In Seattle, Microsoft Alums Foster an Art Scene that Defies Tech-Collector Stereotypes
By Emily Rappaport
Jul 27, 2015 3:34 pm
Portrait by Chona Kasinger for Artsy. | Chair by Seattle Children's Theater

Portrait by Chona Kasinger for Artsy. | Chair by Seattle Children's Theater

Pablo Schugurensky is not a suit. He may have managed the art collections of some of Seattle’s business-world behemoths (namely, Microsoft and its co-founder Paul Allen’s multi-billion-dollar private holding company, Vulcan Inc.), but his origins here are far from corporate. Even in a place where the tech industry plays a major role in boosting the arts, he stands out in his commitment to regional practices and production. A spate of new activity in the city like this week’s brand-new Seattle Art Fair, which will bring blue-chip New York dealers here for the first time, has people labeling the Pacific Northwest as an up-and-coming frontier of the global art world. Yet Schugurensky maintains that the creative community here has been strong and active for decades.

Schugurensky now runs his own art consultancy called META ARTE. But he moved to Washington from Argentina in the early ’80s to study fine art at The Evergreen State College, a famously experimental school that incubated Riot Grrrl, the ’90s feminist punk rock movement. He went on to earn a master’s degree in painting, and, like many young artists, began collecting by trading pieces with other artists. When the time came for a day job, he started working in New York’s nonprofit arts sector, ultimately returning to the West and settling into a position at the Washington State Arts Commission. As manager of the Art in Public Places program, he helped give support to young people making conceptually adventurous, communally enriching, commercially non-viable artwork. Since visiting ateliers as an art student in his childhood, Schugurensky tells me, he has sought answers to inherently critical questions about “the validation process” for artists, about how we relate to art production, and about “the understanding from society that artists reflect, somehow, our reality.”

The public art sphere might seem a more natural place to explore the relationship between art and society than Microsoft, but Schugurensky found himself grappling with many of the same ideas—which he sums up as “the power of art in our lives, and especially in our shared spaces”—when he transitioned to the private sector. The headquarters of the pioneering technology company, like those of many of its descendants down the coast in Silicon Valley, is a bona fide campus: 88 acres, 125 buildings, and more than 41,000 employees in one place. The structure that houses its on-site shopping mall and food court is even called The Commons. It’s a rare kind of environment that’s expansive and densely populated enough to be almost urban, but also privately governed and explicitly branded. As director of the Microsoft Art Collection in the late ’90s, Schugurensky explains that he was no longer accountable to the public, but to the company—and “to the perception of the company.”  

Still, he was tasked with finding artwork not for private offices but communal spaces; the collection’s official mission statement is “to create an inspiring work environment that fosters creativity and innovation,” which he interpreted to mean acquiring work that wouldn’t merely serve as landmarks so that “people could find their way around the buildings,” but that it would have “meaning and impact.” (Many corporate art collections—often thought to be a way to impress clients, an executive’s passion, or an investment portfolio—claim that their aim is to “inspire,” but it’s clear that Schugurensky’s commitment to putting people in dialogue with art is genuine.) When he started as the collection’s first in-house director, it mostly featured prints by regional artists; Schugurensky wanted to, and did, broaden its scope nationally and internationally to reflect the “wide reach of the company.”

Portrait by Chona Kasinger for Artsy. | Sculpture by Claudia Fitch. Works on Piano (Left to Right) by Marita Dingus, Ursula con Rydigsvard, Peter Millett, Northwest Costal Native American Bentwood Box, Akio Takamori, Gabriela Szulman, and Robert Sperry.

Portrait by Chona Kasinger for Artsy. | Sculpture by Claudia Fitch. Works on Piano (Left to Right) by Marita Dingus, Ursula con Rydigsvard, Peter Millett, Northwest Costal Native American Bentwood Box, Akio Takamori, Gabriela Szulman, and Robert Sperry.

That being said, the companies that Schugurensky has worked for, global giants though they may be, seem to have an unusually strong connection to the Pacific Northwest, a fact that is evidenced by their art collections. Tech is local industry in Seattle, which, combined with the (longstanding, non-trending) local-centric culture of this part of the country, lends the industry’s arts activities here a kind of organic, community-oriented quality that is perhaps surprising for such an international, corporate field. Schugurensky himself serves as a kind of emblem of this phenomenon: he’s an Argentine native with a lot of cultural capital and expertise, and he remains as committed to regional artists in his own collection as he was during his days giving them grants on behalf of Washington State. His personal collecting strategy—developed with his wife, Renata Tatman, who is the head buyer for the Seattle Art Museum’s store—is rooted in what he calls “conversations with the art.” When guests come over for dinner and see the artwork in their home, Schugurensky explains, “We are inviting certain conversations. We are telling them who we are and what interests us.” When I ask for an example of a work he and Tatman own that expresses who they are, he chooses one by Claudia Fitch, a Seattle-based artist known for making public artworks that dot the local landscape. The sculpture is low to the ground, with a tail. “I just like what it does,” Schugurensky says. “It’s strong and sinuous.”  

The Seattle Art Fair, whose inaugural edition will run from July 30th through August 2nd, is being co-produced by Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc. and bringing top-tier galleries like PaceGagosian, and David Zwirner to the region for the first time (a very rare feat for a fledgling event). But it appears that the fair will not be just another attempt to match blue-chip artwork with tech money. A full 13 of the 62 exhibitors are from Seattle, with four more from Portland and two from Vancouver, BC. During our conversation, Schugurensky didn’t mention the New York dealers, who will show work by international art stars like Yayoi Kusama (Zwirner), Takashi Murakami and Harmony Korine (Gagosian), and Sol LeWitt and Tara Donovan (Pace). Instead, he cites James HarrisG. GibsonTraver, and Greg Kucera as influential local galleries that will have booths at the fair; among them, they’re showing work by far less well-known regional artists like Sherry Markovitz (Kucera), Eirik Johnson (G. Gibson), and John Kiley (Traver). “Our region has a tremendous amount of creativity,” says Schugurensky with earnest pride. The event will also feature other art happenings around the city—many, like A Singularity at the Living Computer Museum and a multi-site program at Creative Lab—catering to an audience interested in art and technology.

Art fairs are the most commercial arm of the commercial art world, but this one will also work in service of something larger. Some of the proceeds will benefit Artist Trust—an organization (on whose board Schugurensky sits) that funds regional artists. “It understands that having artists in our communities makes our communities richer,” says the adviser. “It’s not based on commercial success. We just want to support artists at a time when they need support to be able to pursue their inquiry.” For him, at least, the health of the arts community comes first, and the rest follows.

Emily Rappaport