Share story

It’s been more than two years since Seattle art collector Barney Ebsworth purchased Jaume Plensa’s “Echo” — but until two weeks ago, Ebsworth had never seen it in the flesh.

The 6-ton, 46-foot-high statue was first displayed in New York’s Madison Square Park in 2011 and has been in storage ever since. Now enjoying pride of place on the waterfront at Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park, the statue is a mysterious, sublime addition to the park.

The piece, modeled on a young girl who lived in the sculptor’s Barcelona neighborhood, represents the mountain nymph who, in Greek mythology, distracted the goddess Hera from spying on the trysts of Zeus (Hera’s husband/brother). When Hera discovered the ruse, she took away Echo’s speech — except for an ability to repeat what others said to her.

Spend any time with “Echo,” whose elongated head gives her an eerie yet seductive look, and you may wonder about the man who gave it to SAM and the city.

Ebsworth, born in 1934, is an art lover who made his millions in the travel industry. Originally from St. Louis, he moved to Seattle in 2003.

He discovered art in a big way after he was drafted into the military. Although he served during the Korean War, he somehow “willed” himself to France, and each weekend he’d head to Paris to spend his Saturdays at the Louvre.

“I was hooked,” he says of his art interests. “But of course I didn’t have any money.”

After finishing his tour of duty, he came home to St. Louis and took an insurance company job that paid well but didn’t excite him. Taking a big pay cut, he bought into a small travel company that, once he owned it all, turned into a big travel company.

Once he was in a position to buy art, his first purchases were Dutch 17th-century paintings. But he soon realized all the best items had been bought or were out of his financial reach. So he turned toward American modernists of the early 20th century: Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper and others. Gradually, he extended the reach of the collection to include an eclectic array of post-WWII American artists: Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol and honorary Angeleno David Hockney.

His collection acquired such a reputation that it was tapped for exhibitions in 1987-88 (in St. Louis, Honolulu and Boston) and in 2000 (National Gallery of Art and SAM). His importance to Seattle took a crucial turn when, during SAM’s 75th anniversary, he pledged most of his collection to the museum.

Ebsworth was introduced to the city by his wife in the 1990s. But by the time he moved into his Hunts Point lakefront home (designed by renowned Seattle architect Jim Olson) the marriage had ended.

Starting over in a new city on your own when you’re close to 70 sounds daunting.

“It was both exciting and frightening,” he admits.

Still, he had contacts in the area from his many stays here: fellow art collectors Bagley and Virginia Wright, Jon and Mary Shirley, Richard and Betty Hedreen, and Jeff and Susan Brotman. “I wasn’t moving into a total vacuum.”

He soon became a trustee at SAM and was on the search committee that chose Kimerly Rorschach as SAM’s new director in 2012.

“I’ve gotten to know him since then — and his wonderful collection,” Rorschach said. “He’s very involved as a trustee at the leadership level.”

Fellow collector Jon Shirley, on SAM’s board with Ebsworth, added, “Barney has been an active trustee for some time. … His greatest interest is in the future of the museum.”

But it’s his eye for art, Shirley emphasized, that’s the most distinctive thing about him: “Barney is one of the most careful, informed, dedicated collectors that I’ve ever met — probably the best.”

Ebsworth has strong ideas about collecting. Once, after he bought an 86-foot-long painting at an auction, a woman approached him, saying it was a wonderful piece and asking where he planned to put it.

His reply: “Madam, I don’t have the foggiest. … If you really want to be a great collector, you don’t buy for a place. You buy because the object is great.”

He also believes in a do-it-yourself approach to collecting. He doesn’t have much use for wealthy collectors who turn over the job to a curator-for-hire and don’t know much about their own collections. “There, I say, ‘Hallelujah, you were smart to hire the right people. But you missed the really important thing, which is understanding and appreciating the art.’ ”

Ebsworth’s 20th-century American art collection, Shirley said, is good enough to have had its own show in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.: “You don’t get a show like that unless your collection is absolutely first class.”

So where does Plensa’s “Echo” fit into all this?

It doesn’t, exactly. Ebsworth’s collecting focus is on 20th-century paintings, not 21st-century sculpture. Still, when he saw a New York Times article on “Echo” in 2011, he was fascinated: “I looked at this thing and I said, ‘Wow … now there’s a contemporary artist that needs to be thought about.’ ”

He immediately contacted Plensa’s dealer in Chicago to ask if “Echo” was available. It was, as were two other large Plensa sculptures that caught Ebsworth’s eye, “Irma” and “Nuria.” He wound up buying all three. “I thought they were wonderful and I wanted to have them in my life,” he said.

His initial plan to install “Echo” on his property was derailed when Shirley pointed out that Ebsworth would need a building permit to erect a 46-foot statue on the shores of Lake Washington — and wasn’t likely to get one.

Stymied, Ebsworth went to SAM and asked if they’d be interested in it.

Rorschach knew and admired Plensa’s work, and her instinctive answer was, “Absolutely!”

But she had to be sure SAM could find a place for it. Bureaucracy and logistics made the selection of a site a long and involved process. Ebsworth, she says, was “a great collaborator … and very patient.”

It’s a generous gift. In an ARTnews article in 2010, Plensa’s dealer said the artist’s large-scale pieces sell for up to $2 million.

SAM’s curator of modern and contemporary art, Catharina Manchanda, believes “Echo” may induce park visitors to have their own “moment of pause” from their hectic existences. She also points out that “Echo” is “a very bold figurative piece” in a sculpture park that leans heavily toward the abstract.

As for Plensa, in town Thursday for the inauguration of “Echo,” he was delighted with the location: “My project was thinking about Echo in the old tradition of Greek mythology. And you have the Olympic Park and Mount Olympus. … Sometimes life is so funny that you have these strange coincidences. I guess that this is here because it was a destiny.”

Ebsworth himself, taking in “Echo” in its new home, couldn’t have been happier. “It’s spectacular,” he said. “It looks wonderful.”

Michael Upchurch: