‘Seattle’s Best Gift’ — How Richard Fuller willed the Seattle Art Museum into Existence

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Among gifts I received this year, none was more fascinating than a rare copy of A Gift to the City.  The slim 48-page volume, published in 1993, told the history of the Seattle Art Museum and the Fuller family that gave Seattle an enduring gift, perhaps the best gift the city ever got.

I knew that the handsome building at Volunteer Park, now called the Seattle Asian Art Museum, had been donated to the city by Richard Fuller (1897-1976) and his mother, Margaret McTavish Fuller. But I didn’t know the full back story. And here in my hands was an intimate account of the Fullers and their adventures as told in Richard Fuller’s own words.

Richard details how the family left its roots in New York City and came to Seattle in 1923. They were drawn by family ties to relatives in nearby Victoria, B.C., and by Richard’s elder brother Duncan’s start-up medical practice. In those years, Richard was enrolled at the University of Washington working on a Ph.D. in geology. During that time, he was elected to the Seattle Fine Arts Society board of directors, later becoming board president.

The Society (later renamed the Art Institute of Seattle) had been renting space for $300 a month to house its small art collection in the Little Gallery, a salon at Horace Henry’s home on Capitol Hill. There was no display space so the Society held its only exhibition, the Northwest Annual, in the basement of the Chamber of Commerce. 

In post-World War years, the Fuller family’s passion had been to travel the world and collect art. Their trips were epic but not without travails. During their 1919 trip to Asia, Richard suffered an acute appendix attack in Japan. His life was saved by an early morning operation, brother Duncan’s first, assisted by their dad, Dr. Eugene Fuller. Afterwards, Richard suffered severe poisoning from the anesthesia and spent three months recovering, nursed back to health by Margaret and his sister Eugenia. On another of their wide-ranging journeys, Margaret fell ill with pneumonia. She suffered for months while they traveled across India to Bombay and then south to Madras.                                                                                                                

Through it all, Margaret continued to acquire valuable pieces of art wherever they ventured – South America, Europe, Asia, Egypt, and Palestine. When she returned to Seattle, she had her collection assessed and catalogued by an authority on Asian art. 

According to Richard, the Depression years were a good time to purchase “white elephants” from art dealers. In 1933, he and Margaret found a group of heroic Chinese stone figures in a San Francisco warehouse yard. After ten years in storage, the figures from the Sung, Ming, and Ch’ing Dynasties were still wrapped tightly in ship’s hawsers. He writes, “My mother purchased most of them from A. Livingston Gump.” The great camels and rams allegedly came from the 15th Century tomb of the Emperor Yun Lo’s third son, although Richard believed they might have been robbed from the tomb of a previous dynasty. 

Richard explains: “With the Depression in full swing, I could see no future for the deficit operations of the Art Institute. I then conceived, with my mother’s enthusiasm, the idea of donating jointly from our greatly shrunken inheritance $250,000 for the purposes of constructing an art museum in Volunteer Park on the crest of Capitol Hill.” 

The city agreed to maintain the building and furnish necessary water, light, heat, electric power, janitorial and custodial services, while the organization promised to maintain the art activities. Richard tells how he worked with Carl Gould, who founded the University of Washington School of Architecture, to design the Volunteer Park museum. They exhibited the design at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1932 in an effort to show that Seattle, known only for lumbering and fishing, “is not inhabited by people who balance peas on their forks and fight Indians.”

The museum opened on June 23, 1933, with speeches from Mayor John F. Dore, Judge Charles T. Donworth, and from Richard himself. The museum was named in memory of his late father, Eugene Fuller. But it was Margaret who donated her considerable collection, as well as creating an endowment to cover operating expenses. Sister Eugenia Atwood contributed the wrought iron gates on either side of the central court.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Fuller became president and director of the new museum, virtually the family business. The museum’s success, he says, was “an anomaly” for, although an admitted amateur, he was pressed into service. That work involved in every aspect of the museum until retirement in 1973. He took no salary and often erased deficits out of his own pocket. He served as the Accessions Committee and, as he points out, “it was an unfashionable dictatorship.” But it enabled him to make immediate decisions that, for many great museums, demand months or even years to achieve a purchase.

In his director’s role, Fuller hired local artists to hang pictures and do odd jobs. He was an early patron for Northwest artists including Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves, Guy Anderson, Helmi Juvonen, William Cummings, and Mark Tobey. Cummings, writing in his memoir, Sketchbook,  recalls that “few artists ever went away empty-handed from his basement office.” 

Guiding the Seattle Art Museum would seem a full-time career, but Fuller reports that occasionally “my geologic past caught up with me.” (He’d been teaching at the University of Washington since 1940.) Known for his studies of volcanic rock, Fuller was sent to study the Mexican volcano Paricutin. He spent a half dozen years supervising field work on ecology of plant and animal life in a changing environment. 

In the middle of detailing recent museum acquisitions, drawings ranging from Albrecht Durer to Picasso, Fuller almost parenthetically reports that “in October 1951, I had the great good fortune to marry my longtime friend Mrs. Elizabeth (Betti) Morrison Emory.” Thus ended Richard Fuller’s long-time distinction as “Seattle’s most eligible and popular bachelor.”

Fuller confesses that he was maintaining a “seven-day schedule due to the bad habit of accepting unrelated responsibility both in the business world and in civic organizations.” He reports involvement in various corporations “some of them extremely unprofitable” although others, including investment in a gold mine and in a Boeing subcontractor, proved lucrative. He also made time for civic responsibilities, becoming a backbone of the non-profit Seattle Foundation, as well as the Seattle Opera Association, Seattle Symphony, Pacific Science Center and PONCHO.

Although the Volunteer Park museum’s design didn’t lend itself to needed expansion, Fuller had extended the sub basement at his own expense, adding two offices, a photographic darkroom, a seminar room and a slide laboratory. After the 1962 World’s Fair, the art museum acquired much-needed exhibition space in the building at Seattle Center that had housed the United Kingdom Pavilion. The stop-gap measure lasted until the museum moved into its new downtown building in December 1991.

Eventually, the Volunteer Park building was desperately in need of mechanical and electrical renovation (the old 1930s boiler still heated the place). The building closed in 2017, reopening with an added 20 percent of floor space on February 8, 2020. That grand reopening coincided with the pandemic, so it only lasted 35 days. The pandemic-caused closure stretched more than a year. Then on May 28 of this year, visitors welcomed a second reopening, an opportunity to view again lovingly collected art treasures from China, Korea, Japan, India, and Southeast Asia. They are beautifully displayed in the architecturally celebrated building – the city’s finest and most beloved gift. 

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Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and later for the Seattle Times. In 2003, she quit to run for Seattle City Council where she served 12 years. She now writes for Westside Seattle and has been a co-host on The Bridge, aired on community radio station KMGP. You can email tips and comments to Jean at jgodden@blarg.net.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting to recall that SAM originally thought of expanding the original museum in Volunteer Park, but was rebuffed by the park lovers; then it tried for a complex at Westlake, and finally settled for a downtown main museum, built in two phases. When the old building needed upgrades and expansion at Volunteer Park, the neighborhood resistance came back to bite them, and it was a close thing to pull off the expansion and utility upgrade. The Fuller museum now looks beautiful, and it was an architectural breakthrough when it was built, eschewing the tradition of Beaux Arts architecture for a bold Art Deco simplicity.

  2. In these times when art and history are stressed to the max, this is a story of rejuvenation, kind hearts, persistence, and a sense of history saved for us to nod our heads, smile and believe that we are not alone. We are not left to rewrite history — we have it written down, wonderfully documented, and now revealed, Thank you, Jean, for seeing the value of a story this good to start a year so in need of inspiration, values, and honoring our pretty darned good philanthropists who invested in Seattle!

  3. A wonderful story, Jean. Along with countless Seattle kids, the best part of visiting the museum was “riding” the wonderful camels

  4. It was thrilling to read richard’s story of how The Fuller family, especially he and Margaret, gave Seattle the wonderful gift, camels and all. I am a sucker for stories and this such an inspiring and enlightened tale.

  5. Appelo has some fun with Fuller’s taste in art and other Fuller anecdotes.
    From Antiques magazine, Tim Appelo “Seattle goes boom: The Seattle Art Museum becomes a mecca for American art”
    JANUARY 31, 2009
    …and Fuller’s war with modernity raged on. The Wrights’ faction got their modern art curator in 1973. The day Charles Cowles arrived he asked to see the Jackson Pollock that the museum had had for fifteen years. “They said they couldn’t find it. It was in the janitor’s closet behind the slop sink. There were at least twenty if not twenty-five areas of paint loss.” He sent it to the Museum of Modern Art for restoration, and it is now a gem of the Seattle collection.

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