Masters of Northwest Art -- Richard Fuller, Uncrowned King of Visual Art

  • By Lehmann, Thelma
  • Posted 10/12/2001
  • Essay 3607

Thelma Lehmann, Seattle painter and arts connoisseur, recounts her friendship with internationally respected art collector and patron Richard E. Fuller (1897-1976), and she describes his founding of the Seattle Art Museum at Volunteer Park (which now houses the Seattle Asian Arts Museum) in the early 1930s. As then president of the Seattle Art Institute, Richard Fuller, Ph.D., drafted plans with architect Carl F. Gould (1873-1939) for an art museum for Seattle and funded it with money inherited from his father. He took no salary as the Museum President and Director, and Thelma describes his sensitive administration of the Museum as a patron who was completely in touch with the arts community at the time. Reprinted with permission from Out of the Cultural Dustbin (Seattle: Hans and Thelma Lehmann, 1992).

Where could I have been, that evening with my parents, in the midst of a group of people whose presence now floats through my head like shadows beyond capture? It was in a home in Capitol Hill, on Harvard Avenue.

Only recently did I learn, as I had suspected, that it was the home of H.C. Henry (benefactor of the UW's Henry Gallery). It was at a meeting of the Seattle Fine Arts Society, later the Seattle Art Institute, the forerunner of the Seattle Art Museum.

Did I meet Richard Fuller on that occasion? It was not impossible, since he had already been in Seattle for many years.

Richard Fuller, Ph.D., had come to Seattle in 1926 with mother, Margaret, sister Eugenia, several graduate degrees, and an abiding interest in Oriental art. I think it could have been his devotion to Oriental art, along with a desire to house properly a collection of his own, that sowed the seeds for the Seattle Art Museum.

Richard's father, who had a reputation as an exceptionally astute investor, had been a practicing urologist in New York. It was after his death that the Fullers moved to Victoria, B.C., Canada, to join mother Margaret's family before coming to Seattle.

What does the ordinary family do when left a large legacy? Spend it, of course. But the Fullers were not ordinary; they were a great-hearted, benevolent family, and their decision was to donate a new and much needed art museum to Seattle.

Richard had become president of the Seattle Art Institute, which was developing beyond its capacity. He conferred with fellow board member architect Carl Gould, who agreed to draft plans for a new museum for Seattle.

After an intensive search, Richard was satisfied that the best and most harmonious site he could find was on the spacious grounds of Volunteer Park. The museum became situated in the middle of God's own green acres, with no interfering structures. Best of all, parking could be found, especially on "non-opening" days, virtually in front of the entrance.

The cornerstone was laid in 1932. There was a movement afoot to name it "The Fuller Art Museum," but Richard, with characteristic modesty, declined. Had he agreed, the reputation of the Seattle branch of the Fuller family might have become as widespread as cousin Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome.

The seamless blend of Richard's elegant life-style, his payment of all museum exhibition costs (the city maintained the building), and his fulfillment of what he considered personal obligations such as purchasing paintings, including mine, whenever he attended art shows, led to the general assumption that he had deep pockets. Not always so. Rumor has it that his early finances were restored in later years through an opportune investment with the industrialist Harold Heath.

Although Richard worked full-time as director of the Seattle Art Museum, he took no salary, and wisely understood that a museum had to be more than a repository for art.

As a consequence, a competitive exhibition called "The Northwest Annual" became as important to regional artists as anything shown at the museum. Entries came from Alaska, British Columbia, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. In the mid-1900s there were few galleries of any real standing -- The Seligman, Dusanne, Frederick & Nelson's "Little Gallery," and, later, Woodside. And then there was the Seattle Art Museum, the only exposure that really mattered.

Pandemonium broke forth on the days in which artists brought their sculptures and paintings -- sometimes still wet -- through the side door of the museum. These were the works that would be lined up for selection by the jury of the Northwest Annual, which chose no more than 250 from the usual 750 entries. To be cited for "Honorable Mention" (usually about five) or recommended for purchase (usually about 12) or actually win a "Purchase Award" (usually about four) -- that was the ultimate achievement for any artist working within the six states.

It was because, in 1938, I had won an "Honorable Mention" and in a subsequent annual a "Purchase Award" that I received an invitation from Dr. Fuller to have a one-person exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum. I had just graduated from Chouinard Art Institute in California. The invitation took me back to my personal prelude to painting in my teen-age days, when on a Sunday I would walk the four steep miles from my home to the new museum in Volunteer Park to introduce myself to the marvels within its sandstone walls. I remember how I had all but floated back home, filled with the wonders I had seen and determined to become part of that world. I have saved the letter of invitation. Nothing could have been more welcome, more stimulating, or, at the conclusion of the show, more gratifying.

Dick Fuller, with uncanny attentiveness, knew what the city's painters and sculptors were up to. In 1944, when Hans went off to fight the Nazis, Dick offered me a full-time job at the museum. At the same time, professor Emilo Amero and I made up the art department of Cornish School. Along with teaching, my days were spent working at the museum, painting decorative screens commissioned by Frederick & Nelson, writing letters, sending "loosely wrapped packages" overseas, and doing a bit of painting in the fortress on First Hill that I was holding down for Hans's return. Although they were dread days of war for the world, except for my deep concerns for my brand-new husband, they were active and productive days for me.

After the war, Seattle became a cultural boomtown. In endeavors of the arts, whether the symphony, the opera, or the theater, Dick Fuller was a respected advisor. A handsome man never forward in his demeanor, Dick's most noticeable characteristic was his hesitant speech pattern. It took great patience to understand exactly what he was saying, and I admired his secretary, Dorothy Malone, who, for 55 years, was able to translate his directives. I often thought that some of those directives were her own. On days when it was difficult to get an answer from Dick, Dottie was always approachable and definite. Once she pridefully stated, "My letters on his behalf ate beginning to sound just like him. I don't know how anyone can tell the difference!"

I sensed an almost pixie quality in Seattle's most important art patron. I worked in the stacks (where every museum stores what it owns), and on occasion so did Dick. His habit was to sit on a low stool, apron clad, repairing a work of, say, ceramics. If Dottie came to say that an important visitor was waiting for him in his office, Dick would go on tinkering and humming, until he tore himself away from his chosen task and trundled off to do his duty. There were Chaplinesque moments, like the ones in which Dick, deep in concentration while in a gallery, would bump into something on a pedestal, and offer a startled "Oh, sorry" as he turned to see.

In his 60s, Dick married for the first time. It was to Betti Morrison, after a 20-year friendship. Because of the very close bond between mother and son, a waiting period of two years was required before Margaret Fuller gave her son permission to marry!

Betti was a great favorite with everyone. Aside from being endowed with a kind of bright beauty, she, like Dick, was totally lacking in pretensions.

It was her open charm that made me feel so welcome when invited to the Fuller home on Prospect Avenue. One evening, as I sat in their living room, I wondered if it had been Betti's or Dick's courageous decision to have virtually all the walls of the room covered with Mark Tobey murals. (Actually, it had been the idea of the John Baillargeons, whose house it had been before the Fullers bought it.) As the misty night drifted in through fragile French doors and I was enjoying velvety-textured soup that had been ladled out of giant Oriental tureens, I knew I would remember this most mellow of evenings.

I recall another time in which the Fullers were our guests at dinner. While cocktails were being served elsewhere in the house, Dick was investigating our dinner table. "What wines," he asked, "go in those glasses?" There were three lined up at each place setting. When I explained the succession of whites and reds, he rearranged the glasses. A hidden expertise one would have never expected.

During his last two years or three years, Richard suffered from Parkinson's disease and from injured feet -- some say his feet were bruised from so often walking over the hot lava of the Paricutín Volcano during his six years of part-time geological work in Mexico. Dick became dependent on a wheelchair.

Betti, looking a lovely picture of robust good health, could be seen pushing Dick in his wheelchair. It was also Betti who died first -- in 1975 -- followed a year later by Dick.


Hans and Thelma Lehmann, Out of the Cultural Dustbin: Sentimental Musings on the Arts & Music in Seattle from 1936 to 1992 (Seattle: Lehmann, 1992), 61-64

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