A Transformative Calder Gift To The Seattle Art Museum

Museum shows come and go, but a grand Alexander Calder exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum may just reshape the institution for much of the immediate future. The works in this show, from a gift by longtime museum patrons Jon and Kim Richter Shirley, isn’t just monumental in its cultural and financial value. The show and the related gift are also intended to have a long-lasting impact on the museum, with a wide range of educational programming, research, and public outreach initiatives.

“We intend to try and keep this an ongoing thing,” Jon said during a press tour of his home in November. “It isn’t just this year.”

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Portrait of Estrellita B. Brodsky, seated on a patterned couch with a Carmen Herrera painting behind her.

Last April, the Shirleys donated 48 works by Alexander Calder to the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). While Calders proliferate in museums across the globe, these are particularly major ones—the group of works was valued at $200 million by a Christie’s higher-up. Now, the public is getting its first glimpse at these mobiles, stabiles, standing mobiles, wire sculptures, and more in the form of a Calder show running at the museum through August 4.

The entrance display to “Calder: In Motion, The Shirley Family Collection,” Seattle Art Museum, 2023, ©2024 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: Alborz Kamalizad.

But the show is, in some ways, not merely just a show. The Shirleys’ gift to SAM also comes with a $10 million endowment and an annual commitment of $250,000 to $500,000. In addition to covering the preservation and conservation expenses for the donated collection, the funding will enable the museum to host Calder-related events, including curator tours, lectures, art-making workshops, a festival for families, and workshops. Already, the funding has been used to produce an audio guide by artist Kennedy Yanko.

The museum will also send teaching artists into preschools serving underserved youth, including refugee and immigrant children, and give free admission and full or partial bus reimbursement to Seattle public school students (kindergarten through grade 12) that qualify.

“When we put this gift together, we really wanted to emphasize how important SAM is as an institution to us, how important Seattle is to us,” Kim said during the press preview.

The couple also hopes the Calder exhibition and its array of inclusive programs help rebuild SAM’s visitor numbers and Seattle’s downtown.

“One of the things that we are trying to get is bussing in as many young people as we can,” Jon said. “I think that some of that will evolve into parents coming in and other people hearing about it and other schools saying ‘This is a really great thing to do.’”

“I want to see the museum grow in a cultural way,” he continued. “We want to see it become more relevant to everybody. We want to see as many children as we possibly can.”

Red Curly Tail (1970) on view at “Calder: In Motion, The Shirley Family Collection” at the Seattle Art Museum. Photo: Karen K. Ho/ARTnews

A Teacher Lights a Spark

Jon’s multi-decade affection for Calder, as well as his interest in arts education, came from his experience as the son of a naval officer who was given a scholarship to a private, all-boys boarding school in Pennsylvania.

“We had a marvelous man who introduced us to all forms of art, performing arts, music and visual arts, architecture, literature, poetry,” he said.

School trips to the Philadelphia Museum and New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where Jon saw Calder sculptures in person after viewing them in books, also made a profound impression. He particularly loved viewing Calder’s Circus (1926–31), 88 small wire and wooden models representing a variety of circus performers, at the Whitney Museum in New York.

“When I left the school, I came out with a strong interest in sculpture and in jazz,” he said with a laugh.

He built his wealth through his career as the former president, chief operating officer, and director of Microsoft. During his nearly five-decade marriage to his first wife, Mary, the couple built their collection through art dealers, auctions in New York, and sometimes directly from conversations with artists themselves.

The Shirleys acquired their first Calder sculpture, Squarish (1970), from Pace Gallery in 1988. Soon after, the art market collapsed, resulting in lower competition when the couple bid on abstract works, especially sculptures.

Squarish (1970) on view at Calder: In Motion, The Shirley Family Collection, at the Seattle Art Museum, 2023, ©2024 Calder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: Alborz Kamalizad.

Squarish was also the beginning of what would become Jon and Mary’s collecting focus. “I really loved living with that,” he said. “And that led to, ‘if you’ve got one, it would be more fun to have another one.’”

Jon and Mary’s initial strategy for acquiring Calders was a conscious effort to gather a collection that could go to an institution. They often called Alexander “Sandy” Rower, Calder’s grandson and the head of the Calder Foundation, for advice on what to buy.

“Somehow, almost every year, we’d find a piece or two,” Jon said.

The collection grew to include the 22-foot-tall “stabile” Red Curly Tail (1970); the 5-foot-long sound-producing mobile Dispersed Objects with Brass Gong (1948), which hung in their dining room; and the large mobile Toile d’araignée (1965).

Mary died in 2013 at the age of 73. Kim, who had been a member of SAM’s board and a friend of the couple for many years, married Jon in 2016. The couple continued to collect, working with art dealers like White Cube founder Jay Jopling and Pace president Marc Glimcher.

Jon and Kim went on to expand their art collection with works by younger and more diverse artists. “I wanted us to have our own voice in what we’re doing,” Kim said.

A visionary home

The Shirleys’ $42 million, 27,000-square-foot mansion in Medina, Washington, features expansive walls, plenty of pedestals and places to hang sculptures, a windowless area for displaying photographs, and a large gallery space that frequently hosts musicians for live performances. In early November, it was Canadian-American singer Rufus Wainwright, a longtime friend of the couple, who performed at the George Suyama–designed home. In addition to press tours and famous musicians, the Shirley home and its art collection were the location for two Democratic congressional campaign fundraisers for Barack Obama.

It is hard not to be impressed and slightly overwhelmed by the couple’s modern and contemporary art collection on display. Sculptures and paintings by blue-chip artists are everywhere: Giacometti’s Dog (Le Chien), Constantin Brancusi’s Bird In Space, Mark Rothko, Joan Mitchell, Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, Jeff Koons, Louise Bourgeois, John Chamberlain, Gerhard Richter, Claes Oldenburg, and Isamu Noguchi. The home also has works by contemporary artists: Igshaan Adams, Firelei Báez, McArthur Binion, Julie Mehretu, Mark Bradford, Kerry James Marshall, Oscar Murillo, Eric Fischl, Carole Bove, Melvin Edwards, and Leonardo Drew.

The 30-foot safety pin sculpture by Claes Oldenburg in the Shirleys’ front yard was a commission. Photo Karen K. Ho/ARTnews

Several early Dale Chihuly glass sculptures are installed on a brick wall above a fireplace. Nearly 30 works by Jon and Mary’s longtime friend Chuck Close adorn the walls, including the 23-foot-long painting Big Nude, and a gridded photograph inscribed to Mary. In the backyard stands David Smith’s Cubi V in stainless steel. “It’s spectacular when the sun is shining on it,” Jon said. “A terrific, terrific piece.”

A Legacy of Philanthropy

Even before their recent donation of the Calders, Jon and Kim Shirley had been instrumental at the Seattle Art Museum and in the city’s art community. Both are longtime trustees of SAM’s board, with Jon serving as chair between 2000 and 2008. Mary and Jon also spearheaded the creation of the city’s Olympic Sculpture Park.

“He and Virginia Wright and a number of other collectors were collecting all these massive pieces of sculpture, but there was no place for SAM to put them,” said SAM trustee Maggie Walker.

Jon and Mary provided the initial endowment gift of $30 million that enabled its construction and operations, and Jon served as chair of the park’s building committee. Most of all, a donation by Jon and Mary to the museum’s acquisition fund enabled the purchase of Calder’s massive stationary work Eagle—measuring around 38 feet tall and said to be valued at around $10 million. The abstract steel sculpture was the Olympic Sculpture Park’s lead gift, moved there in 2007, and is now its mascot.

Alexander Calder’s Eagle (1971) at Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park. Photo: Karen K. Ho/ARTnews.

The Shirleys also gifted two works by Beverly Pepper and Mark di Suvero’s Schubert Sonata, and loaned Louise Nevelson’s Sky Landscape I to the park.

Even with this level of support, Jon and Mary didn’t want the park named after themselves. “That was offered to them, but they wanted to name it after the Olympic mountain range,” said Catharina Manchanda, SAM’s Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.

In March 2020, Jon and Kim also made a donation through their foundation to the All in Seattle initiative, which provided financial assistance to local residents affected by the pandemic’s economic impact. The initiative’s initial goal was $5 million but ultimately raised $27 million.

Jon and Kim’s influence extends beyond SAM—they are both members of the collections committees at the National Gallery of Art and for Tate North America, and Kim was appointed to President Joe Biden’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities last April. But it is Seattle to which they remain most committed.

“It hasn’t been a duty,” Jon said of his longtime involvement with the board. “I’m still a trustee because it’s been so enjoyable and so much fun.”

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