For 60-odd years, the art collection of Bagley Wright (1924-2011) and Virginia Wright, 85, has been a privately held, although frequently shared, treasure of the Pacific Northwest.
Now, 84 works from the Wright Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art are being gifted to the Seattle Art Museum. Jim Dine, Eric Fischl, Helen Frankenthaler, Roy Lichtenstein, Gerhard Richter and Frank Stella are among the artists whose work is included in the gift. Their pieces join 144 works previously donated by the Wrights to SAM. Sixty-two more are promised to the museum, including pieces by Cindy Sherman and Andy Warhol.
By Bagley Wright’s own account, the collection was built up with SAM in mind, and includes more than 200 artworks. Virginia Wright’s first purchase, Mark Rothko’s “No. 10” (an earlier gift to SAM), was made when she was fresh out of college. The collection as a whole explores art movements ranging from abstract expressionism and color field painting to pop art, minimalism and postmodernism.
The Wrights had “daring vision” in what they collected, Catharina Manchanda (SAM’s Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art) said in a phone interview.
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“She is just so open-minded,” Manchanda says of Wright. “I hope I can be that open-minded when I’m in my 80s.”
Wright herself — who was unavailable for interview — might, oddly, disagree.
In a 1999 profile of her by former Times art critic Robin Updike, Wright declared: “This is a conservative collection. … Everything we were interested in over the years, and everything we purchased, were the things that other buyers were buying.”
As an example, she cited that first Rothko purchase.
“To an outsider, Rothko might have looked adventurous,” Wright explained to Updike. “To an insider it looked like a logical purchase. … We bought the work that interested the most plugged-in curators and galleries.”
The needs of SAM were directly considered when the Wrights purchased art.
“Jinny was specific about buying things that the museum didn’t have,” Bagley Wright told Updike in 1999. “For example, we sold a [Jackson] Pollock — it wasn’t a great Pollock — so we could buy something else the museum needed.”
The Wrights played key roles in the history of SAM beyond building a collection to donate to the museum. Both served on SAM’s board (Bagley as its president from 1977 to 1980) and both pushed for the move of the museum from Volunteer Park to its present downtown location in 1991. They campaigned for its later expansion in 2007 as well.
Seattleites got their first big glimpse of the Wright Collection in 1999 when SAM and the then-newly opened Wright Exhibition Space hosted a Wright Collection exhibit.
In her review of that show, Updike called it “an invigorating, occasionally stomach-fluttering roller-coaster ride through the history of American art since the mid-century, with a speeding, eye-popping final loop through some of the peaks of the contemporary European art scene.”
SAM will display selections from the Wright Collection in its modern and contemporary galleries next spring. An exhibition focusing on abstract works from the collection (along with other abstract works from SAM’s collection and from lenders) is planned for the summer of 2016.
“For the modern and contemporary collection, this, as a single gift, utterly transforms our collection and really reinvents the future of the entire museum,” Manchanda says. “Words fail to describe the generosity of their gift to SAM and this city.”
Virginia Wright would say the generosity goes two ways.
“There is a symbiotic relationship between collectors and museums,” she told Updike in 1999. “It is not so altruistic as it might appear. It’s wonderful to think what you’ve done will last over time. We’ve enjoyed it, learned from it, but it also will be a kind of validation. Collectors are lucky to have museums.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org