This is big news. The press release came out yesterday but I waited to post until I could talk to everybody and figure out how big—it's also mysterious.

Yep, it's big: The Raynier Institute & Foundation is giving $1.1 million to Artist Trust and the Frye Art Museum, and the money will be used to form a whole ecosystem for local artists lasting the next five years.

Artists will receive enough money so that they can focus on their work while also paying their bills, and this work, once made, will be presented publicly.

It will work like this: Each year, Artist Trust will give two awards of $15,000 and one award of $50,000—$50,000!

All those artists will then be exhibited at the Frye.

This means that over the five years, the Frye will organize at least two exhibitions on the scale of last year's Moment Magnitude, along with several smaller or more temporary exhibitions, performances, and events.

In the last few years, the Frye has connected with local artists far more than any other local museum. The Raynier Foundation grant is both the Frye's reward and its prod to continue. One Frye representative will sit on each five-member panel that picks the winners for the awards. Artist Trust will solicit nominations, nominees will be invited to submit proposals, and the timeline for announcing the first winner is February. (Artist Trust also gives out the annual $25,000 Arts Innovator Award; the difference is that "originality" and "innovation" are not necessarily synonyms, and that the Raynier grants are open to one-time collaborations between artists. This year's Arts Innovator winners will be announced in October; that program is four years into six years of guaranteed funding from the Dale & Leslie Chihuly Foundation.)

The James W. Ray Distinguished Artist Award ($50,000) "will recognize artists in all disciplines whose work demonstrates exceptional originality."

The James W. Ray Venture Project Award ($15,000) "will support projects by artists in all disciplines whose work demonstrates exceptional originality."

The Raynier Foundation Exhibitions "will showcase Washington State artists within a local and global context," be documented in three major publications, and be curated by the Frye (meaning curator Scott Lawrimore and director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker).

Now who's James W. Ray, this mystery man who's the namesake of the awards, and what's the Raynier Foundation, the local endowment of $88 million that gives money to the poor and to artists?

The short and eventful story of James W. Ray's life was told in the Seattle Times story "A Millionaire's Guardian" in 2010.

The story begins in the 1980s when Ray, mentally ill and addicted to drugs, was living in a halfway house despite his wealth. His family asked for the appointment of a guardian, a role that [Guardian Services of Seattle] personnel took on in 1987.

Under the company's care, Ray's life improved dramatically. He bought a house on Capitol Hill, traveled and gave generously to friends and arts organizations in Seattle and elsewhere, including $1 million to the Experience Music Project. Unfortunately, his bipolar disorder would never be fully under control.

Then in October 2005, Ray died unexpectedly at age 52.

When family members learned the details of his will, they were dismayed. Under an old will, Ray had left everything to relatives, heirs of the Widener family of Philadelphia, which made a fortune in the meat and railroad industries.

He signed a new will in 1998, a four-paragraph document also signed by his psychiatrist, saying Ray was of sound mind. Under the new will, Ray bequeathed his entire estate to the Raynier Institute and Foundation, a Seattle charity that GSS had helped him create years before.

(More details about Ray are on the foundation web site.)

Ray wanted the foundation to focus on what he cared about most: healthcare and human services, arts and culture, education, environment, and animal welfare. It's given major funding to YouthCare—housing for chronically homeless kids—and to anti-bullying efforts. You can see a few of its projects here; they've been local and on the East Coast.

You can't apply to get money from Raynier; instead, they find you.

"We do keep a low profile, because there is such a need for good causes that it can be overwhelming," said the executor of the foundation, Ed Gardner, who also took care of Ray when he was alive. "We prefer to do our own investigative work and contribute to where our small contribution will work best."

Raynier reached out at the end of last year to several arts groups, asking the question, "What are some of the greatest needs in the local art world?"

"We chose these two groups because of their strong leadership, years of existence, service to the community, and their perceived ability to carry out our vision for this grant," Gardner said.

Raynier didn't invite any other organizations to submit a proposal. But the other people approached to answer the question were artist Jesse Higman; ArtsFund's Mari Horita (ArtsFund also received a $200,000 grant); dancer/choreographer Cyrus Khambatta; Hugo House director Tree Swenson; entrepreneur/provocateur Greg Lundgren; the city's arts office leader, Randy Engstrom; and the grandmother of organized support for local artists, Anne Focke.

Gardner doesn't know whether Ray, who owned the Eagle Eye Gallery, made a regular point of visiting the Frye but "can't imagine" he didn't. Ray, Gardner said, would be especially "pleased with bringing two great groups together for a single project" as well as "the concept of supporting artists to meet their basic needs in life."

Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, director of the Frye, had never heard of Raynier before the foundation approached the museum last year. She looked into them, and became a fan of the way they leverage collective good intentions toward progress.

"They're very strong on bringing groups together for a common cause or a better solution," she said.

Birnie Danzker spent part of her career abroad, but the Australian native also got her start in this region, in Vancouver, B.C., and she knows the region's history well. She's seen generations of artists increasingly get attention outside of Seattle, then return to find themselves scrambling to find any support at all in Seattle, especially financial support.

"We have spectacular artists living and working in the city who are struggling, who are very concerned with the day-to-day issues of life and at the same time maybe performing in New York or being flown to Sweden or being recognized in Iceland," she said.

"I said there needed to be an integrated approach to how we support artists, to provide artists with enough funds so that they don't have to worry for at least a year about how they're going to pay the rent and meet their most basic needs—so that they could do their work. Another thing I found was that the grants available to artists are very modest. You get down to whether you're going to pay an artist 100 dollars or 200 dollars in order to perform—and this is not how it should be. In a city of our wealth and advantages, how could we set up a structure so that exceptional artists can advance their work?"

Stay tuned to Slog and The Stranger to see how it goes, and visit Raynier Institute & Foundation here.