Paul Allen is about to break the secrecy that's long shrouded his art collection. Over the years, ARTnews magazine has cited Allen as one...

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Paul Allen is about to break the secrecy that’s long shrouded his art collection. Over the years, ARTnews magazine has cited Allen as one of the world’s top spenders on art, yet few people seem to know exactly what he’s been buying.

Even consultants, art handlers and conservators who work for him must agree to keep mum about what they see. (When asked if he had signed a confidentiality agreement, Allen’s former art-collections director, Pablo Schugurensky, replied, “I can’t comment on that.”)

Now, a bit of the veil is dropping. In April, Allen will allow the public its first glimpse of a small selection of his fine-art holdings. We still don’t know the extent of his collection, but the names he’s unveiling are impressive — Monet, Picasso, Cezanne, Manet, Renoir, Rothko, Lichtenstein.

The real shocker will be the venue. The show won’t be installed at the Seattle Art Museum or some other traditional fine-art institution, but at the rock ‘n’ roll museum Allen founded: Experience Music Project at Seattle Center.

Why EMP?

Artists in the collection

• Claude Monet

• Pierre-Auguste Renoir

• Edgar Degas

• Vincent van Gogh

• Pablo Picasso

• Mark Rothko

• Jasper Johns

• Roy Lichtenstein

• Edouard Manet

• Paul Cézanne

• Georges Seurat

• Paul Gauguin

• Eric Fischl

• Nan Goldin

• Willem de Kooning

Source: Experience Music Project

“We saw no better place to put it than a populist institution like EMP,” said the museum’s spokesman, Christian-Philippe Quilici. “We see it evolving into an all-inclusive cultural shrine.”

The exhibition, called “Double Take,” will pair works by European Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters with those of 20th-century American masters.

But even in announcing the show, Allen’s people kept a certain amount of secrecy: The names of only four specific pieces have been released. All four are extremely valuable, important works by world-class artists: Claude Monet’s 1894 “Rouen Cathedral: Afternoon Effect”; Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s 1877 “La Liseuse”; Roy Lichtenstein’s 1962 “The Kiss”; and Jasper Johns’ 1978 “Numbers.”

Allen buys his artwork anonymously, so it’s unknown when he purchased them. But the Renoir, for example, sold for $13.2 million in 2001 in New York.

Paul Hayes Tucker, an art-history professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and author of several books on Impressionism, assembled the exhibition of 28 paintings for Allen.

“I did have access to the entire collection and could have chosen anything to put in. It was wonderful free rein,” Tucker said. “Impressionist paintings have become so mainstream and part of the popular culture that their edge is much harder to recover. People see them as beautiful pictures but they don’t see them being as radical as they were. I thought it would be interesting or novel to pair them with pictures from the 20th century … “

But how does that fit with rock ‘n’ roll? Since it opened in its flashy Frank Gehry-designed building in 2000, EMP has grappled with identity problems and a fluctuating mission. Originally planned as a repository for mementos of the late Jimi Hendrix, the museum morphed into a more general collection of rock memorabilia from Allen’s collections as well as traveling and special exhibitions about music and the recording industry.

Yet with admission of nearly $20, EMP has had a tough time cultivating a regular audience. The museum has made several large rounds of layoffs and staff realignments since its debut.

Last year, under the same roof, Allen opened The Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame to house his collections of movie costumes and props, with a separate entrance and admission fee. The art exhibition, too, will have its own admission fee, as yet unannounced. “We’re playing with the price point right now,” Quilici said.

He acknowledges there’s been some belt-tightening at the institution, but says, “We’ve reached a place with safer footing. Our goal is to be a self-sustaining public institution, with decreasing support from Paul Allen.” He says EMP is working with other local arts institutions to collaborate on educational events, but no specific plans have been announced.

“Anything that boosts arts awareness in Seattle is a good thing,” Quilici said. “The founder just wants to share his collection.”

Museum-studies professor Marjorie Schwarzer of John F. Kennedy University in Berkeley, Calif., sees Allen aligning himself with collectors such as William Randolph Hearst and Las Vegas developer Steve Wynn.

“It’s positioning art and culture as spectacle,” she said.

“It’s a model that more traditional, more serious museums avoid, this idea of emulating shopping malls and casinos. It goes with the idea of the experience economy, where instead of selling a service or a product, you are selling an experience,” Schwarzer said. “Like a little bit of Bellagio is coming to Seattle.”

Sheila Farr:

Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.