Safeco donating $3.5 million art collection to consortium of museums
Safeco is donating 840 pieces from its significant collection of contemporary Northwest art to a consortium of museums in Washington, ensuring the works will stay in this state.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Safeco art donationSafeco Art Collection: Begun in 1973. More than 2,000 pieces, most focused on contemporary Northwest art.
Washington Art Consortium: Begun in 1975. Members: Seattle Art Museum; Tacoma Art Museum; Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington; Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, Spokane; Washington State University Museum of Art, Pullman; Whatcom Museum of History & Art, Bellingham; Western Gallery at Western Washington University, Bellingham.
The donation: 840 pieces including 500 works on paper, 130 works on canvas and panel, and 180 three-dimensional objects including glassworks, ceramic pieces, bronze sculptures.
Exhibition: Highlights from the collection will be exhibited at Wright Exhibition Space, 407 Dexter Ave. N., Seattle, April to June. Details are still being worked out.
Sources: Safeco, Washington Art Consortium
Their names are among the biggest in Northwest art: Jacob Lawrence, Fay Jones, Dale Chihuly.
Now, several of their works, along with hundreds of pieces by other Northwest artists that have been part of Safeco's private collection for years, will become permanently accessible for public exhibits.
In what's being described as a huge deal for the Northwest art world, the Seattle-based insurance company is donating 840 pieces from its collection to a consortium of museums in Washington. The move ensures the works will stay in this state.
"It is certainly the most important corporate collection of Northwest art," said James Tune, president of ArtsFund, which raises money for the arts in Western Washington. "And it was a tremendously important decision to make it available to everybody."
The artworks — estimated to be worth about $3.5 million — are being donated to Washington Art Consortium, a nonprofit cooperative of seven art museums including the Seattle Art Museum, Tacoma Art Museum and the University of Washington's Henry Art Gallery.
This single donation more than doubles the size of the consortium's holdings and gives it a strong survey of Northwest artists' works over the past three decades.
The consortium plans to display a portion of the collection at an exhibition space in South Lake Union in April. Some of the art also will be divided among the member museums, though the core of the collection will be kept together.
For Safeco, a key reason for donating was simple. The insurance company — a longtime local institution — had been purchased by Liberty Mutual Group in 2008, leading some to wonder about Safeco's viability and whether its history of local philanthropy would continue.
"We want the community to know we're alive and well," said Safeco President Mike Hughes. Indeed, he said, Liberty Mutual has encouraged the company to keep up its community giving, which Hughes characterizes as being comparable to previous years.
It's rare for a corporation to just give away its art — and especially so many pieces at once.
Usually it happens when a company moves its headquarters or when it's purchased or goes out of business. When JPMorgan Chase bought Washington Mutual in 2008, for example, it donated pieces from WaMu's art collection to museums and nonprofits in the area, Tune said.
By several measures — artistic merit, monetary worth and quantity — the Safeco donation is a bigger deal.
The Safeco Art Collection was started more than 30 years ago by three employees, encouraged by their art-enthusiast CEO Milton Trafton.
They had three main objectives: To acquire pieces that would enhance their workplace while giving employees insight into Northwest art; to support local artists; and to support local galleries by buying works featured there.
That meant the collection was tightly focused on contemporary Northwest art, with an eye toward high-quality works by both established and emerging artists.
The buys usually weren't splashy, million-dollars-a-pop transactions. Instead, the collection grew over the years with consistent purchases of, say, $50,000 or $100,000 a year.
Paintings by Guy Anderson, Morris Graves and William Ivey joined the collection, as did works on paper by Michael Spafford and Barbara Thomas, glassworks by Sonja Blomdahl and Flora Mace and Joey Kirkpatrick, and thousands of other pieces by hundreds of artists.
"If you were to take the top 50 Northwest artists and went down the list of Safeco holdings, you would find some of their most valuable works," Tune said.
Local artists were proud their works could be seen locally, through guided tours back when Safeco's headquarters was in the University District, or through art shows in the company's gallery space.
So when some artists first heard about Safeco's purchase by Liberty Mutual two years ago, they were anxious that the collection might be broken up and sold piecemeal.
"The collection was tremendous — so deep — works of my father and artists of a previous generation," said Seattle sculptor Gerard Tsutakawa, who has several works in the collection. "To have all that go into limbo was pretty traumatic."
Indeed, his father, the late sculptor and painter George Tsutakawa, created the Safeco Art Collection's first work — the fountain that still stands in front of the company's old U District headquarters, which was sold in 2006.
But then some Safeco employees — seeking creative ways the company could give to the community without straining the budget — came up with the idea to donate a sizable portion of the company's 2,200 pieces of art.
Many of the artworks weren't being seen by the public, they figured. A large number of pieces were in storage, and Safeco's new headquarters in downtown Seattle wasn't conducive to public art tours.
Plus, several years ago, the company had decided it would no longer buy new art to build its collection — a decision it said was not budget-driven but came from a change in direction in how it wanted to spend its philanthropic dollars. The company also is considering auctioning off some of its remaining artworks and donating the proceeds to charity.
Safeco will get a tax write-off for its donation — which includes a $350,000 monetary gift to help catalog and preserve the works — to the Washington Art Consortium. But the tax benefit was not a driving force in the decision, said Safeco president Hughes.
From the donation, the consortium plans to incorporate into its own collection about 500 works on paper, including drawings, prints, photos and woodcuts. The remaining works will be divided among the member museums.
For sculptor Gerard Tsutakawa, news of the gift came as a relief. Several of his sculptures, along with some works on paper by his father, will be among the donated pieces.
"I'm glad the majority of the collection is being kept together," he said. And "I'm glad it's going to be available for exhibition again."
Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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