Early Years: 1932-39
Reports in the 1930s
In 1933, Dr. Richard Fuller opened the doors to the Seattle Art Museum (previously known as the Art Institute of Seattle) at its new home in Volunteer Park. In spite of many stresses and roadblocks - from geographic isolation in the far reaches of the Pacific Northwest, from high shipping expenses for exhibitions, from a global economic depression - the museum sought to alleviate those stresses by acting as a form of cultured recreation and diversion. Dr. Fuller, a geologist with no museum director experience, was forthcoming about his struggle as an “amateur”:
I have had many people comment on what fun I must be having, but, personally, I must admit that I have accepted the responsibilities which the task imposes in a more serious vein than, perhaps, is wise. As an amateur, one has the advantage of not being bound by convention, but, at the same time, a lack of experience causes one to feel one's way more carefully in trying to arrive at a logical conclusion of the innumerable small problems that must be encountered in attempting to establish a new enterprise. (1932-33)
SAM's doors were open, but work was still in progress on the iconic Volunteer Park building, designed by architects Bebb & Gould and Peder Gjarde, well into the middle of the decade. Even as he oversaw the completion of the physical museum, Dr. Fuller curated exhibitions throughout this period, though often lamenting the perceived lack of public appreciation. These early reports are characterized largely by Dr. Fuller’s frank, conversational tone as he appraises the success (or lack thereof) of exhibits and the art on view:
Much adverse criticism, however, is due to a lack of understanding on the part of the public, but, on the other hand, some is unquestionably justified. The present pursuit of originality undoubtedly results in the perpetration of crimes in the name of art, but it also is certainly productive of creative talent, which, however, will probably fail to be publicly acclaimed, until time has sanctioned it. Then, with as little reason, the work of the approved artist will probably be universally accepted by the public on the strength of the signature, rather than on its merits as an individual creation. (1935)
Dr. Fuller hoped to establish Seattle as an international center for culture while promoting “recreation, inspiration, and education” of the public through the exhibition and display of the works he had painstakingly collected over the years. The Education Department was an important fixture in museum programming, and was responsible for scheduling and presenting many lectures, tours, and radio programs for the benefit of schools, private organizations, and the general public. Outside of specific programming, there was a focus on the educational merits of the collection, particularly regarding a collection of some 500 European facsimiles. While unconventional today, Dr. Fuller was excited about the educational opportunity afforded by showing these facsimiles:
[...]in consequence we will be able to show the historical development of European art by successive exhibitions. By adopting this policy, we are again defying the established precedent of basing the worthiness of museum material on the very insecure foundation of its financial value. An honest facsimile is not in danger of being condemned as spurious and, at the same time, aside possibly from slight deviations in color, it does not leave the spectator in doubt as to the extent that it may have been altered either by the enthusiasm or the inability of the copyist...As a rule, in this country, any photographic reproductions are classed as merely educational material and considered unworthy of public display, and yet the education of the general public is, undeniably, one of the primary functions of museums, although, all too often, the public considers them only as repositories for costly material. (1932-33)
Dr. Fuller also noted, however, that the collection was sure to improve over time: "During the process of accumulation, one's experience gradually raises one's standard. Later additions to the collection are sure to render some of the earlier accessions superfluous" (1932-33). The self-described amateur was learning to navigate the world of curation through the very act of building SAM's collection. While much of the earliest "permanent" collection followed Dr. Fuller’s personal collecting interest in Asian art (because as Dr. Fuller describes, "to many [art] can speak more eloquently than words of the history and culture of foreign lands" 1933), local Northwest artists were also represented in exhibitions and aquisitions, including the work of art students at the University of Washington. Dr. Fuller would eventually attempt to become “extremely catholic” in his selection of works in order to “appeal to broader public tastes,” making "a point of interspersing in our schedule each month material that is sufficiently literal to be enjoyed by the uninitiated" (1937) to encourage museum membership.
SAM was new to Seattle's burgeoning cultural landscape, but was already becoming an important part of the community.