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Originally published Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 1:53 PM

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Mary Shirley made big mark on art scene in Seattle, Eastside

Mary Shirley, a major arts benefactor, was a driving force behind Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park and the growth of the Bellevue Arts Museum.

Seattle Times business reporter

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Mary Shirley, an arts benefactor who with her husband, Jon, was a driving force behind Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park and the Bellevue Arts Museum, was known for her caring demeanor, irreverent wit and passion for larger-than-life fun.

Mrs. Shirley, 73, died last week after a brief illness.

A collector of modern and contemporary art, Mrs. Shirley was an equal partner in philanthropy with her husband, who became wealthy as Microsoft’s president from 1983 to 1990. Jon Shirley joined the board of the Seattle Art Museum in 1997, and the pair led several initiatives, from a $180 million capital campaign to the transformation of brownfields on Seattle’s waterfront into the Olympic Sculpture Park.

“The Olympic Sculpture Park would not exist if not for the generosity of Mary and Jon,” said Mimi Gates, SAM’s director during that era.

The couple donated an estimated $30 million to help SAM buy land and create an endowment that keeps the park open and free to the public. They also financed the acquisition of Alexander Calder’s “Eagle,” the 39-foot-high, bright-red steel sculpture that is the park’s most visible piece.

“It set the standard for the quality of art that would be in the park,” Gates said. “In many ways, it’s an icon like the Space Needle.”

The Shirleys, as the park’s primary benefactors, were offered naming rights. They chose to name the park after the mountain range across the water rather than call attention to themselves.

Similarly, the Shirleys were catalysts in the rebirth of the Bellevue Arts Museum. In 1998 the couple gave $2 million to BAM to buy land and relocate to downtown Bellevue.

“She was a firecracker,” said Marsha Wolf, director of development for BAM. “She had this fabulous, irreverent humor, a love for art and was a passionate leader for it. We wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for her.”

Through a spokesman, Jon Shirley declined a request this week for an interview.

As a board member of the Pilchuck Glass School, made famous by glass artist Dale Chihuly and others, Mrs. Shirley helped lead its capital campaign. And last year the Shirleys’ private foundation gave $500,000 to the endowment drive for Cornish College of the Arts.

The couple also frequently opened their Medina home-cum-art gallery for fundraising parties. In 2011, they hosted a $17,900-per-plate fundraiser for President Obama that drew 65 people.

Susan Brotman, a SAM trustee, said Mrs. Shirley had a taste for the outrageous, like a massive pink, crocheted octopus she bought in Miami.

“It was so Mary to find something unusual, fun and funny, and immediately buy it,” Brotman said.

Mrs. Shirley often accompanied her husband to Concours d’Elegance rallies around the globe where his Ferraris and Alfa Romeo competed for prizes. In a 1999 Seattle Times interview, she said she loved driving around in his 1954 Ferrari “knowing that my tush is in the same seat where Ingrid Bergman sat.”

In 2011, she organized a car rally in Tuscany, Italy, for the wives of the men who regularly attend these events. She drove a ”candy-apple red” convertible through Tuscany, and at a ball that evening, wore a pink poodle skirt, black and white saddle shoes and a sweater with a big “M” on it, Brotman said.

“She stole the show,” Brotman said. “She really touched the hearts of the people around her.”

Mark Haley, a major arts supporter who served on the boards of Pilchuck Glass School and Bellevue Arts Museum with Mrs. Shirley, said she was a worker bee on the board and a strong ambassador for the arts in the community.

“She was rather sheepish about her wealth but always tried to do good things with it because she never forgot her roots,” Haley said.

While The Jon and Mary Shirley Foundation has focused grants on SAM, BAM and other arts causes, it also has contributed to agencies that offer meals, shelter and services to the homeless and working poor.

Besides her husband, Mary Shirley is survived by her children, Erickson Shirley, of Washington and Colorado, Peter Shirley, of Texas, and Mary Shirley, of Florida; and six grandchildren.

Donations in her honor can be made to the Seattle Art Museum or Washington Women In Need.

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com On Twitter @sbhatt

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story.

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