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'Dear old, irascible Bagley Wright'

The powerful arts patron, who died last week, had the courage of his non-provincial convictions about Seattle. He made a huge difference, and he did it in his way.

Virginia and Bagley Wright.

Virginia and Bagley Wright. Video still courtesy of Leigh Kimball and Marianna Haniger / Seattle Art Museum

Long ago, while working as an editor of The Argus, I set out to do a profile of Bagley Wright, the notable arts leader who died last week at the age of 87. I recall the interviews as fascinating but guarded. I was thoroughly awed by this highly cultivated, rich, witty, and influential figure who was far above my social station.

I remember the headline, "Dear old, irascible Bagley Wright." The story tried to balance an account of how unpredictable and sometimes sharp he could be, along with all the affection people had for his generosity, great company, and leadership. Fortunately, one of the other editors, Roger Downey, spotted my misspelling of "irascible" just before it went to print — or else my reputation with this great man would have been doomed.

We stayed a little bit in touch, and then, in 1975 when I was trying to find investors to start Seattle Weekly (first called The Weekly of Metropolitan Seattle), I worked up the courage to ask him to invest. "Go get somebody as a partner who understands business," he said commandingly, and when I did so (hiring Darrell Oldham), he became the first (small) investor.

He soon became my indispensable mentor, and it was in those early years of getting the Weekly going that I learned just how good he was at guiding creative businesses. It turned out that he had spent a few years, right out of Princeton, working for some New York magazines, so he had an interest, often a condescending one, in journalism. Mostly, he liked business, and had a fine feel for timing, for balancing debt and equity, and for sticking to your basic goals. "Don't get daunted!" he would tell me, often adding a hilarious story about how Hunter Simpson, running Physio-Control (where Wright was chair of the board), bossed around his board and drove the company relentlessly to success. The Wright family eventually became the largest (though still a minority holding) owners of the Weekly (until it was sold to the Village Voice in 1997), but after the first five years or so, Bagley passed the board responsibilities on to his son, Charlie. He remained a shrewd reader of it, but I never got him comfortable enough with the Web to hook him on Crosscut.

Anyhow, that's how I got to know him moderately well. We would get together to talk about literature (especially T.S. Eliot) or high-toned magazines such as The New Criterion, edited by the brilliant conservative critic Hilton Kramer. We'd share gossip about the local arts scene, when Bagley — a born satirist who should have written novels about provincial society along the lines of those by Louis Begley, whom he admired — would get off some stinging lines that he would not dare utter in public, maybe hoping that they would find eventual expression somewhere in the Weekly. I'd try to explain local politics to him a bit, particularly when the Seattle Art Museum was trying to move downtown at Westlake Mall, but he would quickly grow impatient with this low form of life and Seattle's endless, dithering process.

Wright had come out here from the East Coast (he was born in Marietta, Georgia, where his father was a textiles executive), graduating from Exeter and Princeton. After school, he moved to Manhattan and began hanging out in the gallery scene, where he met (working at the hugely influential Sidney Janis Gallery) Virginia Bloedel, a Seattle timber heiress. Both were soon absorbing the modern arts gospel according to the art critic Clement Greenberg. They married, in a script taken from F. Scott Fitzgerald stories, and came out to Seattle in 1956, just in time to catch the World's Fair wave.

Both of them had in mind transforming Seattle's provincial culture by injecting New York standards. First was the creation of the Seattle Repertory Theatre, where Bagley jumped right in, since he loved theater, dared to create a repertory company (the repertory idea was utter economic folly, as it turned out), and improvised his way through various artistic directors and contortions into building quite an ambitious theater in a building named for him by his friends.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jul 25, 9:34 a.m. Inappropriate

Yeah, well, he also built the Bank of California Building.

gabowker

Posted Mon, Jul 25, 11:27 a.m. Inappropriate

Wonderful article, David.

chiyoi

Posted Mon, Jul 25, 7:31 p.m. Inappropriate

Sorry, I prefer Graves and Tobey over Warhol, and "The Northwest School" of architecture over anything out of the East Coast. Just call me provincial I guess.

s_calvert

Posted Tue, Jul 26, 6:28 a.m. Inappropriate

"First was the creation of the Seattle Repertory Theatre, where Bagley jumped right in, since he loved theater, dared to create a repertory company (utter folly, as it turned out)..."

I wouldn't call that "utter folly." Not a great economic model, but a treasure trove of creative foment. It was wonderful to see the Rep in its early days, to see actors in their prime, performing different roles over several nights. True rep, well executed by the SRT's first artistic staff, was a delight to behold.

I second s_calvert's comments. Nor would I call Graves, Tobey or Callahan for that matter, Seattle artists. They may have started here, but certainly didn't end here. I do wonder how Seattle's aesthetic would have developed without the Wrights. Moot point now. Bagley and Ginny Wright definitely helped shape Seattle's artistic directions. And made life much more... much more... what? Interesting? Challenging? Engaging? Better? Or just different?

Posted Tue, Jul 26, 4:28 p.m. Inappropriate

Ginny Wright's gallery in the sixties, in pioneer square, was called "Current Editions", not "Limited Editions".

Rniemi

Posted Tue, Jul 26, 7:09 p.m. Inappropriate

A shame that I didn't meet him, we could have talked theater. New York, where I spent 25 years in publishing, however, is a village of a different kind, provincialism peculiar to it, one of which is to leave too few traces. Bagley Wright left probably at a good enough time to have wanted to import some of its better qualities. I recall that when I left around 1985 I didn't want to come within a 100 miles of an artist I had soured so on the NY Art World... even though I was married to my second painter. Theater in Seattle since I came here 15 years ago, has been pretty disappointing, with few notable exception. I had a long piece on that topic at my
http://artscritic.blogspot.com/

mikerol

Posted Tue, Jul 26, 10:42 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for the catch on Current Editions, now fixed. Apologies for the clumsy language on the Seattle Repertory Theatre; I meant to say the repertory notion proved an economic folly and had to be abandoned, while the theater itself (originally in the building that now houses Intiman) was a fine idea that has flourished for many years.

Posted Sat, Jul 30, 3:19 p.m. Inappropriate

IIRC, the Seattle Rep was also the first regional theatre to be created by residents such as Bagley Wright. In Seattle, people like him decided we needed a regional theatre, created it, and went out and hired an artistic director (Stuart Vaughn). I think at that time and some time afterward, all other regional theatres were created by artistic directors, such as Tyrone Guthrie deciding he wanted to create a theatre in Minneapolis.

The SRT was a unique model, no doubt because of the creative business minds of people like Wright.

Posted Thu, Aug 4, 2:53 p.m. Inappropriate

Every so often,David,you say something I actually like. Well done, for Bagley!

DanMc

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