The SAM stampede begins

Seattle Art Museum's new downtown expansion opens this weekend, and the media extravaganza is under way.
Crosscut archive image.

The new downtown Seattle Art Museum. (Richard Barnes)

Seattle Art Museum's new downtown expansion opens this weekend, and the media extravaganza is under way.

When major new arts facilities open, such as Seattle Art Museum's downtown expansion next weekend, the organizations tend to lay it on thick, inviting in the public for a marathon free day-and-night open house, summoning critics far and near, and sending out almost daily notices. The deluge has begun. You can hardly blame SAM for feeling proud and for seizing the media moment. These openings can garner quotable raves from the major papers – critical for convincing Seattle folks that it's OK to admire the new building – and they can position the museum in just the right way. SAM has undergone a remarkable transformation of culture in the past decade, from being an elite institution favored by wealthy patrons to being dramatically turned outward to embrace a wider community. This is the doing of SAM Director Mimi Gates, who got religion on this outward turn, she says, from Seattle itself and its populist traditions. The board wouldn't have done this by itself, as key members once favored a museum that was designed for the quiet contemplation of art and had a small space for touring "blockbuster" shows that bring in casual audiences that are hard to retain. Faced with a large capital campaign and the need for public money, SAM concluded that it needed to face outward, collaborate more with many arts groups in town, and stress the multicultural aspects of its collection. It's now one of the leading museums in the country in this outward turn, caught in its slogan, "SAM, Where Art Meets Life," hammered into our brains as if by Hammering Man. That embrace of the city around it, in turn, is key to understanding the design of the new SAM, particularly the generous open, unticketed spaces on the ground floor, and the totally free Olympic Sculpture Park. Likewise, the museum's eclectic collection – not surprising for a museum that started seriously collecting only recently, when prices for European masters are simply out of reach – is arranged so you can see from room to room, across cultures as it were, in a way that invites inter-cultural commentary. This aspect of multicultural richness (or confusion) is one element discussed in Sheila Farr's Seattle Times essay on the new SAM, where she worries that the messages are so mixed that the museum won't achieve much of a new profile. Much the same issue comes up in talking about the architecture. The building is somewhat submerged into the tall corporate tower it adjoins, so we don't get the kind of iconic, look-at-me, heroic architecture that most museums are opting for in a great leap forward. The virtuosic moves are inside, where the mixture of one- and two-story spaces creates a lot of excitement. Portland architect Brad Cloepfil, one of the hottest museum architects in the country, who designed the new SAM, calls it a "vertical labyrinth" in an excellent interview with Portland Oregonian critic Randy Gragg. It's clear that the key decision SAM made was to stay in its downtown block, which meant building vertically, and to partner with Washington Mutual for the rest of the block and some of the floors above the new museum. The problems with vertical museums are many. You take up a lot of space with stairs and elevators and light wells. To get light in, SAM uses the west wall, with complicated louvers, and that takes up a lot of wall space that could have gone to exhibits. All the complicated circulation patterns, in turn, can create a very "rational" feeling to the building, since you are constantly worried about steering people around. (This seriously afflicts the new Museum of Modern Art in New York, for instance.) But the real reason for the new facility, the exciting new architecture, and the community buzz is to gain new art for SAM. The notable artworks of local collectors are famously footloose, sought after by many other museums. You have to build more space, fashion special rooms, and get the donors excited about the museum and the company their art will keep to get these bequests and donations. What comes in is bound to be eclectic, since it's based on the random tastes of wealthy local collectors. (There comes the diversity issue again.) But by putting less money in an extravagent building, and by creating still more public excitement by opening the Sculpture Park in the same year, SAM has gained a vast trove of fine new art, particularly American art. It's a genuine Big Deal for the city and the region. Don't let all the hype this week blind you to that realization.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors