You’d expect a Buddhist sculpture to bring good karma, but it’s an open question whether that’s been true in the case of an artifact recently donated to the University of Washington by a wealthy Mercer Island couple. Marsha and Jay Glazer, who have previously made significant cash contributions to the UW, donated the East Asian art work in early December. The roughly 5 feet x 3.5 feet sculpture, made of papier-mâché, has been described as a Buddha or a Bodhisattva.
The gift has led to fretting about how to protect it and where to display it, and has also raised questions regarding its value. UW officials tend to tread lightly when it comes to generous donors like the Glazers. So it was ironic when, in a conversation with Crosscut, Jay Glazer said that as far as he’s concerned, the UW could put the piece on the field for Husky football players to run over. He described the gift as “an afterthought,” adding, “they can hang it from a tree. I don’t care.”
Since its arrival, the piece has been sitting on a desk in a meeting room off the 4th floor reception area of Thomson Hall, home of the Jackson School of International Affairs. It’s deliberately being kept out of public view as a result of concerns that it could be easily defaced or inadvertently harmed, or even carted off considering how lightweight it is. "We don’t have any safe place we can put it" for public display), observed Clark Sorensen, an associate professor at the Jackson School. “There’s a lot of practical problems with something like this.”
With shell-inlaid eyes, elongated earlobes, ornate crown, high eyebrows, and small mouth, the figure wears an elaborate breastplate and robe highlighted with gold leaf. It is believed to be of Burmese origin dating to the late 19th century.
David Bachman, associate director at the Jackson School, said the donors indicated the piece was worth “somewhere between $75,000 and $150,000,” which caused him to expect “a much more significant piece. But having seen it, lots of people here anyway are quite dubious about that evaluation.” In informal talks around the faculty lunch table, people were “underwhelmed with whether this was a piece of art and trying to think about other places on campus where it might go such as the Burke Museum,” Bachman said.
A friend of the Glazers who helped arrange the donation described it as a Buddha, but Bachman said it’s more of a Bodhisattva, which he described as “somebody capable of receiving nirvana or enlightenment but who stays on the earth to help others achieve that.”
Bachman said the donation was discussed “at the highest levels of the university” and that “people like the President [Mark Emmert] and the president’s wife and others weighed in on this, saying it has to be displayed.” Regarding the timing of the donation, Bachman said “the suspicion is the donor wanted to give it to the UW by the end of this year to get the tax break on it.” Asked about that Jay Glazer said, “Well, you take advantage of whatever it [the tax break] is.” But he denied that was main motive. “What you’re talking about is something pretty inconsequential,” he said.
According to UW spokesman Bob Roseth, the Glazers are “Laureates,” meaning their lifetime giving to the school totals $1 million to $10 million. In the Jackson School’s fall 2009 newsletter the couple is included in a group photo standing on either side of President Emmert at an event acknowledging supporters of the school’s Jewish Studies Program.
Connie Kravas, the top UW Advancement Office official who has been the key conduit with the Glazers, said that until she was contacted by Crosscut she had no clue there were any problems regarding how or where to display the donation, and that neither central administration nor the Glazers imposed any conditions. “I would never want a [UW school] unit to accept a gift for which there was a concern about the space, or any other concern,” Kravas said. “We want win-win situations when donors make gifts, always.”
Kravas said the Glazers had decided to put the piece in storage after they had purchased it for one of their salons and discovered “it didn’t quite fit.” She said the Glazers would pay for an independent appraiser to set the sculpture’s value.
She said the Jackson School seemed like the best home for the piece because of the school’s East Asian Studies program. She dug up a Nov. 23 email from Jackson School director Anand Yang in which he wrote he was “delighted to receive the beautiful Buddhist sculpture…please convey our gratitude to the donor for this lovely gift. I hope this will add to the traffic of people to Thomson Hall and add to our good karma.”
But Jackson School administrators and faculty are still trying to balance the desire to move the sculpture to a more prominent location against the reality that they don’t have the funds to provide the kind of security they believe is necessary. There has been discussion about with shielding it behind Plexiglas or mounting in a podium or platform, but the costs would be steep at a time when money is tight.
One possible spot for the sculpture could be a relatively untraveled alcove on the fourth floor of Thomson Hall — the same space that the bronze bust of Scoop Jackson once occupied. There would be a small irony in that move, considering the debate that surrounded where to put the Jackson bust, which was moved to a spot outside Thomson Hall in 2006.
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