‘Dear old, irascible Bagley Wright’
Virginia and Bagley Wright. Credit: 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.
He never eased up from his high standards. I remember once his telling me that the way he sized up an arts organization, prior to making a donation, was to go to a performance and then seek out reactions from board members at intermission. If they all gushed, he was discouraged. What he wanted were board members who knew enough to be critical, to hope for specific improvements (while also being very supportive). You can see right there the “creative tension” he brought to boosterish Seattle.
Nor did he conceal his New York perspectives. I once convened a lunch with George Tsutakawa, the great artist I had arranged to do illustrations for a Judie Geise cookbook we were publishing with Bagley’s help. Wright and Tsutakawa got talking about Northwest artists, a topic on which the former could be quite dismissive. “Did you know Morris Graves?” inquired the patron, in a tone that made me fear that he was about to deliver a dart. “We were at Broadway High School together,” came the reply, in a tone that put the newcomer in his place.
One of the great dramas of Seattle arts in the past 50 years has been the way the Wrights, with a growing number of allies, firmly and deftly shifted the Seattle Art Museum (and local visual arts in general) from its infatuation with local artists, such as Morris Graves and Mark Tobey, and replaced that with the major figures of the New York School of the mid-20th century. You need only to go to the new SAM expansion downtown to see many of these great works that collectors such as the Wrights, his dear friend Jane Lang Davis, and others bought and are giving to SAM. The seed was a little walk-up gallery off Occidental Mall, Current Editions, started by Virginia Wright in the 1960s as a way for local collectors to see the work of that great Manhattan Renaissance and to be able to afford to start collecting them by buying multiples and prints.
Not just New York, of course. Wright was a wide-ranging connoisseur of pre-Colombian art and Japanese textiles. He brought two major architects to Seattle projects, the Vancouver master Arthur Erickson for the Wright’s house in the Highlands (they later moved to downtown, right across from SAM); and Robert Venturi, the postmodern theorist from Philadelphia, who designed the not-greatly-admired first phase of SAM. There were a few forays into music, with Virginia being a fervent admirer of Speight Jenkins’ transformation of Seattle Opera, and Bagley a fast friend of the Symphony’s Gerard Schwarz and a key figure in raising money for Benaroya Hall.
Wright’s impact on the arts is probably as great as any other figure in the past 40 years. Seattle would have had a rebirth of the arts, regardless; you couldn’t have such an influx of professionals from big cities, not to mention all the wealth generated by the Microsoft generation, without creating an arts boom. What’s notable is the way the Wrights channeled it. The Seattle Art Museum emerged as the premier institution with the strongest board. (In other cities, that might well have been the symphony.) SAM built its new downtown expansion and the Olympic Sculpture Park to capture these strong modern collections of paintings and sculpture.
There has been a strong New York accent to Seattle’s arts boom: the Balanchine-tilt of the Ballet, the Opera’s Jenkins, the Symphony’s Schwarz, Dan Sullivan at the Rep, Gordon Edelstein at ACT, and Bart Sher at Intiman — all being strong New York sensibilities. Perhaps this is owing to Seattle’s cultural insecurity, requiring the New York imprimatur. It also stems from the Wrights’ circle and their deep connections to Manhattan figures and galleries.
I wonder if there will now be a course correction — inevitable in the arts and also because of the absence of Wright from the scene. Seattle is now very globalized, rather than Manhattanized. The new tech wealth may be more interested in the European and Asian avant garde, as well as non-New York specialties such as early music (Amsterdam, London) or the director-dominated operas and theater of Europe. At the occasional Wright soiree I would attend, I could see that they were attempting to bring the new economy wealth (notably Jon Shirley of Microsoft) into their salon. But these figures, such as Charles Simonyi or Nathan Myhrvold or Bill Gates, are such powerfully independent individualists that they seem to elude anything like a coherent patron class. They also have an embarrassingly much greater wealth than the old timber families and the World’s Fair generation of business leaders that the Wrights mostly knew.
Which leads me to a last note of appreciation for Bagley Wright. He not only opened the doors of provincial perception; he was a strong individualist himself. He had marvelous and even courtly (Southern?) manners, but he was never quite tamed, never quite “settled” here. Seattle’s complacency continued to draw his ire. I recall that the one time he really got mad at me over an article he loosed a dead-aim arrow at my “insufferable, knowing tone.” (A palpable hit!) He knew the inside stories, and we had a long-running conversational game where he would test to see if I somehow had figured out the inner secrets, whereupon he, like Deep Throat, would mutter a kind of confirmation.
His friends, too, were cut from eccentric cloth. Perhaps his deepest friendship was for Stimson Bullitt, author, president of KING Broadcasting in the 1960s, outdoorsman, and one as far to the left of center as Bagley was (once) to the right. They first worked together as developers of the Logan Building downtown and grew to love each other’s company, to relish telling stories of Seattle’s first families and their foibles, and to pull off daring ventures of high aspiration.
I suspect they both thought in many ways that Seattle was not up to their standards (it wasn’t and isn’t), but that the city they loved was well worth prodding, every day and in hundreds of ways, into Space-Needle-sized dreams. They were civilizers.