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Seattle Art Museum gets major gift: a contemporary art collection worth an estimated $400 million

By Megan Burbank Seattle Times

In a year of attrition and closures for arts spaces, the Seattle Art Museum is set to welcome a major gift: 19 abstract expressionist and European masterworks from the 20th century – including those by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning – from the Lang Collection, once owned by the late Medina philanthropists Jane Lang Davis and Richard E. Lang. The gift also includes an additional $10.5 million in dedicated funds for the museum.

The announcement came from the newly formed Friday Foundation, which is dedicated to carrying out the Langs’ philanthropic wishes. The foundation declined to share a valuation of the collection as a whole, but according to a third-party estimate from Lisa Dennison, executive vice president and chairman of Sotheby’s Americas in New York, the whole collection is worth about $400 million. None of the pieces is worth less than $1 million, she said, “and it climbs steeply from there.”

“They’re really top quality. These works were acquired in the ’70s and ’80s,” Dennison said. If a collector tried to acquire them now, “you would be priced out of the market.”

The acquisition means that “in one gift, in one fell swoop,” SAM will have one of the best public collections of New York school paintings in the country, said the museum’s director and CEO, Amada Cruz. “Every single work is showing the artist at his or her apex of quality and production.”

One of the most important visual art movements to emerge from postwar America, abstract expressionism developed in New York in the 1940s and ’50s, distinguished by abstract, highly gestural paintings that conveyed deeply felt emotion and expression and a sense of spontaneity. Key figures of the movement include de Kooning, Pollock, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko, all of whom are represented in the Lang Collection.

“What’s important about this collection is that the Langs were acquiring one of the most significant movements in postwar American art – abstract expressionism – defined by artists who have come to be a little bit of household names,” Dennison said. The pieces the Langs acquired were among the best these artists made with strong exhibition histories and connections to other collections.

The collection is also notable for its inclusion of “work by three women artists of that era who very often get overlooked or did at the time certainly,” said Cruz. “So we’ve got Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler, and they are phenomenal, phenomenal examples of each of one of those artists’ work.”

Frankenthaler and Krasner during their careers were often overshadowed by their partners, Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock, respectively. Now, they’re gaining new appreciation.

The Krasner painting, “Night Watch,” is a collagelike menagerie of highly graphic eyes. “She painted that very shortly after the death of her husband, Jackson Pollock, who died in a car crash with his mistress, so think about the kind of angst and anger and loss and humiliation – think of all the things she was working through when she painted that painting,” said Lyn Grinstein, Jane Lang Davis’ daughter and president of the Friday Foundation. “Night Watch” will be SAM’s first acquisition from the artist.

The collection also includes work from Swiss Surrealist sculptor Alberto Giacometti and – a rarity for American collections – Francis Bacon, the iconic British painter known for his unsettling images of distorted bodily forms.

Dennison called it “absolutely one of the best collections of abstract expressionism and beyond in private hands,” one that would be a major or even transformative gift at any institution but for SAM will build on existing strengths. “It belongs in a museum,” she said.

It’s rare to find a collection as simultaneously museum-quality and individualized as the one cultivated by the Langs. “A lot of collections are put together with outside advisers, but this was very personal,” Dennison said. “This was really a labor of love, so to speak” – one that would have required “a little bit of detective work and hunting, but I think they did an amazing job,” she said.

In addition to the masterworks bound for SAM, six other pieces will go to the Yale University Art Gallery, one of the country’s premiere university art museums.

Richard Lang and Jane Lang Davis – “Dick and Jane,” Cruz said – collected the works for their home over the course of a decade after meeting in Hawaii and marrying in Seattle in 1966. After they bought and remodeled a home in Medina, they purchased their first work of art – a black-and-white Franz Kline painting – to hang over their couch. It’s among the pieces bound for SAM.

The Langs believed that a strong cultural community was crucial to Seattle’s civic life. Richard Lang served on the board of SAM for 10 years, and Jane Lang Davis was friends with Virginia Wright, who championed contemporary art in Seattle.

By the time Dick Lang died, in 1982, the couple had brought so much art into their home that “they had no walls left,” Grinstein said.

In October, the Friday Foundation announced gifts totaling $9 million for the arts in Seattle. The foundation contributed $2 million to SAM to go toward acquiring contemporary art (the money will be used toward “our strategic initiative to buy the work of younger artists and also artists of color,” Cruz said) and $2 million in relief funding following the museum’s closure due to COVID-19.

The foundation’s latest gift to SAM also includes $10.5 million in financial support for maintaining the Lang Collection pieces and other works at SAM. “It’s not too easy to raise money for conservation because people just don’t really think about it: You buy a painting, you put it on your wall, you give it to a museum, you put it on that wall, and it’s healthy and it stays there and it’s fine,” Cruz said. “But, actually, that does take a lot of maintenance.”

Choosing to give the core of their collection to SAM reflects the Langs’ long connection to Seattle’s art world – and fits into the city’s longstanding tradition of private art collecting – but a collection of this quality could’ve gone anywhere, Dennison and Cruz said.

In October, SAM will exhibit the Lang collection for the public. After a year when so many art museums and galleries moved programming online or shuttered altogether, Cruz said it was particularly resonant that some of the first works patrons might see in real life again are abstract expressionist pieces.

“A lot of this work is so much about the gesture and seeing the hand of the artists … and the signature brush strokes, and I think it’ll be really interesting for people to see that because it really does give you a sense of human touch, which I think we all really crave,” she said.

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