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The (art) work ahead

This week Chris Bruce, the director for Washington State University’s museum of art, travels to Seattle to help sort out the disposition of the one of the most significant art donations in Washington State history – that of Safeco Insurance’s gift of more than 800 artworks. The donation of work by Northwest artists to the Washington Art Consortium, a non-profit museum cooperative, is valued at about $3.5 million.

Fay Jones' "Lotus- Eaters," a lithograph

Fay Jones' "Lotus- Eaters," a lithograph

While the donation is a done deal, Bruce, as WSU’s representative, has some work ahead in helping to decide where each work of art will go.

WSU became one of the four founding members of the Washington Art Consortium in 1975.  Because of logistics of maintenance and storage, the WAC has always been a shared collection of works on paper including pieces from the New York School from the 1950s and 60s, says Bruce, dropping names like de Kooning, Motherwell, and Pollock. The WAC brought the masterworks to this region and then expanded the collection to include photography and works from the Pacific Northwest.

So this week, Bruce and six other members of the WAC board – also museum directors – are meeting in Seattle to carefully review the Safeco donation piece by piece with a Northwest art expert. They will choose about 150 key works on paper for the WACs permanent collection. Then later this spring the remainder of the donation, along with money from Safeco for its care and transportation, will be divided among the WAC member museums, including WSU.

Roger Shimomura's "Diary," an acrylic on canvas

Roger Shimomura's "Diary," an acrylic on canvas

“By the end of March each one of us should have a wish list of pieces we would like to have,” says Bruce. He expects there will be some overlap. “Three museums might like the same Chihuly, for example.” Then it will come down to whether the specific piece fits in with the existing work at the museum, or if it fits a regional subject matter. There’s a beautiful painting by Gaylen Hansen (an Eastern Washington-based artist and former WSU Art Department faculty) that could fit well into WSU’s collection.  As well, says Bruce, some of the glass pieces from Safeco might fit well with the art on permanent display in the atrium of the Smith Center for Undergraduate Education.

Other pieces, like serigraphs by Jacob Lawrence, would be wonderful additions to WSU’s museum, but since Lawrence was a professor at the University of Washington, they’re more likely to go to the Henry Art Gallery there, says Bruce. He doesn’t anticipate tension over dividing up the remaining pieces. “We’re a very collegial group,” says Bruce.

By April, the WAC board should have done its job and the disposition of most of the works will be clear. At that time, the public will be able to see the “best of Safeco” at an exhibition scheduled to open April 21st at the Wright Exhibition Space in Seattle. And later this year the pieces coming to WSU will be shown on campus in Pullman.


Safeco donating $3.5 million art collection to consortium of museums (Seattle Times, Feb. 11, 2010)

Washington Art Consortium

Safeco Insurance Art Collection