BARNEY EBSWORTH WALKS across his front lawn to the 10-foot-tall bear standing downcast in the grass. The work of sculptor Tom Otterness, the rounded bronze creature is more cuddly cartoon than carnivore. Ebsworth stands next to the big teddy like a proud father. He talks of Otterness’s talent with genuine regard, but it’s the artist’s Large Bear that receives the warm tones usually reserved for something human. “We’re not sure of its gender,” Ebsworth says, giving the bear a pat then looking up into its face. “Hello, boy—or girl.” He squints to scrutinize one of the bear’s eyes; a spider’s been making its home in there. “We’d better take care of that,” Ebsworth says, still paternal, as though the bear might be coming down with something.
You can imagine the bronze giant looking so forlorn in the midst of such obvious affection because it’s all alone in the yard—and everybody who knows the name Barney Ebsworth knows that where you really want to be is in his house. “I’m not a fan of too much outdoor sculpture,” says Ebsworth, heading back toward his front door. “If you’re going to have it, just have one. God does it so much better. That’s stiff competition.” In the garden lining the walkway to the entrance, an expired Japanese maple outstretches its regal branches in an elegant last gasp. “Another reason to collect art,” he laughs. “It doesn’t die like plants do.”
Ebsworth opens the door and his collection bursts into sight the way Oz glistens when Dorothy steps out of her sepia-toned farmhouse. Gaston Lachaise’s bodacious bronze Standing Woman is surrounded by windows, her ample portions silhouetted by the sun. “Sibyl has been with the family a long time,” Ebsworth says admiringly, then explains the nickname: “Sibyl was the queen of the Amazons. That’s some woman. I used to live at the end of a lane in St. Louis and I put her in my driveway out in front of the house. All the FedEx and UPS drivers wanted photos with her.” Sibyl now holds court at the end of a long entryway, just beyond Andy Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s Soup with Can Opener (1962) and works by other American painters that would sparkle like jewels in any museum retrospective and have a blinding brilliance in the intimacy of one man’s home.
Granted, the home is no slouch, either: climate-controlled, wired for security, as chic as any modern gallery (there’s even a house manager), and situated on verdant Bellevue waterfront property that’s neighbored by the people who brought you Microsoft, Nordstrom, Costco, and…you get the idea. Ebsworth himself is a retired tycoon. He founded, among other cruise lines, the Intrav luxury travel business (later sold for $115 million) and funded the DIY stuffed-animal phenomenon Build-A-Bear Workshop. So, no, affording his own bronze bear wasn’t a problem.
However, what’s truly rich about Ebsworth, regularly referred to as one of the world’s top collectors, is that he treats his art not as possessions but as a way of life. He notes a difference between fortune in the financial sense and fortune in the spiritual sense: “I have been asked, ‘If you had the choice between having the pictures or having the experience, which would you take?’ ” he notes. “Well, that’s easy. It’d be the experience—the experience of learning what a picture is. You have to like a picture.”
You have to like Ebsworth too—this jovial, straight-talking guy from the Midwest who’s going to help change the way Seattle considers its own growing cultural prosperity.