Major collectors have given the Seattle Art Museum nearly 1,000 pieces of art in anticipation of its reopening May 5. The artworks span the...

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Major collectors have given the Seattle Art Museum nearly 1,000 pieces of art in anticipation of its reopening May 5. The artworks span the museum’s collections from Native American, contemporary and modernist works to African, Asian and Australian aboriginal art. The total gift, announced Thursday, has an estimated value of more than $1 billion.

“We’re thrilled,” said SAM director Mimi Gates, noting that the broad scope of the gifts represents SAM’s ambitions. “We stand out for the global connections of our collection … . Given the world we live in today, it’s a very exciting strength to have.”

About 200 of the recently acquired artworks — including Constantin Brâncusi’s 1926 sculpture “Bird in Space,” Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1918 painting “Music — Pink and Blue No. 1,” Mark Rothko’s 1956 “Orange on Red” and Morris Graves’ 1943 “Bird in the Night” — will be on display when the museum’s new downtown expansion opens. Some of the donations were expected. For example, the extensive Virginia and Bagley Wright collection of post-World War II and contemporary art — with major works by Rothko, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Anselm Kiefer, Helen Frankenthaler and Donald Judd, among others — has long been promised to SAM, which mounted an exhibition of the Wright collection in 1999.

Major donors

Susan and Jeffrey Brotman

Jane Lang Davis

Barney A. Ebsworth

Marshall and Helen Hatch

Sam and Gladys Rubinstein

Jon and Mary Shirley

Griffith and Patricia Way

Virginia and Bagley Wright

But other gifts come as a surprise — and offer a glimpse into the high-stakes, low-profile courting that goes on between museum officials and collectors. Museums woo collectors, trying to offer the best home and maximum exposure for their prized artworks, in hopes they will be singled out for valuable donations. Collectors sometimes lap up the attention without making definite commitments, or vacillate between one institution and another. Inevitably, there are disappointments.

In the late 1990s, Seattle patron and former SAM trustee Marshall Hatch reportedly bypassed SAM, which kept much of its regional art in storage, and promised his outstanding collection of 240 Northwest artworks to the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner — including prized paintings by Morris Graves and Mark Tobey. At the time, MoNA director Susan Parke said of the promised gift: “It’s the making of our collection.”

Now SAM has announced that 100 works from the Hatch collection will be coming to SAM. Hatch was not available to comment on the gift. Current MoNA director Greg Robinson says he had heard about the SAM gift from other sources but had not yet spoken with Hatch about his planned gift to MoNA.

“These things aren’t binding,” Robinson said of collectors’ promises. “They can change over time.”

Museum to reopen May 5

Seattle Art Museum: 100 University St., Seattle (206-654-3100 or

Director Gates is aware that when donations from Northwest collections come to SAM, other local institutions may feel the pinch. She says SAM plans to share: “I feel we have a very strong responsibility to lend to other museums.”

Another collection that’s been a question mark, this one for art-watchers around the country, is Barney Ebsworth’s. His choice collection of American modernist painting — including Edward Hopper, O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley and Arthur Dove — showed at SAM in 2000 and also the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Ebsworth moved to the Seattle area four years ago from St. Louis and serves as a trustee at SAM. The good news for us? It turns out 65 artworks from his collection are going to SAM, including 51 from the earlier show.

“With the expansion, now there is space,” Ebsworth said, and acknowledged that his collection is more desirable now than ever, with so few quality works by American modernists on the market. “In effect, it’s not possible now to put that collection together at any price.”

SAM does not reveal the value of its holdings, but Marc Porter, president of Christie’s New York, is familiar with the major collections involved and estimated their value in today’s superheated art market.

“Certainly as a group, this is the announcement of about a billion dollars in art,” he said, referring only to the eight major collections being donated. “What you have is these collectors who’ve bought over decades the best and important examples in fields where now it’s impossible to get them.”

A couple of the weightiest local collections were conspicuously absent from SAM’s list of donors: Bill and Melinda Gates’, and Paul Allen’s.

Asked about those absences, Mimi Gates (who is married to Bill Gates Sr.) was cryptic.

“When we have announcements, we will make them.”

Sheila Farr: