Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Saving Henry Moore: Art Dealer Linda Farris and a Great Victory For Seattle Public Art

The day the Henry Moore sculpture “Vertebrae” was installed in the plaza of the Seattle First National Bank Building, January 24, 1971, Linda Farris was busily preparing her Pioneer Square gallery for its opening exhibition, scheduled that May.  She had decided to move her original gallery out of an attic in suburban Bellevue she had optimistically called “Gallery East” and now had a proper place to display her artists, mostly friends from her native California and the growing crowd of new creative people she was meeting in Seattle.  Late afternoon January daylight angled a blue light through the west and south facing windows that mixed with the redder colors of her brand new incandescent fixtures, pooling on the floor with the mops, ladders, paint cans and drop cloths. It’s hard to think of Linda not attending the installation of a famous piece of public art, Seattle’s first Henry Moore, if you don’t count a loaned Moore deposited at the Seattle center during the 1962 World’s Fair.  But she was, as ever, focused on herself and what had to be done.  Linda turned 26 that year.  A second explanation was that nobody knew to invite her.

The new sculpture in front of the bank building softened a bit the cold presence of the geometric black box and its empty concrete square. Returning from the Army after two years away from Seattle in 1970, I was shocked when I saw the building for the first time.  It was looming over my memory of a more gently-scaled city, book ended by the two largest buildings when I lived in town, the Space Needle and the Smith Tower.   It took me years to accept the building.  However, it quickly picked up a new, softening brand connecting it to the city’s recent history, becoming “The Box the Space Needle Came In.” 

The success of the Mirabeau, the la-di-dah French restaurant on top of the city’s newest, highest building, spoke to an ambition of the city beyond airplanes and timber. Seattle was not yet the food town it has become, but there was good food at Rosellini’s 410 and El Gaucho in the downtown, Ray’s Boathouse out past Ballard and at Canlis, overlooking Lake Union.

The opening a few weeks earlier of another new French restaurant, the Brasserie Pittsbourg, in the basement of the Pioneer Building on the original street of Seattle, Yesler Way, the founding street of the Skid Road town Seattle
used to be, right on top of Henry Yesler’s first house.  It told its many customers that Pioneer Square was developing its own presumptions after years of decline.  It used to be that South of Yesler Street meant crime, prostitution and danger.  Now, however, galleries like Linda’s were to become more the norm. But so were parking lots and torn down buildings, anticipating the coming of the Kingdome in 1972. Linda had high-end dreams for herself and the new gallery but also saw what she did as contributing to the stabilization of many of the lovely old structures in the square. 

Fulton Hotel
Her gallery started out life as the Old Fulton Hotel, constructed in 1890, part of the building boom that followed the Great Fire.  Originally, the Old Fulton had two additional stories on top but they were removed after the 1949 earthquake, a practice followed by other buildings along Second Avenue South, built on tide flats in the later 19th Century and the early 20th.   Second Avenue shook pretty hard in ’49 on its pudding of sawdust, garbage, whiskey bottles, coal ash and other pioneer detritus.  It is still the biggest earthquake in modern Seattle history.  Eight people died.

The growing arts and food scenes in Seattle seemed out of place with what was really going on in Seattle that year.  The city was falling on its ass.  At the end of 1968, 103,000 people worked at the Boeing Airplane Company, most of them in the Puget Sound region.  When Linda Farris was readying her gallery for the May, 1971 opening, 39,000 people worked at Boeing.  The unemployment rate in the state was well-over 17%.  Food stamp applications rose from 9,000 to 60,000.  Housing sales were off 40% and the value in them plunging.  Oh, and things down at the courthouse were not so good either.  The new prosecutor was indicting the old prosecutor, the leadership of the police department and a couple of city council members in a police pay-off scandal.  It was dreadful.  For those of you who missed crooked government and a recession that truly bit – and there are plenty of you – this was a real recession and a big league scandal.

At the end of World War I, the airplanes that founder Bill Boeing made from Sitka Spruce and linen were no longer needed and its many contracts were cancelled.  The company survived with a combination of good technology and lots of luck.   The Boeing guys bet their future on a very fast boat, one that could outrun just about anything and yet carry a substantial cargo.  It was a fine technical accomplishment, but one waiting for a market.  Prohibition brought plenty of customers and wiped out Boeing's inventory of previously irrelevant fast boats. They also began creating an airline, United, that would soon run afoul of the US Justice Department.

The Boeing of 1971 was hitching its star, and ours, to a couple of widely disparate concepts.  One was the Super Sonic Transport, the SST, or as Boeing called it, the 2707.   A big hanger across from Boeing Field had a representation of the plane bolted to the wall, just lifting its nose to take off.  They were confidently building the mock up inside.  But Boeing was not prepared to bet the company on this amazing new airplane and asked for federal participation.  On March 24, 1971, the United States Senate voted against putting federal money into the development of the aircraft and Boeing abandoned the project.  The picture of the plane bolted to the wall was taken down, but for years a ghostly, weathered paradigm of the thing was visible from Interstate 5. 

The CEO of Boeing at the time was a guy named Thornton Wilson, known as ‘T’.  His board, the Chamber of Commerce and many stockholders hounded him to diversify the company’s offerings.  They looked, once again, at a fast boat and tried to sell Hydrofoils, even building a couple of demos.   A commonly held idea was that Boeing engineers could do anything in any industry if they just put their technical and management minds to it.  Wilson recounted a scouting visit to Boardman, Oregon, a sometime bombing range, where Boeing was contemplating a huge, regional solid waste landfill through a purchase of a small landfill on the site.  He recalled walking across the desert to where a tennis shoe flapped, half in, half out of the gritty, sandy landscape.  He kicked at it, half-heartedly, and had no luck dislodging the shoe, covering his own wingtips with a sandy, smelly dust. 

“What the hell am I doing here?” he told me he thought.  “This is not what we do at the Boeing Airplane Company!” 

It would get better and it did.

Linda’s gallery today is a deli that offers a really good sandwich and a soft drink for six bucks.  The trim is brightly colored as it was while it was a gallery and a small plaque clings to the sandblasted brick. 

The Linda Farris Gallery
1971 to 1995
On this site, many artistic miracles occurred

Someone has defaced the plaque but in the spirit of things, what the tagger said is just about right.  “How sad.”  He could have been referring to the mis-spelling, but I prefer it refers to Linda's too short life.

Linda’s father was in the wholesale diamond business in San Francisco “My parents,” she said in an interview, “emphasized that I could do anything, but really wanted me to do nothing, marry someone and take care of children.”  She saw that her dad was not going to entrust the diamond business to a woman, no matter her business skill, but rather would turn the business over to her brother.  So, Linda discovered art, political activism and a host of other things at UC Berkeley. 

She married a commercial airplane pilot and exercised the benefits of that job by travelling all over the world and getting first hand experiences at the best galleries on the globe.  Her pilot/husband brought her to Bellevue, but suburban life and Gallery East soon felt pretty small to her.

About to enter UC Berkeley
Linda and her husband were separated and this new gallery project was exactly what she needed.  She thrived on purpose.  She was completely charming and fun and felt she could blow through the too-early sunsets of a Seattle winter and the dirt and confusion of her new store and her new life and make everything work.  She loved art and artists, but she had no illusions about her purpose.  She was also there to make some money.  The gallery had to pay the rent.

She was exceptional with the media.  She had convinced the Seattle Times to review her Bellevue gallery once the previous year and had picked up two mentions in 1971, one ahead of the opening in May and another a November review in John Voorhees’ Visual Arts column.  The following year her gallery was the subject of Seattle Times reporting 80 times with an equivalent volume from the Seattle Post Intelligencer. 

Linda was an organizer.  She threw herself into Festival ’71, an arts and music festival opened at the Seattle Center that would become, over time, Bumbershoot.  She unsuccessfully tried to organize a Pioneer Square Gallery Association, but was one of those organizing a gallery walk that is now a Seattle institution, “First Thursday.” It is, today, the oldest art walk in the country.

Just as it rescued Seattle with the discovery of gold in Alaska and Canada a couple of years after the Panic of 1893, Alaskan oil came to the rescue after the Boeing Bust.  From his perch near the top of the Seattle First National Bank Building, Bill Jenkins, Chairman of the bank since 1962, watched with great interest the rising up of the great, historic and profitable Alaska connection. 

Lawyers and politicians in Seattle were working hard settling the Alaska Native land claims.  They were creating the National Environmental Policy Act, an environmental law that would take some of the politics out of building the pipeline and an army of logistics people were staging shipments from Seattle to Alaska, everything from rebar to Cocoa Puffs.  

In 1975, as construction of the Alaska Pipeline began, huge barges assembled in Elliott Bay beneath Jenkins’ gaze.  They contained a Rube Goldberg collection of trucks, cranes, mobile homes, boats, the pipeline itself and other necessaries to support one of the largest construction projects ever.  You felt that even a small breeze would tip them over.  Seattle First National Bank was the 18th largest bank in the country and it had money to loan for the booming oil industry.

The new oil field growing to the North combined with the Mideast oil embargo to energize every oil boomer in the country.  One of the most energetic banks was Penn Square Bank.  It was a drive through bank, all thick windows and pneumatic tubes and very little cash in the back.  Years later, when the regulators came to take it over, they couldn’t find it in the bowels of an Oklahoma City suburban mall.

Bill Jenkins
To do what it wanted to do, Penn Square needed several partners with plenty of cash, so it drew five major banks into its various schemes, among them an enthusiastic Seattle First National.  It could not have been better – for the first couple of years.  Then, as oil prices fell, it would lead, in 1982, to the closing of Penn Square, the near collapse of the Seattle First National and a fire sale of its assets. 

In three years, the bank lost nearly a half a billion dollars and Jenkins and his crowd disappeared into an endless storm front of depositions.  Bank of America bought the bank for $150 million, just enough cash to keep the Comptroller of the Currency from closing its doors.  The CEO of Wells Fargo Bank in Los Angeles, Dick Cooley, took over the bank. 

Jenkins demonstrating how to knot a tie with one hand
Cooley was a good golfer and a wonderful squash player.  He sailed and skied and had a degree from Yale.  He had only one arm, the other taken when his fighter plane was shot down by the Germans in 1944.  He was not a guy to pin his suit sleeve to his jacket.  He wore a utilitarian hook and was skilled enough to pick up a drink with it.

Among Cooley’s first moves was to sell his headquarters building to a Chicago real estate firm, JMB Realty and a partnership it had created.  It sold for $123 million.  (The building sold today, July 6, 2016 to a German real estate firm for $400 million.) Then, he turned his eye to the company art collection.  He knew the art world some, well enough to know he needed a crackerjack consultant.  He had worked with the head of MIT’s Fine Arts Department, Professor Wayne Anderson, who had
Wayne Anderson
helped sell and acquire art while Cooley was running Wells Fargo.  He hired Anderson to assess the Seafirst art collection and make recommendations.

The Moore had been purchased by Seafirst in 1969 for $165,000.  On August 28, 1986, the bank announced it had sold the sculpture for $825,000 to a Japanese buyer who was planning to take it out of the plaza in front of the building in two days.  Everyone was caught by surprise.  The mayor’s spokesman said that the city did not own the piece, had greater priorities than the purchase of it and were mere observers of a tragic event.  JMB told the city that they would replace the piece with concrete planters.

Among Linda’s many phone calls that day was to Seattle's mayor.  Charles Royer was elected six years after Linda opened her gallery in Pioneer Square and he had known her for a long time before the election.  They had many mutual friends and the mayor didn’t feel right about what was happening just a couple of blocks from the Municipal building.  The city began frantically researching the permitting and other documents associated with the building.

Charles Royer 
The next Friday, while on the northern deck of City Hall, the Mayor noticed activity around the sculpture of what was now renamed the 1001 4th Avenue Plaza.  He saw a pick-up truck and a van parked nearby and workers were measuring, checking, looking at plans.  Back in his office, he called up his Construction and Land Use Department head, Holly Miller, and asked her to go down and find out what was going on.

When she arrived, she found several men from Artech, an art shipping company, along with JMB Realty managers.  Holly introduced herself.  They told her they were indeed going to move the sculpture the next day.  Ms. Miller right then decided to implement an option she had talked about with the mayor’s office the day the news broke, though no decision had been made at the time. 

“I think you need a demolition permit,” Miller said.  “Let’s go down to my office and I’ll get you started. The permit costs just $70.00,” she told them.  

Fortunately, there were no lawyers in the JMB/Artech crew.  Back at City Hall, while they filled out the permitting form, she told them that she was posting a stop work order on the site until the demolition permit was approved. The mayor, Linda Farris and her artist friends had some time.

Henry Moore
Communication began to break down.  Neither Seafirst nor JMB would confirm that any sale of the sculpture had happened.  Seafirst said they had no idea of any move coming up and the right source at the bank was on vacation.  JMB asserted in response that they owned nothing, had purchased no sculpture. Then, on Saturday, Henry Moore died, at 88, in England.  The price of all his many works more than doubled.

As in many crises, the first words out are often the most damning.  Seafirst would later apologize for playing dumb, but the dumb part stuck. 

A headline writer topped a hard-edged editorial in the Seattle Times with “Expect Ambivalence,” a play on the advertising slogan for the bank that year “Expect Excellence.”

JMB doubled down on its claim that it had “purchased no sculpture” by claiming that Seafirst had actually sold it directly to the Japanese businessman. 
Given these openings and Linda’s amazing skills as a media hustler, details began to dribble out, all of them affirming that JMB and Seafirst hadn’t exactly thought this through, except perhaps the lying part.  JMB had planned to replace the Moore with several concrete planters.  But, the original building permit required some kind of art in the plaza.  When originally constructed, Seattle First National Bank transferred development rights from the plaza part of its lot to its new building all of which allowed the bank to cover more of its lot and add additional height.  The sculpture was integral to the approved shape and height of the building. 

Finally, JMB admitted that its argument for not having purchased the sculpture was based on the fact that it had only purchased and exercised an option, a first refusal for the sculpture.  Certainly no actual sculpture changed hands!

King County tax people suddenly appeared, looking for the buyer.  Given the climb in the sales price, the sculpture had been undervalued for many years and the county wanted to settle up.

The mayor, with Farris and others from the art community next to him at a press conference, announced a search for the undisclosed, mysterious buyer.

“Too bad for Seafirst,” the Seattle Times wrote in its “Expect Ambivalence” editorial.  “Since a single public-relations blunder may have undone much of the careful, patient rebuilding of the bank’s image damaged in the energy loans fiascoes of several years ago.”

Throughout September, Seafirst and JMB stood up to the Farris led petitions and letters.  She always had a good comeback for the fresh lies minted and exposed every three days or so. 

On October 6, 1986, Burton Glazov, Executive Vice-President of JMB Realty of Chicago and Seafirst called a press conference:

“We and Seafirst were both surprised and unhappy at the community upset over the news that the sculpture had been sold. That’s not good for anybody.” They announced they had purchased the sculpture back from the purchaser, whoever that was.

They said the piece would be gifted to the Seattle Art Museum, then starting to develop the Seattle Sculpture Park. Included was an option to move the Moore to the park, though the Seattle Art Museum said it had no plans to do so and has not done anything to move it there over the past 30 years.  JMB and Seafirst didn’t announce the price of the object, but it turned out to be $2,000,000.

Among people I talked to about Linda was Judy Tobin. Judy met Linda in 1971, when both were new to town and wondering what would happen next. They became fast friends. When we talked, Judy cleared up a long ago mystery. Judy said that Linda really wanted a great relationship with someone. One evening, drinking wine and lots of it, Linda told Judy that she was going to date a thousand men until she found the right one, anticipating the Malcom Gladwell 10,000 hour rule which posits that you need 10,000 hours of doing something before you become truly expert. 

One weekend night in the mid-seventies, a colleague, Doug Rives, called and wondered if he might bring his date over for some wine. Accompanying Doug was Linda Farris. We chatted away on the porch of the falling down rental in the Eastlake neighborhood. Finally, they said goodnight. A couple of months later, I asked Linda whether she was still seeing Doug.

“We just dated a minute,” she said.

Linda once showed me around her amazing house which she built in 1981. Then, interest rates were very high and Linda felt that she was getting priced out of Seattle home ownership. So, she hired the architect Mark Millett to build her a home with simple materials and lots of open space on many different levels. He did. It had one bedroom, one bath, 1200 square feet and two doors, one to the outside and a slider for the toilet. All in, she spent about $50,000, well below house prices at the time. Today, it carries the bad news message about housing prices in Seattle. Zillow says it is worth $700,000.

Linda closed the gallery in 1995 and, with the husband she found and loved, John, traveled the world visiting its inventory of contemporary art. A couple of years later, she came back with an idea. It revolved around her marvelous skills – great taste in art, a good eye for value and a sense of community service. She asked several of her friends to stake her to 15,000 dollars for each of the next three years that she would use to buy art. She would buy the art in their name and it would circulate among the group until it was time to donate it to the Seattle Art Museum to jump start SAM’s collection of contemporary art. The donation happened in 2001.
Linda and John

Along the way, a tumor began growing in her brain and it consumed her life in 2005. Her friends said many goodbyes to her, like the plaque at the beginning of this story. But my favorite is the celebration that used a papier mache rendering of Linda for the gallery closing party at the Nippon Kan Theater. Done by artist Carl Smool and his friends, it got completely out of hand and grew to 16 feet. It was perfectly Linda -- a red polka dot dress and pink ankle boots and a yellow purse hanging from her arm. The piece required way too much candy so they only put the pinata candy in the purse. After Linda died, they floated the sculpture out on Lake Washington and set it on fire.

Jeff Jahn, a founder of PortlandArtNet, and an admirer, wrote in his eulogy:

“It was her frank honesty, over-the-top hustle and daring that made her more than just an art dealer but an icon of fearlessness. Of all the people I have met in the art world none has impressed me like Linda Farris. With no double talk, a deep trust in artists, crazy in the best possible way, constant risk taking and a probing intelligence...she stood out.”

For a woman who was so front and center in her life, it is surprising there are not a lot of pictures around in the public record.  It is a lesson I have learned over many years.  Even fearless people battle insecurities. She probably thought she didn't make a good photo and avoided reminders of being plain, as she saw it.  But you should know she was, really, quite beautiful.