Prominent Seattle art collector dies at 91 –

Virginia Wright, who along with her husband Bagley, built one of the nation’s largest collections of post-war and contemporary art and helped transform Seattle’s art scene, has died. She was 91 years old. Seattle weather, who first reported the news, said the cause was Hodgkin lymphoma.

The Wrights, who appeared on ARTnewsThe list of the top 200 collectors of each year from 1990 to 1999, and again from 2004 to 2006, were among the last of a generation of American collectors who witnessed the rise of the New York scene in the post-war years and bought works of the leading Expressionists of the time.

Wright, known as Jinny, was one of the few collectors who formally studied art history. After attending Barnard College in New York, she worked for the prestigious Sidney Janis Gallery, which itself helped make Abstract Expressionism the leading art movement of its time, giving Jackson solo exhibitions. Pollock, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko, whom she and her husband would continue to collect. His first major purchase was that of Mark Rothko #ten (1952) for about $ 1,000 from the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1953; she would later donate the work to the Seattle Art Museum.

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In 1951, Wright met her future husband, C. Bagley Wright, a journalist, while working at the gallery. They married in 1953, then two years later, in 1955, they moved to Virginia’s hometown of Seattle, where the couple would become influential in the city’s development as a major urban center — Bagley, who died in 2011, thanks to real estate development, notably the city’s iconic Space Needle and Virginia thanks to its support for the Seattle Art Museum, of which she joined the board of directors in 1960.

Their philanthropy has manifested itself in three main ways for SAM: supporting its fundraising campaigns, helping fund art acquisitions, and donating over 200 works from their own collection to the museum. Indeed, the couple have often said that they built their collection with SAM in mind. In a 2016 interview with NPR’s KUOW station, Wright recalled, “I don’t remember how it happened, but I think Bagley and I both thought the museum would be the ultimate destination if we built a collection.

In addition to Rothko’s painting, they also gave SAM works by Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Sigmar Polke, Frank Stella, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell Agnes Martin, Eva Hesse, Robert Morris, Anselm Kiefer and many others. Many works donated over the years are on display as part of SAM’s ongoing “Big Picture: Art After 1945” exhibition, which opened in 2016 and has rotated the works over the years.

“This has always been the main arena,” Wright said. “I never wanted to break up and create a museum. I wanted to push the museum that we already had to be more responsive to contemporary art.

Virginia Wright at the Morris Louis: Veils and Unfurleds exhibition, Seattle Art Museum Pavilion, 1967.

Virginia Wright at the exhibition “Morris Louis: Veils and Unfurleds”, Seattle Art Museum Pavilion, 1967.
© Mary Randlett, all rights reserved

Virginia Wright was born in Seattle on January 1, 1929 to Prentice Bloedel and Virginia Merrill Bloedel. The family will eventually move to Vancouver because of the lumber industry, in which they would amass a fortune.

As a child, Wright expressed an interest in drawing, and her parents supported her, as she told Mija Riedel in an oral history for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest when she did, Wright didn’t have much exposure to art. It wasn’t until she entered a boarding school in Dobbs Ferry, New York, that she began visiting world-class museums on school trips to New York City, one of which was the Frick Collection. After internship, Wright returned to Vancouver for two years to study at the University of British Columbia, then transferred to first year at Barnard College, where she studied with legendary art historian Meyer Schapiro. .

In his oral history with Riedel, Wright compared Schapiro’s lectures to “the conversion of Saint Paul,” particularly in how it changed his view of modern art. Before class, that didn’t interest him. “He showed how modern art really had its roots in the 19th century and logically demonstrated that it did: what we were seeing in the 1950s was a direct development that went way back into our history.

After graduating from Barnard in 1951, Wright worked at the Sidney Janis Gallery until 1954, then moved to Seattle the following year. Wright has dedicated himself to helping teach others to appreciate contemporary art. She became a guide for the Seattle Art Museum in the late 1950s, leading tours, lecturing on art at the museum, and teaching art appreciation classes at Lakeside School. In 1968, she opened her own art gallery in the city, Current Editions, which operated until 1975. In 1999, she opened the Wright Exhibition Space, a free venue that featured selections from the collection; it closed in 2014, when the remaining works from the collection were transferred to SAM.

C. Bagley Wright and Virginia Wright in 1964 with Cross Section by Franz Kline.

C. Bagley Wright and Virginia Wright in 1964 with Cross section by Franz Kline.
Photo: Don Normark / Courtesy of Portland Art Museum Archives

Throughout this time, Wright was heavily involved in the SAM board, which she served from 1960 to 1972, when her husband joined her. She then joined the group in 1982 and served as its president from 1986 to 1992. Among the many initiatives she oversaw were the co-founding of the Museum’s Contemporary Art Council in 1964 and the hiring of Patterson Sims from Whitney Museum in New York to be the associate of SAM. Director of Art and Exhibitions and Curator of Modern Art in 1987. She also helped increase the museum’s endowment to over $ 100 million and led the museum’s move to its downtown building in 1991.

“Virginia Wright is the ideal patron,” Chiyo Ishikawa, deputy director of SAM and curator of European painting and sculpture, said in a statement. “She has incredible taste as a collector – the Wright collection is practically a manual of the art of their time – and a vision for the public good. Not super wealthy by today’s standards, she and Bagley have used their resources to make the city of Seattle a better place to live through the arts, and their generosity has inspired others to follow their example.

Wright’s philanthropy also extended beyond SAM and even Seattle. She established the Virginia Wright Fund in 1969 as part of a statewide public art buying project that included the work of Barnett Newman Broken obelisk on Red Square at the University of Washington in Seattle and plays by Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra and Nancy Holt at Western Washington University in Bellingham, near the Canadian border. In 1976, she founded the Washington Art Consortium, made up of seven art museums in Washington State, to help raise the profile of smaller museums. When it was disbanded in 2017, it had grown to include more than 400 works of 20th-century American art and an endowment of $ 2.3 million, which was split among its members.

Wright, who was an active member of the SAM board until his death, told the museum earlier this month: “When I think about the future of the Wright collection at SAM, I trust to artists. I hope future generations will enjoy their work, that SAM will continue to provide meaningful access to it, and that the conversations their work has inspired will continue.

Correction, February 21, 2020, 10:50 a.m .: An earlier version of this article distorted Patterson Sims’ position at the Seattle Art Museum. He was associate director for art and exhibitions and curator of modern art, not director. The post has been updated to reflect this.

Norma D. Ross