Shimmer in the museum collection

Building a Museum Collection

In the 10 years since the Whatcom Museum opened the Lightcatcher building, we’ve welcomed hundreds of works into the permanent collection. Now, we’re excited to share a selection of these stunning works with the public in our upcoming exhibition Anatomy of a Collection: Recent Acquisitions & Promised Gifts.

This exhibition showcases nearly 70 works, many of which are on view for the first time at the Museum. In addition to acknowledging long-standing relationships with area artists and patrons, it also shows how the collection has expanded and changed over the years.

So, what goes into building a museum collection? Here, we’ll touch on the ways these works enter the collection and highlight eight pieces on view in Anatomy of a Collection. We hope you’ll come see them after we reopen Sept. 19.

The Whatcom Museum Collection

As the Whatcom Museum approaches its 80th year as a museum, its capacities have been expanded in many ways, including increasing collection storage. Works generally enter the collection through private donors, organizations, or the artists themselves.

Many recent acquisitions and promised gifts expand existing holdings of significant works by artists of the Pacific Northwest. Other acquisitions are tied to important solo exhibitions hosted by the Museum that delve into an artist’s career, such as those about the art of Ed Bereal and Lesley Dill. 

Read on to learn about some of these exciting artworks and artists.

Building relationships: Works tied to past exhibitions

Shimmer, 2005-2006, by Lesley Dill

Wire, metal foil; Gift of the artist

In 2011, the Museum organized the touring exhibition Lesley Dill’s Poetic Visions. The exhibition featured large-scale installations of metallic, silhouetted figures intermingled with expressive phrases of poetry.

Dill is among the most prominent contemporary artists working at the intersection of art and language. She experiments in a wide range of tactile materials to create mixed-media works that fuse poetry and image. After her exhibition finished touring, the artist gifted the large installation Shimmer to the Whatcom Museum in 2015. Its re-installation in Anatomy of a Collection is the first showing since its acquisition into the collection.

With this work, Dill wishes to capture the play of silvery light reflecting off the ocean. To accomplish this, she spent more than 300 eight-hour days with the help of assistants, winding 2 million feet of fine wire to form the 60-foot-long silvery curtain. It cascades down the wall resembling tendrils of hair or, in the artist’s words, “a kind of electrical waterfall.”

Shimmer by Lesley Dill

Untitled, 1961, by Ed Bereal

Mixed media, paper, and pigment; Collection of Chuck and Dee Robinson

In 2019, the Whatcom Museum mounted the exhibition Wanted: Ed Bereal for Disturbing the Peace, a retrospective of the work of nationally known, Bellingham-based artist Ed Bereal. The exhibition featured works across six decades of the artist’s career, including drawings, paintings, assemblage, and large-scale installations.

This drawing is from Bereal’s early career when he was an up-and-coming artist in Los Angeles. Exhibited last year in the retrospective, it helps chart his explorations from drawing to collage and eventually to assemblage.

Amy Chaloupka, Curator of Art at the Museum, worked closely with Bereal in developing his retrospective.

Wanted was incredibly well-received by our audiences,” Chaloupka says. “Many in the community expressed the impact Bereal’s work had on them and mentioned the importance of  his work being represented in the collection, so we are thrilled that two of the artist’s works have been promised to the Museum.”

Recently, Bereal’s career and work was featured in an article by Hyperallergic.

Untitled by Ed Bereal

Recent Acquisitions from the Washington Art Consortium

Several works in Anatomy of a Collection bear the following credit line on their label: “Gift of the Washington Art Consortium through gift of Safeco Insurance, a member of Liberty Mutual Group.” The Whatcom Museum was a member of the Washington Art Consortium, which was founded in 1975. The cooperative of seven museums shared a goal of making world-class art accessible to regional audiences.

The Consortium promoted a spirit of collaboration through the shared responsibility of the collection by member institutions. In addition to the Whatcom Museum, its members included the Tacoma Art Museum, Seattle Art Museum, Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, Western Gallery, Museum of Art at Washington State University, and the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington.

In 2009, the Consortium facilitated the distribution of more than 800 works from the Safeco Art Collection, one of the most renowned corporate collections of Northwest art. When the Consortium disbanded in 2017, the works were distributed among the partner institutions, including the Whatcom Museum.

Untitled (Eastern Washington Landscape), 1936-40, by Z. Vanessa Helder

Watercolor on paper; Gift of the Washington Art Consortium through gift of Safeco Insurance, a member of Liberty Mutual Group

Born in Lynden, Zama Vanessa Helder went on to study at the Art Students League in New York.

In 1937, Helder was employed by Washington’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) art program. Through this, she depicted urban and rural scenes from across the region. She worked in a realist style and used hard lines, stark shadows, and precise depictions of architecture and landscape to create moody scenes not typically expressed through the medium of watercolor.

One of her greatest achievements is a series of 22 watercolors from 1939-1941 detailing the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam. Helder is one of Washington State’s most distinguished artists from the early 20th century.

Landscape art

Whispers, 1989, by José Luis Rodríguez Guerra

Lithograph; Gift of the Washington Art Consortium through gift of Safeco Insurance, a member of Liberty Mutual Group

José Luis Rodríguez Guerra was born in Sabinas, Coahuila, México, and had a talent for drawing and painting from childhood.

In 1969, his family immigrated to the United States to live in Oregon. There, Rodríguez Guerra became a farm worker, studying English and drawing in his spare time. In 1978, Rodríguez Guerra chose to focus more fully on his art and moved his family to Mexico City. While there, he found what he described as a rich fountain of inspiration in the Mexican muralists, the emerging avant-garde, as well as the cultural traditions of his ancestral homeland.

Returning to the states a year later, the artist began developing a body of work exploring human behavior through expressive paintings and prints that translated his visual observations, dreams, and the subconscious. He currently lives in Seattle.

Interior, 1941, by Gwendolyn Knight

Gouache; Gift of the Washington Art Consortium through gift of Safeco Insurance, a member of Liberty Mutual Group

Gwendolyn Knight was born in Barbados and moved to the United States at the age of 7. In the 1920s and 30s, Knight lived in Harlem at the height of its cultural renaissance and met icons like Langston Hughes. While in Harlem, Knight was mentored by Augusta Savage, and through the Works Progress Administration she worked with muralist Charles Alston. It was at Alston’s workshop where she would meet her future husband, artist Jacob Lawrence.

Knight painted Interior in 1941, the year she met and married Lawrence. The painting shows a quiet and comfortable domestic scene. While Knight focused mainly on portraiture and the figure in her work, this scene implies its inhabitants through the warmth of a stove and clothes causally draped over a chair and nearby hook. The scene is an unpretentious view of a home’s interior.

In 1970, Lawrence accepted a position at the University of Washington’s School of Art, and the couple settled in the Seattle area. While Lawrence found recognition early in his career, Knight gained attention much later in life. Her first museum retrospective was at the age of 89 at the Tacoma Art Museum.


Gifts from Private Donors

Many works enter the Museum collection through gifts by private donors. With funds for acquisitions limited, the Museum is grateful for the generosity of those who support its collection and exhibitions through donations and promised gifts.

Night Sky, 1991, by Philip McCracken

Maple and mixed media; Collection of Tim and Gail Bruce

Born in Bellingham in 1928, Philip McCracken attended the University of Washington and later studied sculpture with the British artist Henry Moore. His diverse works embrace both abstraction and realism and span traditional materials like bronze as well as new media like epoxy and resin.

Nature is the central inspiration for the artist as he explores witty visions of the animal world, such as his bronze Heron (1977) which sits behind the Whatcom Museum’s Old City Hall. Works like Night Sky express the wonders of the cosmos as interpreted through carved and painted wood.

Chaloupka says the Museum’s sustained relationships with donors and supporters such as Tim and Gail Bruce are essential.

“Collectors like the Bruces have a passion for art and often provide unique insights from their years of living with an artwork,” she says. “Often, they have personal connections with the artists whose work they collect.”

For example, Tim and Gail Bruce have close ties with McCracken and his wife Anne and have a deep knowledge about his work through their years of acquaintance.

Weyerhaeuser Mill at Everett, Washington, no date, by Victoria Savage

Gouache and mixed media; Gift of Charles and Nancy Bagley

While little has been written about Victoria Savage or her artwork, this donation to the Museum is a significant one. The painting allows us to dig deeper into the artwork and life of an artist who made significant contributions to a Northwest regionalist style of painting in the early- to mid-20th century.  

Born and raised in Spokane, Savage graduated from Washington State University with a degree in fine arts. She moved to Seattle in the late 1950s, embedding herself in the arts community.

Savage was a longtime member of the Northwest Watercolor Society and an active member of the Women Painters of Washington. Her first major solo exhibition that brought her regional attention was at the Frye Art Museum in 1964.

This painting gives a glimpse of mid-century industry in the region, depicting one of the active Weyerhaeuser mills in Everett. Savage incorporates aspects of cubism in her interpretation of the buildings, water towers, and smokestacks. Lyrical, dynamic brush strokes infuse the structures with the energy reflective of the activity of production.

Painting of a mill

Diving Loon, 1994, by Tony Angell

Belgian marble; Gift of Charles and Nancy Bagley

Tony Angell is a naturalist who has studied birds his entire life. Despite never formally studying art, Angell was a constant drawer and observer from a young age. He trained and rehabilitated falcons and hawks and closely studied their physical features. He has written and illustrated more than a dozen books about nature.

In the late 1960s, Angell discovered sculpture as a medium. Many are familiar with Angell’s sculpture of two ravens that greet visitors at the entrance to Mount Baker Ski Area.

Diving Loon describes the movement and form the loon takes as it dives for fish. Charles Bagley commissioned the piece as a gift for his wife in the mid-1990s. Now, the collectors wish for the piece to be appreciated by a wider audience.

Chaloupka says the Museum is “grateful to have these inspiring gifts of art presented in the exhibition and looks forward to building programming around the many ideas these works generate.”

To experience these works and more, visit Anatomy of a Collection when we reopen. We can’t wait to welcome you back on Sept. 19, 2020. Learn about what to expect during your visit on our COVID-19 response page.

Loon sculpture