Virginia Wright, art collector and philanthropist who changed Seattle’s cultural landscape, dies at 91

Collector, philanthropist and visionary Virginia Wright lived for art and was dedicated to sharing it with others. Along with her late husband, Bagley Wright, the Seattle icon changed the cultural landscape of the Pacific Northwest, creating the region’s largest collection of modern and contemporary art and donating much of it to Seattle. Art Museum.

Ms Wright, 91, died Tuesday night from Hodgkin lymphoma.

The Wrights have been key donors to SAM, making substantial annual contributions and supporting major capital projects, including the museum’s downtown expansion and its Olympic Sculpture Park (both opened in 2007). But perhaps their greatest legacy can be found on the walls and in the vaults. After their first artwork donation in 1959 (a 1953 painting by William Ward Corley), the Wrights went on to amass one of the largest collections of modern art in the country.

In 2014, Ms. Wright donated 84 of the couple’s works to the museum (by Helen Frankenthaler, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella and others), adding to the 144 they had already donated.

“It was an intense and private passion for her – the arts and collecting art,” said her son Charles Bagley Wright III. “What’s great is that she found a way to channel that passion for the greater benefit of the Seattle community. She kind of won twice with that one. She was just a remarkable role model. for the rest of us.

“It is clear that Jinny Wright’s impact on the city and on SAM is beyond measure,” said Amada Cruz, director and CEO of SAM.

Born in Seattle to Timber Baron Prentice Bloedel and Virginia Merrill Bloedel, Ms. Wright grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia, and received a degree in art history from Barnard College in New York, where she studied with the famous art historian Meyer Schapiro.

“It was like the conversion of Saint Paul,” Ms. Wright said in a 2017 interview with the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Schapiro, she recalled, demonstrated how modern art had clear roots in 19th century traditions and asked students to choose any painting in New York City and write 1,000 words to it. subject – just the work itself, with no reference to art history or research.

“More than anything else, it was a wonderful lesson to me that the more you looked, the more you saw,” Ms. Wright said. “And I never forgot it. It was a great lesson in art appreciation. It would also inform how she and Bagley Wright collected, often buying paintings in the year they were made – before they were anointed by critics, curators or the market.

Ms Wright met her future husband in New York City, while working at the esteemed Sidney Janis Gallery – a vanguard of abstract expressionism – and he was trying to be successful in the newspaper business. They married in 1953, then moved to Seattle in 1955 where he pursued real estate and civic projects, including the development of the Space Needle and the Seattle Center.

Ms. Wright joined SAM’s board of directors in 1960 and followed that up with a dizzying series of projects in the art world. She joined the Museum of Modern Art International Council in New York (1963); co-founded the Contemporary Art Council (1964), a group of collectors and friends who served as SAM’s ad hoc modern art department; directed the Current Editions Gallery (1967-1973); and started the Virginia Wright Fund (1969), a project that began with $ 1 million from her father to purchase public art.

The Virginia Wright Fund donated several well-known public sculptures in Seattle (including Barnett Newman’s “Broken Obelisk” in University of Washington Red Square and Jonathan Borofsky’s “Hammering Man” above the Seattle Art Museum) as well as the Western Washington University campus in Bellingham, his hometown (including works by Richard Serra, Nancy Holt, Bruce Nauman and others).

In 1975, Ms. Wright demonstrated her organizational ingenuity by founding the Washington Art Consortium, a non-profit organization of five museums in the region. The initial impetus was to harness the collective power of institutions and secure grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) that would bring post-war American art to each of the member museums. They were successful and the consortium lasted until 2017, having presented more than 130 exhibitions statewide.

The Wrights also opened their own gallery: the Wright Exhibition Space, a one-story concrete building in South Lake Union converted by architect Jim Olson into a one-room to view selections from the couple’s collection. The Wright exhibition space opened in 1999 and Ms. Wright ran it herself until 2014, three years after her husband’s death. Entrance was always free.

But the primary beneficiary of Ms. Wright’s collection and donations was the Seattle Art Museum – she was passionate about modern art long before SAM. “The director, Dr. [Richard E.] Fuller, the founder and director, was not interested in contemporary art, ”she said in her interview with the Smithsonian in 2017.“ But to his credit, he didn’t want to close the door either. ”

She recalls approaching Fuller with her husband in 1959, offering to donate William Ward Corley’s painting: “He kind of rolled his eyes and said, ‘It’s so big.’ He collected, you know, netsuke. But he accepted it.

“Jinny was specific about buying things the museum didn’t have,” Bagley Wright said in a 1999 interview with the Seattle Times. “For example, we sold a [Jackson] Pollock – it wasn’t a great Pollock – so we could buy something else the museum needed.

Ms. Wright developed her taste for modern art during her days in New York City and also became acquainted with artists. While working at the Sidney Janis Gallery in the early 1950s, she purchased Mark Rothko’s masterpiece “No. 10” for $ 1,000 – but Rothko requested an interview with the buyer for s Make sure he approved Mrs. Wright passed the test.

In the Smithsonian interview, Ms. Wright recalled a 1953 Dada exhibit held at the gallery and heavily curated by the great artist and prankster Marcel Duchamp, who designed the one-page catalog of the exhibit. He wanted every copy to be crumpled up and thrown in a trash can for visitors to fish for. “It was my job, to make the crumple,” Ms. Wright said with a laugh.

Ms Wright’s husband was also an enthusiastic supporter of the arts, having served as the first president of the Seattle Repertory Theater and donating his time and wealth to many of the city’s central organizations: Seattle Symphony, Pacific Northwest Ballet, On the Boards. , ACT Theater and Seattle Opera. .

The Wrights became known as the “Medicis of Seattle”, particularly renowned for their wonderful collection of art.

“When most of it arrived at SAM in 2014, forming the backbone of its modern and contemporary collection, SAM grew from a great institution to a truly remarkable one,” said Kimerly Rorschach, 2012 director and CEO of the museum. to 2019.

“Through his leadership, a community of art lovers has made Seattle one of the most vibrant collecting communities in the country,” said Chiyo Ishikawa, Deputy Director of SAM. “She was smart, funny, down to earth and had a wonderful voice that I will never forget. It will be difficult to imagine Seattle without it.

Speaking earlier this month, Ms. Wright reflected on the future of the Wright collection at SAM.

“I trust the artists,” she said. “I hope that 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. “

Ms Wright was predeceased by her husband, Bagley Wright, who died in 2011. In addition to her son Charles Bagley Wright III, she is survived by her children Merrill Blair Wright, Robin McKenzie Wright and Prentice Bloedel Wright, as well as 10 grandchildren and nine great grandchildren. Details on a memorial service and commemorative contributions were not immediately available.

Freelance writer Melinda Bargreen contributed to this report.

Norma D. Ross