Collector, philanthropist and visionary Virginia Wright lived for art — and dedicated herself 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.
Mrs. Wright, 91, died of Hodgkin lymphoma on Tuesday evening.
The Wrights were keystone 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 is on the walls and in the vaults. After their first donated artwork in 1959 (a 1953 painting by William Ward Corley), the Wrights continued to amass one of the nation’s great modern art collections.
In 2014, Mrs. Wright gifted 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, private passion for her — the arts and collecting art,” said her son Charles Bagley Wright III. “The great thing is she found a way to channel that passion for the greater benefit of the community in Seattle. She kind of won twice with that one. She was just a remarkable model for the rest of us.”
“It’s 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, Mrs. Wright grew up in Vancouver, B.C., and earned a degree in art history at Barnard College in New York City, where she studied with renowned art historian Meyer Schapiro.
“That was like the conversion of St. Paul,” Mrs. 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 assigned students to choose any painting in New York and write 1,000 words about it — just the work itself, without reference to art history or research.
“More than anything else, that was a marvelous lesson to me that the more you looked, the more you saw,” Mrs. Wright said. “And I never forgot that. That was a huge lesson in art appreciation.” It would also inform the way she and Bagley Wright collected, often buying paintings the year they were made — before they’d been anointed by critics, curators or the market.
Mrs. Wright met her future husband in New York, while she was working at the esteemed Sidney Janis Gallery — a vanguard for Abstract Expressionism — and he was trying to make a go of it in the newspaper business. They were married in 1953, then relocated to Seattle in 1955 where he pursued real-estate and civic projects, including the development of the Space Needle and Seattle Center.
Mrs. Wright joined SAM’s board of trustees in 1960 and followed that with a dizzying series of art-world projects. 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; ran the Current Editions Gallery (1967-1973); and started the Virginia Wright Fund (1969), a project that began with $1 million from her father to buy public art.
The Virginia Wright Fund donated several well-known public sculptures to Seattle (including Barnett Newman’s “Broken Obelisk” in University of Washington’s Red Square and Jonathan Borofsky’s “Hammering Man” looming above Seattle Art Museum) as well as the campus of Western Washington University in Bellingham, her hometown (including works by Richard Serra, Nancy Holt, Bruce Nauman and others).
In 1975, Mrs. Wright demonstrated her organizational ingenuity by founding the Washington Art Consortium, an umbrella nonprofit with five museums around the region. The original impetus was to leverage the institutions’ collective power and win National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grants that would bring postwar American art to each of the member museums. They succeeded, and the consortium lasted until 2017, after presenting over 130 exhibitions around the state.
The Wrights also opened a gallery of their own: the Wright Exhibition Space, a one-story, concrete-block building in South Lake Union converted by architect Jim Olson into a room to gaze at selections from the couple’s collection. Wright Exhibition Space opened in 1999 and Mrs. Wright ran it herself until 2014, three years after her husband’s death. Admission was always free.
But the primary beneficiary of Mrs. Wright’s collecting and donating was the Seattle Art Museum — she was thrilled by modern art long before SAM was. “The director, Dr. [Richard E.] Fuller, founder-director, was not interested in contemporary art,” she said in her 2017 Smithsonian interview. “But to his credit, he didn’t want to close the door on it, either.”
She recalled approaching Fuller with her husband in 1959, offering to donate the William Ward Corley painting: “He kind of rolled his eyes, and he 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.”
Mrs. Wright developed her taste for modern art during her New York days, and got to know artists as well. While working at the Sidney Janis Gallery in the early 1950s, she bought Mark Rothko’s color-field masterpiece “No. 10” for $1,000 — but Rothko required an interview with the buyer to make sure he approved. Mrs. Wright passed the test.
In the Smithsonian interview, Mrs. Wright recalled a 1953 Dada show hosted at the gallery and heavily curated by the great artist and prankster Marcel Duchamp, who designed the exhibition’s one-page catalog. He wanted each copy crumpled and thrown into a trash bin for visitors to fish out. “That was my job, to do the crumpling,” Mrs. Wright said, laughing.
Mrs. Wright’s husband was also an enthusiastic arts supporter, serving as the first president of Seattle Repertory Theatre and donating his time and wealth to many of the city’s central organizations: Seattle Symphony, Pacific Northwest Ballet, On the Boards, ACT Theatre and Seattle Opera.
The Wrights became known as “the Medicis of Seattle,” especially renowned for their marvelous art collection.
“When the bulk of it came to SAM in 2014, forming the backbone of its modern and contemporary collection, SAM was transformed from a great institution into a truly remarkable one,” said Kimerly Rorschach, the museum’s director and CEO from 2012 to 2019.
“With her leadership, a community of art lovers turned Seattle into 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’ll never forget. It will be hard to imagine Seattle without her.”
Speaking earlier this month, Mrs. Wright reflected on the future of the Wright Collection at SAM.
“I put my trust in the artists,” she said. “I trust that future generations will value their work, that SAM will continue to provide meaningful access to it, and that the conversations that their work has inspired will continue.”
Mrs. Wright was preceded in death 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 about a memorial service and memorial contributions were not immediately available.
Freelance writer Melinda Bargreen contributed to this report.