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Sunday, December 28, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

The year in visual arts: Fakery, failure and a fantastic installation of light

By Sheila Farr
Seattle Times art critic

A Seattle Times investigative report revealed that the Thesaurus Art Gallery was selling fakes.
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2003 started off with an art scandal and ended with a shock.

On Jan. 26, The Seattle Times published an investigative story on Thesaurus Fine Arts, a glossy Asian art and antique shop in Pioneer Square, and revealed to the public what art insiders had long known: The store was selling fakes.

Thesaurus closed that day — a rare event in the art world, where fraud often remains a dirty secret, tricky for law-enforcement officials to prove and prosecute.

The owner of Thesaurus was a high-profile Chinese economist and former University of Washington professor named Steven Cheung, under investigation by the U.S. government for tax fraud. The state attorney general's office and the Federal Trade Commission launched investigations, too, as a result of the Times story. According to an associate, Cheung and his wife are in China indefinitely to avoid warrants for their arrest.

Artist James Turrell in front of the new Turrell Skyspace at the Henry Art Gallery on the UW campus.
After that, things lightened up for a while — literally. James Turrell came to town in March, bringing to the Henry Art Gallery a major exhibition of his ethereal light installations to mark the Henry's 75th anniversary. The exhibition, "Knowing Light," continued through the year (it ends Feb. 8, 2004) and remains a hit with the public. It helped boost the Henry's attendance by about 10,000 over the same period last year.

Part of that heightened interest is also due to last summer's opening of Turrell's permanent Skyspace, a freestanding spaceship of a thing that hovers over the Henry Gallery courtyard on twin concrete pillars. Museum visitors can sit on warmed benches that line the elliptical interior and view the shifting hues of the sky — or, during inclement weather, an amazing Turrell facsimile thereof. At night, the outside of the Skyspace provides a light show for passers-by from LED lights programmed to display a shifting array of colors.

The enlightened spaces of the Turrell show ushered us into summer and a new interest on the part of Seattle Art Museum officials in the ancient and modern art of India and Pakistan. "Intimate Worlds: Masterpieces of Indian Painting from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection" spotlighted a group of 90 lusciously hued paintings, most in miniature format, dating from the 14th to 19th centuries. Part of SAM's neglect of the area stems from the fact that it has no curator of Indian art. "Intimate Worlds" gave the museum's innovative education coordinator, Sarah Loudon — with her broad knowledge of Indian music and culture — a chance to step forward as acting curator for the Seattle stop of the traveling exhibition. The show also included contemporary paintings by Indian artist Nilima Sheikh and Pakistani artist Shahzia Sikander.

After that, we were all just cruising into fall when the bomb struck.

The Bellevue Art Museum closed its doors at the end of September.
On Sept. 25, Bellevue Art Museum officials announced that the shiny new $23 million Steven Holl-designed museum would close its doors at the end of the month, out of money. Museum leaders went ahead and opened the exhibit "Clay Body," with works by Seattle artists Patti Warashina, Akio Takamori and Claudia Fitch on Sept. 27 — then shut it down just three days later. The art community is still reeling from the event. In November, a Seattle Times investigative report disclosed that a swamp of nearly $1 million in accounting discrepancies, an untried business model, weak leadership, a vague artistic mission and lackluster fund-raising efforts brought down the museum.

Meanwhile, the board hired Tacoma businessman Mark Haley to reorganize the museum with plans to reopen next summer.

Buried in the flap over the Bellevue Art Museum, the darkest chapter of Washington's public art history quietly reopened on Oct. 11, when Centralia College unveiled Michael Spafford's dramatic 10 x 46 foot "Labors of Hercules" murals, originally commissioned in 1980 for the state's House of Representatives, at the college's new Corbet Theater. When they were originally installed, some lawmakers balked and thought they were inappropriate — no matter how widely Spafford's work was praised. After years of bitter debate, the murals were removed in 1993 and placed in storage — at the cost of $162,000, nearly twice what the artist was paid to create them. Spafford has said he'd rather they had been destroyed.

Now, they're on loan to Centralia College on a renewable 20-year lease at the price of $1. The college also paid about $75,000 for moving and restoration of the paintings.

One good thing about having Spafford's powerful murals out of the closet again is the hope that some smart lawmakers might seize the opportunity to have them reinstalled at the State Capitol building, where they belong.

Sheila Farr:


Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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