Seattle Art Museum announces major gift of Calder works from Jon and Kim Shirley

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Seattle Art Museum announces major gift of Calder works from Jon and Kim Shirley
Alexander Calder, Moon and Waves, 1963. Gouache and watercolor on paper, 29 1/2 x 41 in., Promised gift of Jon and Mary Shirley, © 2023 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: Nicholas Shirley.

SEATTLE, WA.- Today the Seattle Art Museum announced a gift of 48 major works by Alexander Calder to the museum from the collection of Jon and Kim Shirley. The gift of the Shirley Family Calder Collection is supported by a $10 million endowment and an annual financial commitment from the Shirleys to support Calder-related exhibitions and research. The Shirleys’ collection is one of the most important collections of Calder’s work in private hands.

The Shirleys’ gift to SAM will be the centerpiece of an ongoing series of annual exhibitions and programs. Beginning this November, SAM will present an inaugural exhibition featuring all 48 works from the collection, offering an extensive look into the life and work of Calder. The exhibition and related programming are supported by a $1 million gift from the Shirleys, who have also promised an annual gift of $250,000 to $500,000 to support future programs, events, and Calder-related research. Annual exhibitions in the future will center around Calder, touching on his diverse cultural influences and his profound impact on modern and contemporary art.

The legacy of Alexander Calder (American, 1898–1976) is foundational to the history of art. Many of the ideas he explored—from the unconventional possibilities of repurposed or “found” materials to the potential of art to create an experience for viewers through movement, variable composition, performance, and sound—have proven prescient, inspiring subsequent generations of artists. In 1989, the Calder family helped to establish Atelier Calder, a residency for contemporary artists in Calder’s home and studio in France’s Loire Valley. More than 55 renowned international artists have participated in residencies there, including Mark Dion, Tara Donovan, Ernesto Neto, and Sarah Sze, among many others. Drawing on this rich legacy and in honor of the Shirley gift, the Calder Foundation has committed to lending artworks and collaborating on partnerships with the Seattle Art Museum.

“Calder is an artist whose work is seemingly ubiquitous,” said Amada Cruz, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO of the Seattle Art Museum. “In truth, we’ve lost sight of the enormous artistic innovations that he was responsible for—from pioneering wire sculpture to inventing the mobile—and the tremendous impact he has had on artists of the 20th and 21st century. The extraordinary generosity of Jon and Kim Shirley allows us to explore the many facets of this creative genius.”

The museum will dedicate its double-height gallery to Calder-related exhibitions, providing a large, signature space ideally suited to the display of both Calder’s monumental work and his more intimate pieces. Visitors will experience exhibitions and programming that delve into the many facets of Calder’s artistic practice and offer new perspectives on his work. After the inaugural show, an exhibition planned for 2024 will emphasize his impact and legacy in a group exhibition featuring leading contemporary artists from around the world. Additional shows will reexamine his work through the lens of historical periods in the artist’s career.

“I first fell in love with Calder as a young man, creating a passion that has only grown with time,” said Jon Shirley. “From the moment I bought my first work 35 years ago, I treasured the experience of living with Calder and from that point built my collection very intentionally. I visited the seminal Calder exhibition at the National Gallery in 1998 and soon thereafter decided to build a truly museum-worthy collection of his work. Kim and I are so happy to have found a permanent home for our collection at the Seattle Art Museum.”

The Shirleys have a long and distinguished history of philanthropic support of the Seattle Art Museum. Both Jon and Kim Shirley currently serve on the museum’s board of trustees, and Jon Shirley served as chairman of the Board of Trustees from 2000 to 2008. Mr. Shirley and his late wife Mary provided the founding gift that led to the creation of the museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park in 2007, a nine-acre park that is now Seattle’s largest greenspace. Mr. Shirley also made a gift to endow the park’s operations, ensuring that the stunning park, featuring monumental sculptures by Richard Serra, Louise Bourgeois, Teresita Fernandez, and Calder, would be permanently free to all. These efforts were a part of the SAM Transformation Campaign, which he co-led alongside then-president Susan Brotman to bring about the creation of the sculpture park and the expansion of the downtown museum in 2007. Jon and Mary Shirley also provided the financial support for the museum to acquire Calder’s The Eagle (1971), a 38-foot sculpture that has become an emblem of the city. Jon and Mary Shirley also endowed the curatorial position of modern and contemporary art now held by Catharina Manchanda.

“Jon's generosity and civic spirit were evident in his visionary leadership in helping to create the Olympic Sculpture Park, and now the profoundly generous gift of his Calder collection will transform SAM and expand the cultural profile of Seattle,” said Charlie Wright, SAM trustee. “The collection is a beautiful example of the rigor, passion, and intelligence that he brings to collecting art. And it is our fantastic good fortune that Jon and Kim’s ultimate objective is to share great works of art with the broader community.”

The Shirleys’ collection features 48 works of art (one comprising seven lithographs) and 85 publications, making it one of the most significant collections of Calder works in private hands. Renowned for the depth and breadth of its holdings, it centers around a group of spectacular hanging and standing mobiles dating from the 1930s to the 1970s. Among the most important works in the collection are Gamma (1947) and Bougainvillier (1947), made at the peak of Calder’s classical style in the late 1940s. The collection also includes Fish (1942), a rare example from Calder’s series of fish mobiles made during World War II when metal was scarce. The work is composed of a painted rod and wire structure that houses bits of glass in myriad colors as well as found materials such as metal objects and porcelain fragments. Other key works in the collection include Vache (c. 1930), Little Yellow Panel (c. 1936), Constellation with Red Knife (1943), Dispersed Objects with Brass Gong (1948), Toile d’araignée (1965), and Red Curly Tail (1970), which each exemplify different vocabularies of Calder’s expansive oeuvre. In addition to the collection, the Shirleys will donate their private library of books and publications about Calder to the museum.

“Building a truly institution-worthy trove of Calder work after the artist’s death took an impressive amount of dedication, research, and focus,” said Alexander S. C. Rower, president of the Calder Foundation and grandson of the artist. “The Shirleys have done just that over the past several decades, amassing a wide-ranging overview of my grandfather’s oeuvre punctuated by more than 30 hanging and standing mobiles. Their collection captures the dynamic energy of Calder’s entire trajectory, from his earliest figurative works in wire through the monumental sculptures of his late period. In addition to donating this magnificent collection to the Seattle Art Museum, the Shirleys have endowed it with a dedicated gallery space and ongoing funding that will ensure its success long into the future. This will allow visitors to cultivate new perspectives on Calder’s art in an evolving way—something no other museum has achieved.”

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