An empty wall in place of 'magnificent' public art

Bank of America removed a 36-foot long Sam Francis painting from a downtown Seattle lobby, and the painting is headed to an art exhibit in Charlotte, N.C., where BofA is headquartered.
Crosscut archive image.

Henry Moore's "Vertebrae," with Seattle's Rem Koolhaas-designed library in the background.

Bank of America removed a 36-foot long Sam Francis painting from a downtown Seattle lobby, and the painting is headed to an art exhibit in Charlotte, N.C., where BofA is headquartered.

The next time you're standing on Fourth Avenue next to the downtown Seattle Library, stop gazing upward at the astonishing Rem Koolhaas design and turn to the west. You should immediately notice the sleek, knobby Henry Moore sculpture "Vertebrae" in the plaza outside an office building.

That vertebrae is an endangered species, but not in the animal sense. It's rare because it's one of a few remaining pieces of public art in this city that came from a celebrated corporate art collection, that of Seattle First National Bank.

Now peer through the building's window into its lobby. All you will see there is a huge, bare wall — a spot that until recently showcased a mural-sized painting by California artist Sam Francis. That painting, too, once belonged to Seafirst, then it went to Bank of America in the early 1980s in one of the largest bank mergers in U.S. history.

There it stayed until Saturday, June 26, when BofA had the painting removed so it could be shipped to North Carolina, the bank's headquarters city and the location of a new museum that will open this fall with an exhibit of works from the bank's collection.

Seattle's loss is Charlotte's gain.

"I'm grieving over the loss of that magnificent Sam Francis," said Llew Pritchard, a lawyer who has worked off and on in the tower since the 1970s. His own office, on the 42nd floor, is filled with works by artists, both local and otherwise. He's especially fond of Japanese paintings.

"As you can see, I'm a great devotee of the arts, and I'm sad," Pritchard said, recalling the "great public art collection" amassed by Seafirst back in the day. He said that to him the painting fit into a chronology that represented public art and spectacle in Seattle: There's the building itself at 1001 Fourth Ave., which opened as Seafirst headquarters in 1969 and was nicknamed "the box the Space Needle came in" because of its size rectangular shape; the untitled Sam Francis and the "Vertebrae," both from the 1970s; and the angular, glass-honeycomb Koolhaas library, which opened in 2004.

Bank of America, by far the largest bank in Washington by market share (20 percent, according to the Puget Sound Business Journal), alerted tenants by email before moving the 18-by-36-foot Sam Francis canvas, but not everyone received the alert — Pritchard included.

Britney Sheehan, the bank's spokeswoman in Seattle, explained that the bank no longer has offices in the building, which Seafirst built as its headquarters in 1969. Now there's just a lobby branch, and the tower has been renamed Safeco Plaza.

'ꀜIt's a building we don't occupy at the level we once did,'ꀝ she said. As a result, "We don't have any plans for that building" or its blank wall.

So now, instead of the art telling a story of Seattle's past, it illustrates the fallout from corporate conglomeration and retraction.

Sheehan emphasized that BofA, whose collection is regarded as one of the largest and most valuable in the corporate world, remains committed to public art. That, she said, is why it's sharing more than 60 of its works with Charlotte's Mint Museum, which is reopening in a new location.

The bank doesn't disclose the size or value of its collection. But Sheehan said that through its "Art in our Communities" program, BofA has provided more than 2,000 artworks for public display since 2008, in cities including Jacksonville, Tucson, and Dallas. And in 2010-11 it will loan museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, more than 20 complete exhibitions curated by the bank, each with 75-100 works of art.

"Lots of corporations are selling their works of fine art," Sheehan said. "It's a testament to our commitment to communities that we're actually making these available."

In Charlotte, they're celebrating the bank's generosity.

The Mint exhibit "includes large works that usually don't travel. Some have not been seen on the East Coast," the Charlotte Observer reported, citing the Sam Francis. "While the Mint got to pick, Bank of America picked up the tab, paying costs such as crating and shipping, an important consideration when museums, like all nonprofits, are strapped for cash. The Mint will keep the ticket revenue."

Back in Seattle, art lovers can rest easy about one thing: "Vertebrae" likely won't be leaving any time soon. The Seattle Art Museum owns the sculpture; Seafirst sold it once but got so much heat it bought the piece back and donated it to the museum.

For Pritchard, that isn't much comfort. He's sad, mad, and maybe even a tad irrational about the loss. He saves some of the venom for the North Carolinians who have inherited his beloved painting, asking, "What have they done to deserve it?"


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