557,087, in 1969. Curated by Lucy Lippard, 557,087 (the number reflected Seattle’s population at the time) was one of the first sizable exhibitions of post-minimal and conceptual art in the country, and certainly the first in Seattle. The Pavilion continued to offer contemporary art exhibitions until 1987, when it closed in anticipation of a new museum building in downtown Seattle.

The museum made marked efforts to emulate the practices of museums it admired and started building a more global collection with experts. In 1968, Fuller hired Henry Trubner, a scholar of Chinese art, as Curator of Asiatic Art, and in 1971 hired William J. Rathbun, a scholar of Japanese art, as Assistant Curator, signaling the start of a true Asian art curatorial department. In the past decades, beyond Asian art, the focus has been on collecting European and more regional art. However, in 1968, Fuller put together the museum’s first African art survey exhibition, Tribal Arts of West Africa, consisting primarily of works from the collection of Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck. The couple subsequently donated 80 works from the collection to SAM. The gifts from this African art exhibition foreshadowed an even larger gift yet to come.

Next: In Part 2, Fuller retires and SAM moves downtown


Anne H. Calhoun, A Seattle Heritage: The Fine Arts Society (Seattle: Lowman & Hanford Co., 1942), 16-18, 47-55, 68-73, 77-79, 97-98; Richard E. Fuller, A Gift to the City: A History of the Seattle Art Museum and the Fuller Family (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1993), 3, 6-7, 15, 17, 23, 26, 33, 35; Seattle Art Museum, Annual Report of the Art Institute of Seattle, 1929-1930 (Seattle: Art Institute of Seattle, 1930), 7; Seattle Art Museum, Annual Report of the Art Institute of Seattle, 1930-1931 (Seattle: Art Institute of Seattle, 1931), 6; Patterson Sims, "Introduction" in Selected Works (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1991), 9, 12-14; Seattle Art Museum, "The Inimitable Dottie Malone," SAM Blog accessed July 14, 2022 (; Seattle Art Museum, Annual Report of the Seattle Art Museum, Formerly the Art Institute of Seattle, 1932-1933 (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1933), 4, 6-7; "Big Throng Greets New Art Museum," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 30, 1933 (; Seattle Art Museum, Annual Report of the Seattle Art Museum, Formerly the Art Institute of Seattle, 1933 (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1934), 22-24; Jeffrey Carlson, "Object of the Week: Crows," SAM Blog accessed June 27, 2022 (; Yuriko Kuchiki, "The Enemy Trader: The United States and the End of Yamanaka," Impressions, No. 34 (2013): 32–53, (; Traci E. Timmons, "Manson F. Backus: Print Collector, Book Collector," SAM Blog accessed June 27, 2022 (; Seattle Art Museum, Annual Report of the Seattle Art Museum, 1947 (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1947), 5; Seattle Art Museum, Annual Report of the Seattle Art Museum, 1954 (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1954), 9; Nicole Sonett and Traci Timmons, "William H. Lautz Antique Porcelains, the Seattle Ceramic Society, and the Seattle Art Museum: Overview," Seattle Art Museum Libraries Digital Collections accessed July 10, 2022 (; Jessica Robbins, "Richard E. Fuller Travel Slides: Art and Architecture of Mexico," Seattle Art Museum Libraries Digital Collections accessed June 27, 2022 (; Sarah Berman, “What Use Is Art, Anyhow?” SAM Blog accessed June 27, 2022 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Fuller, Dr. Richard Eugene (1897-1976)," (Paula Becker), (accessed June 29, 2022); Kate Hanske and Michael Besozzi, "Seattle Art Museum Annual Reports: Wartime 1940-49: Reports in the 1940s," Seattle Art Museum Libraries Digital Collections accessed June 27, 2022 (; Brynn Zalmanek, "International Exhibition of Northwest Printmakers, 1929-1971," Seattle Art Museum Libraries Digital Collections accessed June 27, 2022 (; Brynn Strader, "Northwest Annual Exhibition and the Seattle Art Museum, 1914-1977," Seattle Art Museum Libraries Digital Collections accessed June 27, 2022 (; Marie Andrews, "Northwest Watercolor Society at the Seattle Art Museum: Annual Exhibition Publications, 1942-1976," Seattle Art Museum Libraries Digital Collections accessed June 27, 2022 (; Seattle Art Museum, Annual Report of the Seattle Art Museum 1953 (Seattle: Art Institute of Seattle, 1953), 1, 6-7; Seattle Art Museum, Annual Report of the Seattle Art Museum 1960 (Seattle: Art Institute of Seattle, 1960), 6-7; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko of Japan visit Seattle on October 4, 1960" (Alan Stein) (accessed June 30, 2022); Seattle Art Museum, "About SAM Timeline," Seattle Art Museum Website accessed July 3, 2022 (



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