The Seattle Times

By Michael Upchurch

How Seattle art collectors Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi brought the world of Australian Aboriginal art to the Seattle Art Museum, where a new show, "Ancestral Modern," is on display through Sept. 2, 2012.

When University of Washington professor Margaret Levi first went to Australia in 1984, her focus was on a book about tax policy she was researching.

What she didn't expect was that the country would foster in her a passion for Aboriginal art — a passion that eventually led Levi, 65, and her husband, Robert Kaplan, 67, to amass a collection of roughly 500 art works. That collection is the source for all the pieces in the current Seattle Art Museum show "Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art," a show that truly does take you into another world.

Levi vividly remembers her first sight of an Aboriginal painting. A colleague at the Australian National University in Canberra owned a painting by Aboriginal artist Dick Lechleitner that jumped out at her. "I'd never seen anything like it," she remembers. "I just thought it was spectacular. And I'd always had a craving to be a collector — if I could find something I loved and could afford."

Lechleitner's painting, she says, triggered her 28-year exploration of Aboriginal art forms all over Australia. She now divides her time between Seattle (where she's the Jere L. Bacharach Professor of International Studies in the UW's Department of Political Science) and Sydney (where she's the chair in politics at the University of Sydney's U.S. Studies Centre).

Initially, her eye wasn't discerning regarding Aboriginal art, she admits, but it was attracted. It took her a while to talk Kaplan, a lawyer, into sharing her enthusiasm. It was only when they took their first trip to Australia together in 1991, shortly after they were married in 1990, that Kaplan "got the bug."

That's an understatement.

Their South Lake Union loft is a veritable art gallery, with a long interior corridor lined with paintings. Aboriginal art hangs on every wall in every room. Many of the choicest items are hanging in "Ancestral Modern" at the moment. But the entire collection is promised to SAM. And for Levi and Kaplan, exploring Australia and finding art has become "a great marital adventure."

That adventure includes yearly visits to the "art centers" that, in remote communities, serve as the mediators between purchasers and artists. "There was — and still is to some extent — a lot of exploitation: people going around the system and paying artists with a case of beer or something," Levi says. She and Kaplan make a point of making their purchases through art centers or art galleries.

Still, they've had some memorable direct contact with artists. In Arnhem Land (the northernmost part of Australia's Northern Territory), they made a curious discovery while visiting artist Paddy Fordham. The "icon," as Levi describes him, had no art on his walls.

"There was no art on the walls in anybody's house," Kaplan says. "They don't collect art. There was a poster of somebody — maybe Jimi Hendrix."

A more recent contact came with their commissioning of the 17-member Spinifex Men's Collaborative to paint "Wati Kutjarra (Two Men Story)," one of the most striking works in "Ancestral Modern." This took them to Tjuntjuntjara, a tiny community in Western Australia's Great Victoria Desert, roughly halfway between Adelaide and Perth. When they got there, rain storms delayed painting for two or three days. When the sun finally returned, Kaplan and Levi assumed the painting would start.

But upon waking up that first bright morning, they saw four of the senior men drive off. They were gone only for an hour, it turned out, to talk privately about what they were going to paint.

"Since there were 17 men painting," Kaplan explains, "they had to have a story that all of them had some rights in."

Meanwhile the women's collaborative, Levi says, was waiting around for the men. The women knew what they wanted to do — but by tradition they couldn't start painting until the men got back.

Actual art-making began around 10 a.m. and was finished by 5 p.m. During the interim, Levi and Kaplan were allowed in on the process (described by Levi as "very gendered") only gradually.

"There was a period of time," Kaplan says, "when neither of us could be near either painting because it was secret/sacred business. Then I could go to the men's and Margaret could go to the women's. And then finally it got to a public level and we could go back and forth, although we were encouraged not to spend too much time in the wrong gender's space."

"Kangaroo tails," Levi adds with a smile, "were given out as snacks."

More seriously, she notes that the painting was done in an area where atomic testing was conducted in the 1950s: "One of the women, on one of the rainy days, told us a horrible story about when she was a little girl. She was describing radiation sickness. ... They (the inhabitants) ended up in missions and were there for 50 years before it was determined that their country was habitable again."

Their paintings, she adds, have been used in court cases with the Western Australian government as a way to reclaim their rights to this land.

Dealing with Aborigines involves being sensitive to their customs, and occasionally Levi and Kaplan have stumbled over certain protocols. Both have been given "skin names," establishing their "kinship positions" in the Aboriginal world. But the names have to be used carefully.

On one occasion Levi "screwed up," as she admits, revealing their skin names when she shouldn't have. The result was that Kaplan couldn't talk to one of the women they were visiting.

"She couldn't even make eye contact with Bob," Levi explains, "because he's her son-in-law by this kinship relationship."

"In many communities," Kaplan adds, "I can't even be in the same room as my mother-in-law."

A combination of factors has made it possible for Levi and Kaplan to build their collection. They don't have children, and they quip that what you see on their walls and at SAM is what they would have spent on bar mitzvahs, college educations and wedding expenses if they'd become parents.

In 1992, Levi won a legal settlement after a 1985 accident in Sydney in which an Australian postal courier ran his car into her, destroying her knee, which had to be reconstructed. The settlement, Kaplan guesses, covered two years of art acquisition.

The idea behind acquiring so much Aboriginal art was always to champion it in the U.S.

"We had a vision or a dream, after we got the settlement from Australia, that we might be able to build a collection of sufficient quality that some major arts institution in the United States would be interested," Levi says.

The Seattle Art Museum was naturally the first museum that came to mind, and in 1995 they approached Pam McClusky, SAM's curator of art of Africa and Oceania. She was eager to see the collection and brought Patterson Sims, then SAM's chief curator, with her. After he walked through the house, he asked the couple whether they'd ever thought of making a partial or promised gift to the museum.

"So that was the first discovery," Kaplan says, "that there was real interest."

SAM first welcomed some of the Kaplan-Levi holdings into its collections in 1996, and when the museum expanded in 2007, a whole gallery was dedicated to them.

As for the idea of mounting a full-scale Aboriginal art exhibit, it was first discussed 10 years ago. And when the 2008 financial crisis hit, Levi says, the museum "began to look for shows that weren't big expensive borrowing shows and would also give the curators an opportunity to explore their own collection. ... So we sort of got lucky, in a sense. The world got unlucky — but our collecting got lucky."