true believers

Seattle collectors Bill and Ruth True combine a taste for the cutting edge with an abiding commitment to their community.


Bill and Ruth True are collectors with a difference. Widely considered to be among the top 200 art collectors in the world, not only do they collect new media artists-artists with and on the cutting edge-but they also make their collection available to the public, free of charge, through their non-profit gallery, Western Bridge. Located south of downtown Seattle, the 11,000 square foot building won a 2004 AIA Honor Award for artist/architect Roy McMakin’s adaptive reuse of an existing warehouse. Since its opening in May 2004 it has been a vital part of the resurgent Seattle art scene, as have the Trues.

Western Bridge serves as a venue through which to exhibit, commission, and give away art: one piece out of every show is pledged to the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery; other museums are also gifted. The Trues also play host to those they appreciate: the Seattle Repertory Theatre, SAM’s Contemporary Arts Council, Seattle Arts and Lectures, The Stranger’s “Genius Awards,” the Garfield High School jazz band, a wedding, an anniversary, a bar mitzvah, a memorial service.

Bill True is chairman of Gull Industries. Founded by his father and grandfather as Gull Oil in 1959, the petroleum distribution business expanded into real estate, becoming one of the 25 largest companies in Washington State by 1998. Since 2001, however, Bill and his brother Doug have been selling off their petroleum interests to concentrate on real estate. Both Gull Industries and the Trues donate to a variety of medical, educational, and arts-related causes, as well as to Democratic politics. Bill sits on the boards of the Henry Art Gallery, 4Culture (an evolution of the King County Arts Commission), and the Pike Place Market Foundation (social services in Seattle’s historic Farmer’s Market), as well as Duke University’s Nasher Art Museum. The Trues underwrite Washington Trust (historic preservation), and Seattle Arts and Lectures, with major gifts to Swedish Medical Center, the Henry, and the Seattle Rep.

I recently met with Bill and Ruth True at Western Bridge, sitting in squashy oversized sofas in the upstairs meeting area designed as a living space for visiting artists. The latest was Bill Fontana. The gallery is given over to Fontana’s Objective Sound installation: noise from the surrounding industrial landscape channeled from the roof of Western Bridge through a variety of industrial objects (an iron buoy, an I-beam), then back through the empty gallery, to hypnotic effect.

Bill is an open, cheerful 52-year old, in casual clothes and curling hair; he makes you feel instantly at home. Ruth is maybe 10 years younger: smallish, trim, with straight brown bangs. She’s wearing a sweatshirt and slacks, no makeup. She apologizes, with the excuse that they are moving, until Bill points out to her that she always looks this way. They are busy: the previous night was their daughter’s high school graduation, and they are in the middle of moving three blocks away to a house-also designed by McMakin-in Seattle’s affluent Madison Park neighborhood.

The Trues grew up here: Bill on Mercer Island (a floating bridge away from Seattle in the middle of Lake Washington), Ruth in Madison Park, where she went to Meany Junior High and was the only white girl around the drinking fountain. She is rather embarrassed by having attended high school at Seattle Prep. She wanted to be a photographer but ended up taking a requisite business degree, marrying early and having a suburban moment, with two kids, a dog, and a picket fence. She is disgusted at the thought. (“Yes,” he says, “you never did fit well in a white suburban environment.” “No, I always wanted to be black,” she says.) They’ve been married since 1994. It’s a second marriage for each of them. They came with two children apiece, and have a fifth together, 9-year-old Sophie.

When asked what motivates them, Bill says something about “giving back.” Ruth holds out for self-amusement. She’s the more pugnacious of the two. “Feisty,” Bill says. Ruth got her art appreciation early, through her grandmother, Ruth Blethen Clayburgh. Clayburgh was a co-founder of PONCHO, Seattle’s groundbreaking arts funding organization, founded during the 1962 World’s Fair to reimburse the costs of mounting Aida in Seattle’s new Opera House. She also was instrumental in starting the Joffrey Ballet in 1956; a ballet was created in honor of her 90th birthday. She died at 92, in 2003. Clayburgh, Ruth says, was friends with all the old Northwest School painters-Mark Toby, Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves-but also bought contemporary work. Her grandmother would give her pieces, but “my interest was visual,” she says. “I wasn’t really collecting, just exposed.” Bill recalls asking, when he first met her, if a signed print of hers was a Bruce Nauman, and Ruth not knowing. (It was.)

Bill was hooked on art during an intellectual history class at Duke. He took the art history option, with a tutorial on Turner, and that was it. He began collecting Bay Area figurative work in the early ’80s, and contemporary work some 15 years ago, when he and Ruth were hanging out with dealer Donald Young. The first piece they bought together was a Francesco Clemente: a double portrait with a male and female side. The next piece, they think, was Nauman’s Eat Me/Feed Me. “And then,” they say, “the Brice Mardens, and the Sophie Calle piece with wedding dress and gravestones.”

The Trues are renowned for living with difficult work, raising children in a house with an Alfredo Jaar installation of Rwandan boys watching an execution. Sam Taylor-Wood’s video of a woman laughing and crying hysterically was in the kitchen, a Dan Flavin in the stairwell, a Tony Oursler under it. “We like edgy work,” she says, “work we’re challenged by, that makes people uncomfortable. I just love it when friends come in and say, ‘I hate that.’ It’s the biggest insult in the world not to have an opinion.”

The collection is “relational,” Ruth says. They started with portraits and self-portraits, moving to video with Gary Hill’s double portrait, Facing Faces, then from video that fit in the house to video that didn’t. They don’t know how many pieces they own. There is a catalogue that lists them, maybe 10 to a page and an inch thick. “The problem is,” Ruth says, “we buy in series. Roni Horn did 100 photos of the same woman; then there’s the “Brown Sisters” series by Nicholas Nixon (which had been installed over their dining room table). “It’s so hard to count.” Much of the collection is now at Western Bridge, the rest at a climate-controlled storage facility.

The Trues agree on their choices; Ruth goes with her gut, while Bill tends to sleep on it. He researches and talks to people, relying on Western Bridge director Eric Fredericksen, Donald Young, and Henry curator Elizabeth Brown. And he frets. They’ve begun buying work they haven’t seen, or seen only in demos. When the children were younger, they went to more art fairs; they still go to Chicago and Miami Basel, making lists and seeing what stays with them: “what can you not live without.” I ask what they can’t live without. Ruth names Christian Marclay’s Video Quartet, United Enemies by Thomas Schütte, a Carla Klein painting, but most particularly Spring Cherry, an Anne Appleby painting that she bought from the Greg Kucera gallery after 9/11. “It’s Marden-like, but with nature,” she explains. Hung in the bedroom, it’s minimal, soothing, and calm. “It’s a blanket around me,”
she says.

Elizabeth Brown, curator for the Henry Art Gallery, calls the True’s collection unique in its combination of adventurousness, quality, and fun, citing “the way Bill and Ruth encourage people to enjoy their art.” She states that the collection presents an “accurate picture of contemporary art practice around the world that is unparalleled in the Pacific Northwest.”

To that end, the Henry is showing “Mouth Open, Teeth Showing: Works from the True Collection,” through September 23. The show, which has much to do with violence, gender, and childhood, takes its title from a Zoe Leonard piece, comprising 162 vintage dolls, all standing on their own battered legs. The title describes both a desirable feature for collectible dolls and a menacing quality of the dolls themselves. Discolored, dismembered and disturbing, they’re an army of “Chuckies” on the march. An edge of aggression permeates much of the exhibit. The mood is set by Jeremy Shaw’s Seven Minutes (1995-2002), installed just inside the front entrance. Shot by Shaw at a high-school house party in Vancouver, B.C., slowed and set to his haunting score, an almost teasing, open-handed push between two girls erupts into violence: punches to the face; perfect silken hair; a beer bottle employed as a weapon as the crowd looks on.

The exhibit is installed in surprising nooks and crannies, as it would have been in the True’s home. Maria Marshall’s DVD projection President Bill Clinton, Memphis, November 13, 1993 (2000) is in the elevator. Two small children fill and unfill a white room with rosy colored paper as a child’s voice reads from Clinton’s speech, extolling the discipline and order instilled by the creation of jobs. The DVD is lovely, the unneeded ride a bonus. Other pieces are installed in and around the stairwell, including Jim Campbell’s Gaps of Information (2001), Ann Hamilton’s tiny video (dissections…they said it was an experiment) (1988, published 1993), and Jeanne Dunning’s Icing (1996) in which a young woman’s head is covered with scallops of white frosting.

Downstairs is a maze of darkened rooms. Tracey Rose’s TKO (2000) is projected on a scrim: thumping sounds rise to almost orgasmic climax. Multiple overlays create a white prism that hides her; dark triangle of pubic hair flashing against a seemingly insubstantial barrier that she, a colored woman in South Africa, can’t battle through. Dropping in exhaustion, she leaves one small tear in the fabric of her cage. Gargantuan banners create a cave for Stephen Dean’s video installation Volta (with Bandeira) (2002-2003). Filmed at the world soccer championships in Brazil, banners wave, fireworks erupt, smoke drifts. Individual identity dissolves in a passion on the outer edges of control.

A corridor is hung with Tracey Moffatt’s Up in the Sky (1997): 25 stills from a movie you construct yourself. A scrawny man crawling in the Outback, an Aborigine lunging out of darkness, a small horned deer slung on a branch. Nuns at a mission, aboriginal children in mission clothes. A pregnant blonde woman, a sleeping dark baby. Two men fight, the dark man is dead. The nuns take the baby; the blonde woman runs, in anguish. Discuss. On the facing wall, Joseph Grigely’s White Conversations (2000) offers relief. Pinned to the wall are scraps of paper, notes penned to the deaf artist by friends and acquaintances. Candid, intimate, often sexual: it’s eavesdropping at its most delicious. At the end of the wall, Hill’s Facing Faces (1996) blinks; around a corner, Martin Creed’s Work No. 312: A lamp going on and off (2003) goes off and on.

Doug Aitken’s 5-channel video installation, I am in you (2000), is in yet another dark room. Ten screens form three enclosures, with 12 projections of a young Hispanic girl. You are inside her consciousness: cat’s cradle and clapping games, solipsistic impressions of her day. The car drives itself, the sleep-bound house is towed down a night highway.

On the day of the show’s preview, Aitken is at the Henry to talk to the press as Ruth shows up with 9-year-old Sophie to take him to the Trues’ new house. “It’s a psychological landscape,” Aitken says of his work, “a series of electric haikus, which exist in the girl’s mind, without past, without history.” “Time expanding and contracting.” “The architecture of sound.” As we leave, a group stops again at Shaw’s Seven Minutes, peering to decipher the disturbing images. Ruth goes out the door with her daughter. “Oh, yes,” she says, “Bill loves that one.” And she’s gone.

Photo: Alice Wheeler