Collector Spotlight: Jon Shirley and Kim Richter Shirley

In building his collection, the former Microsoft executive collaborated with art world luminaries including Arne Glimcher and Robert Mnuchin and nurtured relationships with artists like Chuck Close, Dale Chihuly and Italo Scanga.

A business-like portrait of an older woman and man
Art collectors Kim Richter Shirley and Jon Shirley. Courtesy Kim Richter Shirley and Jon Shirley

Former president, COO and director of Microsoft (MSFT) Jon Shirley, 84, discovered Alexander Calder when he was a student at The Hill preparatory school outside of Philadelphia. He took a three-year humanities class that covered literature, poetry, drama, architecture and the visual arts, and it was during a trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art that he first encountered Calder’s work outside of books.

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“I came out of the class with a great love of two things. One was jazz music and the other was modern sculpture and especially the works of Calder,” Shirley told Observer. “The idea of sculpting in space instead of sculpting in something solid was a revelation. To me, the balance, the airiness and the slight motion were all very appealing.”

It was, he said, hard to believe that one man with just two or three simple hand tools could create such wonderful artwork so easily. Yet that brief encounter with Calder awakened a lifelong appreciation for masterful art in Shirley—one he’d share with both his late wife Mary and his second love, Kim Richter Shirley.

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Jon Shirley would eventually hire architect George Suyama to design a 23,000-square-foot home to hold his growing collection—which included the best privately held Calder assemblage in the U.S. along with works by Joan Mitchell, Mark Rothko, Gerhard Richter, Claes Oldenburg, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Jesús Moroles, Marino Marini and many more. In building his collection, he collaborated with art world luminaries including Arne Glimcher, Robert Mnuchin, Jinny Wright and Robert Storr and nurtured relationships with artists like Chuck Close, Dale Chihuly and Italo Scanga.

Before that, however, he graduated from MIT, going on to work for Radio Shack and then the Tandy Corporation, where he stayed for two decades, eventually becoming vice president of computer merchandising. Early into his career, he met Mary, who accompanied him to Belgium when he was tasked with opening Tandy International Electronics stores in Europe. They stayed for five years, during which they traveled around Europe visiting museums: the Van Gogh Museum, the Kröller-Müller Museum and the Musée d’Orsay, among others.

A black and white photograph of a middle age man working with two kinetic sculptures
Alexander Calder with ‘Gamma’ (1947) and ‘Sword Plant’ (1947). © Calder Foundation, New York / DACS London

It was a period, he said in an interview with the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, during which they were able to take in a lot of art. Back in the States, Mary discovered the glass art world and they acquired a Chihuly sculpture that’s now at the Seattle Art Museum. Jon Shirley purchased his first Calder piece in 1988—the mobile Squarish (1970), bought on a whim at Pace—and they’d go on to build an exceptional collection of modern and contemporary art along with a foundation that supported nonprofit arts, educational and human service organizations.

Mary passed in 2013; Jon, by then a prominent arts philanthropist, married Kim, who shared his passion for the arts, in 2016. Though her background tends to disappear against the backdrop of Jon Shirley’s history with Microsoft (see: the “and wife” trope), Kim Richter Shirley is an arts patron in her own right. She, too, is a committed collector and serves as a trustee of the Seattle Art Museum (alongside Jon) and the Tate Americas Foundation. She’s also a member of the National Gallery of Art Collectors Committee, the Tate North American Acquisitions Committee and the University of Washington Henry Art Gallery Advisory Council.

Together, she and Jon made headlines late last year when they donated their collection of Calder works spanning the entirety of the artist’s career (including Fish, Gamma and Bougainvillier) to the Seattle Art Museum, along with a $10 million endowment and the promise of robust annual funding.

The Shirley’s Seattle connections

It’s no surprise that Kim and Jon Shirley chose the Seattle Art Museum when donating their prized Calder collection, estimated to be worth $200 million. Both have deep roots in the state—Jon has called Seattle home for many years and Kim grew up there. “My grandparents came here from Norway, and my mother grew up with her siblings going to the original Seattle Art Museum,” she said.

The Shirley’s gift of artwork, which was a bequest so the Calder works will officially transfer to the Seattle Art Museum upon Jon’s death, was motivated in part by their shared desire to raise the museum’s national profile. “We are trying to help the Seattle Art Museum get to another level and be the very best institution that it can be,” said Kim. The couple plans to give between $250,000 and $500,000 to the institution annually, and they have a clear vision of the programs and initiatives that the bequest of their collection, the endowment and annual gifts will support.

People mill about a large colorful sculpture in an empty white exhibition space
Installation view of ‘Calder: In Motion, The Shirley Family Collection’ at the Seattle Art Museum. © 2024 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photo: Alborz Kamalizad.

To preserve the influence and legacy of Calder’s works, a portion of the funds will be dedicated to future exhibits, events, research and programs related to Calder’s work.

“Each year, we will have programming that involves other artists who are influenced by Calder or who studied at the Atelier Calder,” Jon Shirley explained. “This will create an ongoing presence annually of something that relates to these works, to continue to make his work accessible to as many people as we can.”

The funds will also support art education for K-12 students at Seattle public schools, funding museum admission and covering transportation costs for children from schools that might not otherwise be able to bring students to the museum. Supporting art education is particularly important to the Shirleys. As Kim Richter Shirley pointed out, her husband was able to attend the very preparatory school that introduced him to Caldar’s work because of a scholarship he received as the son of a military man.

“He never would have had that kind of opportunity because his father was a naval officer and wouldn’t have been able to provide that education for him”, she added. “So we understand how important arts education is. That education in arts and humanities changed his life.”

Calder: In Motion, The Shirley Family Collection” is on view at the Seattle Art Museum through August 4.

Collector Spotlight: Jon Shirley and Kim Richter Shirley