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Happy 70th Birthday, SAM

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by Regina Hackett

Richard E. Fuller grew up looking at his mother's Chinese snuff bottles. Men and maidens sported on their porcelain surfaces. He saw big-bellied drunks rolling in painted gutters, monkeys dangling from low branches, and herons -- symbols of longevity -- frozen in full flight over moons he could hold in his hand. All his life he liked small, exquisite things, although his spirit was large and adventurous. Self-aggrandizement didn't interest him, or we'd have the Fuller Museum competing with the Frye and the Henry.

Fuller and his mother Margaret founded the Seattle Art Museum in 1931 and opened it in 1933 in Volunteer Park in the midst of the depression. He was expecting donations to pour in during construction, but they didn't even trickle.

The museum debuted almost entirely on the Fullers' dime, $325,000, which was a painful $75,000 over budget. At that, the Fullers had to scale back plans for the museum to half its original size. As owners of the land, the city came through with funds for grounds maintenance.
Seventy years later, the museum the Fullers created is celebrating its birthday. While it is a broader and more culturally significant institution than Richard Fuller could have imagined, it still bears his stamp, not just because of the power he wielded but the choices he made, both good and ill.

From the first ones spring all the others. No sense of innate inferiority compelled him to look beyond Seattle when he chose an architect, for instance. Without a jury or a panel of experts participating in the final vote (or any vote), he selected the great Carl Gould, who also designed the original Henry Gallery at the University of Washington.
SAM also benefited from Fuller's experience with committees, specifically the one that ran the Art Institute of Seattle (founded in 1928) into the ground. Fuller had served on its board and wrote that he saw "no future for the deficit operations of the Institute."

Previous to choosing Gould, Fuller chose the site with equal success. As Patterson Sims wrote in a 1991 history of the institution on the eve of the museum's expansion downtown, Fuller wanted to be in Volunteer Park because it was close to the city center but remote from its urban bustle, in a residential neighborhood overlooking Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountain range.

Following the lead of the Metropolitan Museum in Central Park, he obtained an agreement with the city to service and maintain the building, leaving the Fullers to run it.

Run it he did, for the next forty years. Although he attracted steadfast support and more art donations than he knew what to do with, he paid the salaries and balanced the budget year in and out by the simple expedient of writing a check. He was a benign illustration of capitalism's golden rule: he who has the gold, makes the rules. During those 40 years, what Fuller wanted, happened. What he opposed tended to fall by the wayside.

 

SAM in 1994 when it opened as the Seattle Asian Art Museum

SAM in 1994 when the museum opened as the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Photo: Paul Macapia

Richard E. Fuller at the podium

Richard E. Fuller at the podium on opening day.

SAM opening day crowds

Opening day crowds outside the Seattle Art Museum in Volunteer Park, 1933.

Calder statue in front of SAM

Alexander Calder; American, 1898-1976; Installation view outside the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Eagle, 1971. Photo: Paul Macapia

An art moderne jewel box in a park: its exterior is clean and lean (imagine it in tiny form as a cigarette lighter); its interiors intimate, with clear pathways, discreet wainscoting and generous skylights. Everything was designed to set off small, precious objects.

That was the Fullers' strength. Mrs. Fuller had a great eye for snuff bottles, jades and small ceramics. In the beginning, her son followed her lead, in part because he had other things to do. He was a geologist at the University of Washington, where he taught classes on volcanoes and the geologic evolution of the region.

Even though the Fullers nearly emptied their home of small treasures when the museum opened, they still faced the prospect of empty galleries. To avoid it, they hung reproductions of famous European paintings amid their genuine artworks from Asia, which sounds a lot odder now than it did then.

Never did Fuller intend his museum to focus exclusively on Asian arts. From 1933 throughout his long tenure, he'd invite a Northwest artist to exhibit and turn a gallery over to that person, often paying painters to have their work framed and sometimes even paying for the paint.

Northwest artists who brought him their work came to expect a quick decision. He'd buy it more often than not, sometimes just to encourage them and sometimes out of genuine enthusiasm. He also employed artists on his small staff, most significantly in the 1930s Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves and Guy Anderson.

"He was a gent," said painter William Ivey. Artists loved him, which couldn't always be said for collectors. By the late 1950s, he was actively trying to discourage a few of the more persistent, not wanting what they had. Anne Gerber said she'd notice him trying not to look at the walls when he visited the home of collectors Bagley and Virginia Wright, who were concentrating on the New York School.

"He'd groan and tell me, 'Your paintings are so large," Virginia Wright remembered. At all costs, he wanted her to keep those paintings in her home instead of donating them to him. Today, the promised gift of the Wright collection is one of the museum's singular highlights.

Gerber knew how it felt to meet with him and come up empty. When she offered to give him her Northwest Native American holdings, he demurred. They subsequently went to the Burke Museum, and SAM had to wait for collector John Hauberg to fill its Northwest Coast Native art gap in 1991, long after the Fuller years.

Nobody's perfect. The person who runs an organization for 40 years without mistakes hasn't been born. In spite of misgivings, he allowed Wright and a group of friends to start (and fund) a contemporary arts council at the museum in 1962, which functioned for the next decade as the museum's first modern art department.

Fuller had an interest in but not a passion for European art. He debated with himself before accepting the Samuel H. Kress Foundation donations of historical European paintings and sculpture in the late 1930s. He had hoped that a gift of European prints (Dürer, Rembrandt and other luminaries) from Seattle banker Manson Backus in 1935 would cover it.

Works by modernist greats such as Picasso and Matisse were in reach in the 1930s, and Fuller could have prevailed upon wealthy donors to help him acquire European Impressionism and especially Post-Impressionism, which were not yet the most popular art movements in the world.

Fuller knew art museums in nearly all America's major cities were either in possession of this work or hot on its trail, which caused him to stick to his original interest in art from the East. With the resources at hand, he couldn't do it all. Better first-rate Asian art than second-rate European.
Whether you agree with this decision or not, it made sense for a Pacific Rim city to turn its attention to the East. Thanks to Fuller, we became art leaders instead of followers.

After getting the museum running on a solid day-to-day basis, he struck curatorial gold in 1948 by hiring Sherman Lee. Before the war, Lee had been Asian art curator at the Detroit Institute of the Arts. He was in Japan after the war, putting him in an excellent position to know what was available and how to get it at the best price in a never-to-be repeated buyer's market for Japanese treasures.

During his four years at the museum, Lee oversaw the acquisition of a series of masterpieces from Asia which transformed Fuller's house on a hill from regionally noted to internationally renowned.

A quiet man, Fuller liked to work directly with individuals. The museum he built grew out of his personal friendships with inspired patrons and collectors, those whom he chose to realize and expand on his vision. Having only a passing interest in European porcelain, he allowed Martha and Henry Isaacson to donate a first-class collection, paving the way for other donations in the field. His friendship with local art dealer Zoe Dusanne led to acquisitions of European and American modernism. Norman and Amelia Davis built the gallery for the Kress Collection and donated ancient Greek and Roman art with an emphasis on coins.

Today the museum operates downtown, in a site it is planning
to expand, and runs the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park as a fulfillment of Fuller's legacy. On the waterfront, it is planning to open the Olympic Sculpture Park late next year. The strengths of its collections span the range of world cultures, from India and Asia to Africa, European decorative, Pacific Northwest Coast Native and postwar American and European modernism.

He was not a scholar, nor was he fabulously wealthy. By the time he resigned from the museum, stock market losses had made it impossible for him to bankroll the museum in the style to which it had become accustomed.

During 40 years, however, he built more than collections. He inspired generations of Seattleites to participate in a civic vision. When he wanted to step aside, he found a community of people ready to take over for him and secure a place for Seattle in the cultural life of the world.


Regina Hackett is the Art Critic for The Seattle Post Intelligencer


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