Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Remembering the Seattle Art Museum Days

I'm sitting here today in the Henry Gallery Cafe, reflecting on my life-long love affair with museums, while I wait to meet one of my first friends at the Seattle Art Museum, Judith Cederblom. I had been thinking of her a few weeks ago, and lo there she stood in Cafe Allegro not more than a few hours after I had met with another colleague from Seattle Art Museum days, Albert Thurmond.

It had been over 25 years since I'd seen either of them, and it's been a pleasure to learn how our respective lives have evolved since then.

Annie at work at the King Tut Exhibition, 1978

"SAM’s first “blockbuster” was the 1940 exhibition of Japanese works from the collection of Manson F. Backus, which drew an astounding 73,000 visitors. But that success paled in comparison to the traveling exhibition The Treasures of Tutankhamun, which SAM mounted in 1978 at the Seattle Center. The exhibition was an international sensation (many recall Steve Martin’s hit song “King Tut”), drawing 1.3 million visitors in Seattle. 

King Tut’s popularity, coupled with the astonishing acquisition of Katherine C. White’s famous collection of African Art in 1981 (part donation, partly funded by the Boeing Company), encouraged SAM’s leaders to expand beyond the original Volunteer Park facility. In 1986, Seattle voters approved a $29.6 million levy, with the museum raising $35 million more, to build a 150,000-square-foot facility on the west edge of Seattle’s downtown....designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Robert Venturi of Venturi, Scott Brown..."

Those were indeed the glory days to be working at SAM.  Judith was right in the thick of it, putting up with four directors -- Willis Woods, then interim director Bagley Wright, then Arnold Jolles and then Jay Gates -- in the time Albert and I were raising money through development work for the new downtown museum project.  I remember how thrilled I was to be invited to write the successful National Endowment for the Arts Challenge grant application, in which we crafted the major arguments for the addition of a downtown museum. During that time, I was lucky enough to work with Mayor Charles Royer's municipal team as well, on the strategy that eventually created a new downtown museum facility.

We were all three engaged in planning events such as the museum's 50th anniversary gala celebrations, as well as in VIP events connected to exhibitions like the one from the collection of the Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza, wherein the baron invited me to sail down from Vancouver on his yacht to Seattle; or even the visit, complete with advance visits from the Secret Service, of Queen Elizabeth or Egyptian Ambassador Ghorbal.  

It was wonderful to burnish those memories with updates today, just as it was in my coffee with Albert.  What's most amazing is how true to themselves both Judith & Albert have remained, and how much we still have in common.