The Collector

When a St. Louis art lover made Seattle his home, it was our city’s gain.

By Steve Wiecking November 16, 2009 Published in the November 2007 issue of Seattle Met

Barney Ebsworth with Wayne Thiebaud’s Bakery Counter.

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.
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Ebsworth was born, along with a twin sister, in St. Louis, Missouri, on July 14, 1934, on a day that didn’t make it easy for his mother. “It was 105 degrees, and she was in labor for hours,” he says. “If you ever needed a reason to love your mother, there it is.”

He did not grow up wondering how to accumulate the kind of canvases that would have the cognoscenti of the art world wondering about his next move. “I had stamps and coins,” Ebsworth recalls. “But I remember being a typical American boy. You know—the parents say, ‘We’re going to a museum’ and me screaming, ‘No, I want to play baseball!’ ” Yet the St. Louis Art Museum held fodder for the fantastic imaginings of typical American boys and the parents who were trying to find new ways to get them to appreciate culture: a mummy with an exposed toe. It got Ebsworth into the museum. “Of course you really wanted to see the toe, but then at two o’clock in the morning you were sort of scared that the mummy was going to come get you,” he says. “And then after that I got into wanting to go see the armor and things like that, but it was not painting and it wasn’t sculpture.”

It took military service, of all things, to send him in that direction. Ebsworth was stationed in the army in France in July of 1956 and stayed for two and a half years. “It was a great time to be in Europe because they still thought we were the ones who liberated them. All I liberated was some good food and wine.” He also got married there. A trip to the Louvre began his self-education in the European masters (his college degree was in business; he never took an art history class).


American original: Barney Ebsworth acquired Georgia O’Keeffe’s Music—Pink and Blue No. 1 and befriended the artist too.

But the pursuit that would last him the rest of his life came to him, like most loves, purely by chance. He’d bought a seventeenth-century Dutch landscape in London—“It felt good. It felt comfortable. It felt like things I’d been seeing in museums”—and thought about acquiring more. But he also had a family to think about. Even now, photos of his only child, a grown daughter named Christiane, hold as much prominence in his home as the painted masterworks. And Ebsworth as yet had no larger vision. “I just thought I bought a lot of good pictures,” he says. “There’s a lot of fantasy about people and their grand plans, but the truth of the matter is things just happen.”

By the early 1970s, with Ebsworth beginning to buy pieces here and there, he happened to have dinner at the Rotterdam home of the owner of the Holland America cruise line. When the host learned Ebsworth was interested in seventeenth-century Dutch art, he invited him to see an uncle’s collection. Ebsworth laughs, “His uncle had 17 Rembrandts and 27 Frans Hals and his own museum!” He realized the impossibility of amassing anything comparable.

Disappointed but determined, he returned to St. Louis and sat down with Charles Buckley, then director of the St. Louis Art Museum, and discussed the possibilities for an earnest collector. Renaissance works—Ebsworth’s favorite art—weren’t available, and Ebsworth couldn’t afford French Impressionism. Buckley suggested American modernists—Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin, Edward Hopper—and other painters from the first part of the twentieth century who had shaped an artistic identity for the United States. Ebsworth told Buckley he wanted to start with a painting that could hang proudly on the wall of the St. Louis Art Museum. Buckley agreed to keep an eye out for something. About two months later Buckley, who had curated an exhibit on William Glackens, called and suggested Ebsworth buy Glackens’s 1914 painting Café Lafayete (Portrait of Kay Laurel).

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“Sybil” holds court: Gaston Lachaise’s Standing Woman poses in a place of honor near the entryway of Ebsworth’s home.

“I fell in the love with the picture,” Ebsworth says with the tenor of a man remembering an old flame. The lush, rosy portrait of a pensive young woman nursing an aperitif was reminiscent of Renoir and the other European artists Ebsworth had come to love. It gave the swooning collector the confidence to seek out another aesthetic romance. Buckley outlined a plan. Ebsworth should acquire 12 perfect paintings for his collection. Then, should another great work become available, Ebsworth could sell one of the others to buy it and still know that he owned 12 masterpieces. Ebsworth was dubious: “I said, ‘Charles, that’s a great exercise, but to me it has the feeling of saying you’re only going to have 12 kids, then you have the 13th one, and you take little Charlie out behind the barn and shoot him. I just don’t think I can do it.’ ”

He didn’t shoot little Charlie. He got to picture 12 within about a year and a half and didn’t look back, buying art—never selling—and poring through books while developing and honing his own standards. “Before I bought a picture I wanted to know two things,” he says. “Do I really understand this artist? Do I know where he or she was really the best in his career or her career? And if I don’t really know then I probably shouldn’t be buying. So it’s been a lifetime study.”

"I remember being a typical American boy. The parents say, ’We’re going to a museum,’ and me screaming, ‘No, I want to play baseball!’"

He’s been a good student. One of Ebsworth’s most prized acquisitions is one of Edward Hopper’s most familiar paintings, Chop Suey, in which the light coming through a restaurant window captures the expression of a woman remote from her own companion. And he not only purchased Georgia O’Keeffe’s mellifluous Music—Pink and Blue No. 1, with its mystical cascades of colors, but befriended the maverick who painted it. “I think she is the first real American abstract artist,” he says, standing his ground about what he sees as O’Keeffe’s most lasting testament. “It’s her abstract pictures that are so original and unique and not derived from Europe. I really think she comes out of the American tradition of the natural landscape.” He eases back in a chair in his living room across from David Hockney’s portrait Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott, in which eminent curator Geldzahler sits on a couch, owlishly confronting the viewer rather than Scott, the painter who was then Geldzahler’s boyfriend, who stands off to the side. Ebsworth seizes the moment to relish O’Keeffe’s flair for dramatic relationships. “Oh, she was wonderful—and she was diabolical too. She loved triangles where she was the apex of the triangle. Her whole life she always had triangles going. And she was the manipulator in the triangle most of the time…”

Years with O’Keeffe segue into dinner with Andy Warhol (“He never said a single word”) and even a day spent with Ed Sullivan (“He said one sentence; his wife never stopped talking”). Geldzhaler, still oblivious to Scott, seems to be listening.

One of the hazards of being a 73-year-old generous spirit with a world-renowned collection is that people want to know where the art will live after the spirit dies. By the time Ebsworth finally got a chance to hang his paintings for an exhibit at the St. Louis Art Museum in 1987 he knew his American modernists were something rare. In 2000, when Twentieth-Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection made it to the National Gallery, The Washington Post noted that “a lot of musty preconceptions” about pieces that had been snubbed in favor of the European avant-garde would likely be changed by Ebsworth’s eye. “His is one of the most coveted collections in the country,” says Chiyo Ishikawa, Seattle Art Museum’s deputy director of art. “He really put that kind of art on the map. Everyone was watching to see where that collection would go.”

Ebsworth sensed the watching but gave himself time to wait. He’d already promised some works to SAM as well as the Honolulu Academy of Art (he’s been wintering in Hawaii for 28 years), the National Gallery, and of course the St. Louis Art Museum. “I have a couple of friends whose names I won’t mention who I think enjoyed dangling their collection between museums and getting big articles in The New York Times about who was going to get it,” he says. “I’m too private. To me it’s much more about what I need to do for myself.”

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Prized possession: Edward Hopper’s familiar painting Chop Suey captures an intimate moment in a restaurant.

And after 69 years in St. Louis, Ebsworth migrated to the Northwest. “I’d been here in the summer and decided to move,” he says. “I don’t want to be in St. Louis at 100 degrees when I can be in Seattle at 75 degrees. I’ve spent my whole life traveling. August in Seattle—there’s no place in the world more glorious than that.”

Ebsworth moved to town in 2002 just after the Seattle Art Museum’s initiative to expand its downtown location. He saw that hopes were high upon his arrival. “He’d lent us a Marsden Hartley and Georgia O’Keeffe for an exhibit,” Ishikawa says, acknowledging the anticipation. “He’s always been a real supporter of museum activities.” As cochairman of SAM’s 75th-anniversary committee, Ebsworth was waiting too. “Quite frankly, I wanted to see what the museum was doing,” he admits. “There’s a lot of senior people’s collections in town. And, you know, we needed space. We needed to be able to tell the collectors that there was a place to have their collections.”

"I’ve had a wonderful life of objects, starting with the Louvre. Other people’s generosity allowed me to have a great experience."

The unveiling last May of SAM’s extensive remodel, by architect Brad Kloepfil, was greeted with acclaim for its sleek expansiveness, although Ebsworth thinks most people missed the true thrill of it. “The only article that I read where I thought the writer really got it was in a London art newspaper. And this guy wrote, ‘Finally—a museum about the art and not about the architect.’ We built a museum that works as a museum.”

That it was a museum worthy of world-class art convinced Ebsworth and other collectors that it was worth a real commitment. He remembers sitting in the office of SAM’s director, Mimi Gates, with board members Virginia Wright and Jon Shirley. “I’ve been around enough to know what’s going on when you bring in all the heavy hitters,” he chuckles. He told them his daughter had specifically asked for his Walt Kuhn portrait of a clown. And, because her mother was French, he was giving Edward Hopper’s French Six-day Bicycle Rider to Christiane too (also because, as he told his daughter, “When you’re an old lady you’ll be the only one to own an Edward Hopper oil”). But, he said, the bulk of his American modernist collection—including Chop Suey and his beloved O’Keeffe abstraction—were bequeathed to SAM. “And they said, ‘Oh, thank you,’ ” Ebsworth recalls, setting up a punch line. “And I said, ‘Well, it’s been in my will for 20 years. I formed that collection to give to a museum: the St. Louis Art Museum.’ But I never told anybody. And it’s a good thing because if I had told anybody right now, everybody in St. Louis would be furious.”

Chances are St. Louis isn’t exactly dancing in the streets. “Well, what I’ve said is I’ve got 10 friends that want me to come back,” Ebsworth laughs, “and 400 friends that want the collection to come back.” As for the sudden change in his will: “Well, I moved here. This is where I want to be. I’ve had this wonderful life of objects, starting with the Louvre museum. Other people’s generosity allowed me to have this great experience. My father was British, so I grew up with that concept of doing what’s right—a good, strong Christian background. I’ve been very blessed. I’ve got plenty. I’ve had this great love, so I want to give it back.”

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The immensity is not lost on SAM, which last spring announced Ebsworth’s promise and more such contributions, including masterpieces from some of the region’s major collectors: Virginia and Bagley Wright, Jon and Mary Shirley, Susan and Jeffrey Brotman, and many more. “We’re still kind of shivering in the aftermath of the very successful capital campaign and then all these gifts,” marvels Ishikawa. “It really is about so much more than the museum. It’s about the city.”

Ishikawa’s right: It is about the city—a place with constantly evolving parks, libraries, museums, concert halls, and Tony-winning theaters that are making us more than simply a nice place to be in August. “They’ve just lifted us,” Ishikawa beams. “People used to talk about Seattle as a provincial backwater, and that’s just not the case at all anymore.”

Ebsworth can have a laugh at his own expense. Walking back past Warhol’s soup can, he recounts the day in 1962 when he read a piece in Time magazine titled “The Slice-of-Cake School.” The article trumpeted the arrival on the art scene of, among other things, Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup paintings and Wayne Thiebaud’s canvases depicting cakes and pies. “I remember wondering what kind of an idiot would buy those pictures,” says Ebsworth. “Of course, I’m the idiot that owns both the pictures.”

In the dining room, just behind the head of the table, Thiebaud’s mouthwatering Bakery Counter displays its rows of desserts. Ebsworth moves right up to one of the thick, frosted cakes. “Doesn’t it feel like you could just stick your finger right in there?” he grins. “I want to stick my thumb in that and get a little icing.” He puts his thumb out and feigns a boyish swipe. Obviously, the man has taste.

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