A final gift for Seattle from philanthropist Bagley Wright

Mar 21, 2013

If you’re a Seattle arts and culture lover, you owe a lot to a man named Bagley Wright.

The Space Needle, Benaroya Hall, Seattle Repertory Theater — Wright helped build or create all of them.

Then there’s the art he’s given to the city.

Credit Seattle Symphony

Example No. 1: the huge Robert Rauschenberg mural hanging inside the symphony hall downtown.

Bagley Wright was a journalist-turned-real estate developer who had a passion for literature. He always liked art, but grew to love it only after meeting —then marrying — Virginia, whom everyone calls “Jinny.”

“He was interested in pre-Columbian art. He was interested in Indian art. He collected Japanese ceramics and textiles,” she says.

She was an art history grad from Barnard College who was working at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York City when the two met. She recalls a memory from those early days involving the surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp:

“My boss’s wife was writing a book, and she wanted a quiet place to interview Duchamp. She asked if she could use my career girl apartment in New York. I think Bagley was very impressed with that," she says.

They were married for 58 years, raising four children in Seattle all while kick-starting the city’s arts and culture scene. Not only did Bagley help erect the Space Needle for the 1962 World’s Fair, he helped create the Seattle Rep (its main theater is called “The Bagley Wright"); he was a major contributor to the Seattle Art Museum; and he served on the board of the Seattle Symphony.

Bagley died in 2011. He was 87 years old.

But Bagley and Jinny’s time together included amassing one of the biggest collections of post-war art in the Pacific Northwest. The couple donated hundreds of works to SAM.

Credit Paul Warchol

Example No. 2: The stainless steel tree known as “Split” by the artist Roxy Paine, standing proudly at the Olympic Sculpture Park.

Now one more example, likely to become the most popular: A huge installation of video monitors that hug the façade of SAM at First Avenue and Union Street.

“It’s huge. It’s attention-catching,” says SAM director Kimberly Rorschach. “Let’s hope we don’t cause a traffic jam.”

The installation is a kaleidoscopic artwork called “MIRROR” by artist Doug Aitken. He and his crew shot hundreds of hours of video throughout the Pacific Northwest, some of it is recognizable and some of it is highly abstract.

The installation will display footage chosen in response to the weather or traffic patterns outside.

“To me, it’s very much like seeing the body move. There’s kind of a kinetic quality to it,” Aitken says. “It’s incredibly exciting to create an artwork that’s kind of a living system.”

Aitken calls the piece a kind of “liquid choreography.”

And unlike a movie with has a concrete beginning, middle and end, “MIRROR” will never replay the same footage twice.

SAM had been contemplating a way to distinguish its main entrance at this particular corner. Its old entrance is marked by the gigantic Hammering Man sculpture, which Viriginia helped fund.

Four years ago, Aitken presented his “MIRROR” proposal to SAM. And Bagley was floored.

“He was interested in this idea of something that was turning the museum inside out. That was living. That was not fixed,” Aitken recalls.

Adds Jinny: “I was really astonished and impressed by how quickly he got it. And he said, ‘This is exactly what the museum needs. This is exactly what will transform the façade.’”

At 6:30 p.m. Sunday, SAM will host a public celebration at First and Union called “The Happening.” Accompanying the unveiling of “MIRROR” will be a performance of the minimalist score “In C” by Terry Riley, featuring the Seattle Symphony.  

Jinny’s only lament about “MIRROR” is that her late husband will not get to see the piece.

She, however, will, on a daily basis. She lives in a condo just across the street from the museum.

Advance tickets are sold out for “The Happening” but free tickets may be released on the day of the event via SAM's website.