How Mimi Gates revolutionized the Seattle Art Museum

It's an unlikely story – how she turned an institution inside out, giving it the tools to become a major art museum. Two new shows exhibit the core values of the transformed SAM.
Crosscut archive image.

From "Japan Envisions the West" at the Seattle Art Museum: Portrait of Commodore M.C. Perry, 1850s. (Kobe City Museum)

It's an unlikely story – how she turned an institution inside out, giving it the tools to become a major art museum. Two new shows exhibit the core values of the transformed SAM.

This has been a remarkable, amazing year for the Seattle Art Museum, which opened the Olympic Sculpture Park in January and its new downtown museum in May. Attendance has been strikingly up, especially at the free-admission Sculpture Park, which has counted 400,000 visitors since opening and is a huge hit with the public. Perhaps a bit overshadowed, downtown SAM says it counted 177,000 visitors from May to September, which doubles the 87,000 for the comparable period in 2005, the last year of the old building.

Last week's opening of two special exhibits at SAM's downtown museum was in a way the real beginning of the new era for SAM. The hoopla of the unveilings is now past, with the largely very positive press reviews safely banked. Now the work begins. That would be putting on interesting shows now that there's really space to do it (the rooms for special and touring shows went up by 5,500 square feet to 14,000), and to do it right.

So here was still-beaming SAM director Mimi Gates introducing dignitaries from Kobe, Japan, where one show comes from ("Japan Envisions the West"). Mayor Greg Nickels was talking about sister city bonds with Kobe and struggling with the language barrier and practicing his bows with his mayoral counterpart. Many, many people took bows.

And then Gates happily turned over the program to SAM's curator for the show, Yukiko Shirahara, who led a group through the galleries. The show is a fascinating if rather scholarly exhibition about how Japanese artists first encountered and then adapted Western artistic forms. Not only that, SAM was opening another show, tracing 30 years of paintings by the marvelous Palouse artist, Gaylen Hansen, now in his 80s and going stronger than ever. The Hansen show particularly is not to be missed.

Everything seemed wonderfully right about the occasion. The shows were not blockbusters but something better than that for their originality, depth, and appropriateness to the region. Gates put her curators to the fore, as she is very good at doing. Indeed, the new SAM is very much an expression of the museum's curatorial teamwork and its extraordinary skills in displaying artwork, coming from years of continuity in its key staff members.

Instead of a feeling of letdown after the big opening show, displaying the marvelous new art SAM has acquired from local collectors, who now have a genuine showplace for their donated art, here was a sense of showing what this striking new museum can really do, year after year. It is a quantum leap, unmatched by any other cultural institution in the Northwest.

"This was our dream," Gates told me in an interview during the summer, speaking of the whole staff and the donors. "Now we have it! There's no sense of letdown, for the greatest challenge lies ahead. It is simply this: to show we can be a major art museum." If there is a more turned-on arts organization in Seattle than SAM, I can't think of it.

About 25 years ago, few would have said or predicted things like this about SAM. Seattle is a young city, so its wealthy collectors got a late start in raiding European galleries, long after prices had become prohibitive. The collections' strengths were in Asian art (thanks to founder Dr. Richard Fuller), Northwest native art (thanks to local collectors like the Haubergs), and African art (through a fluke when a major collector happened to come to Seattle for medical treatment and die here). There were (and are) huge gaps in the collection. The downtown SAM, designed by Robert Venturi, didn't really work well. The design soaked up too much space with staircases, and the architect's subtle ironies and allusions from the post-modernist style were lost on most people and soon faded into a tribute to a passing fashion in architectural taste.

"SAM was a traditional place, for people who love art," recalls Gates of the museum's fairly limited sense of itself. She arrived here in 1994 from the Yale Art Gallery and at first seemed to be a somewhat academic leader of SAM, being an Asian art scholar herself and coming from a university tradition. Instead, she was to install a dramatic new vision for SAM.

Gates is warm and friendly and unpretentious, and most of all a team-builder who deflects credit. But she has been absolutely central to the transformation of SAM to where it now has a real shot at being a major art museum. In our interview, I pried some of the story out of her.

She began to change, she says, at Yale, where that university and gallery, always feeling dangerously isolated from the troubled city of New Haven, Conn., began looking at how it could be "a window on the community." One show in particular, an exhibit of African art, filled the gallery with kids of many races, creating a buzz in the gallery and a passion in the director, then known as Mimi Gardner. When she got to Seattle, later to marry Bill Gates Sr., she came to think that turning a museum outward was a "natural direction" for such a tolerant and open-minded city.

Museums can be easily captured by their wealthy collectors and donors, who are not naturally inclined to bring in the masses. The first downtown SAM, for instance, had a small space for touring shows, as some of the trustees disliked blockbusters for the way they bring in visitors more interested in buying Monet tote bags than becoming members and really learning about art. In their view, a quite defensible traditional outlook, museums should not be jammed with dating couples and visiting conventioneers but rather should be "contemplative" spaces for communing with complex works of art, and open to all who want such an experience.

Rather amazingly, Gates changed SAM's sense of itself, really revolutionizing the place. She opened the advisory committee and the board to more diverse members, such as Asunta Ng, a leader in the Chinese community. She used a $1.2 million Wallace Fund grant to study all the ways SAM could be more responsive to the city around it, "broadening, deepening, and diversifying its audience." She changed a traditional mission statement about collecting, conserving, and displaying great art to a much simpler one that said it all in five words: "SAM: where art meets life." It might also be put this way: Where SAM met Mimi.

An unexpected reinforcement arrived in 1997. That was when several collectors, notably Bagley and Virginia Wright, long mainstays of SAM, and Jon and Mary Shirley, he of a Microsoft fortune, made clear that they would donate significant works of outdoor sculpture if SAM could find a good place for a sculpture park. At first, the site was going to be the envisioned Commons in the South Lake Union neighborhood, but that idea, for a big park, was twice rejected by voters. Next, the Trust for Public Land, with a new mission of developing urban open space, offered to try to find land, eventually spotting the SoCal oil storage site along Elliott Avenue, sloping down to Elliott Bay.

Touring the unlikely site, then a brownfield, Jon Shirley immediately declared it was the place, and later the Shirleys pledged $20 million in endowment so that Olympic Sculpture Park could be free admission and all the maintenance and security costs would be paid out of the endowment earnings, not burdening the budget of SAM. That was the catalyzing moment, changing everything.

Gates' "outward turn" was suddenly, dramatically in place. The sculpture park, says Gates, is "porous, free, open, embracing the energy of the city, a glorious place to be. It has a whole life of its own." Art is there, but it is not just about art. She had the most vivid possible illustration of her new sense of what a museum embedded in a city should be.

So, too, with the new SAM downtown. Gates wanted a place that has plenty of free-admission space, is open and airy and filled with natural light, and connects well with the city, one block south of Pike Place Market. She says that she and Portland architect Brad Cloepfil shared a reverence for Louis Kahn, who designed two exquisite museums at Yale. The key values are proportioning the interior spaces well, with 30-foot-wide rooms as the basis. The spaces are animated by having varied ceiling heights, an openness among the galleries that avoids the "forced march" of many museums but does not get the visitor lost, and extensive visual orientation to the outside cityscape. SAM now occupies four floors of the new building (plus the old Venturi building), and it can gradually expand eight more floors upward. So in addition to the complex horizontal connections, it has many ways of looking up and down vertically.

The new SAM is admired for its interior, but some critics have said it looks too corporate on the outside, reading as a kind of modest appendage to the 42-story Wamu tower that looms just to the east. It's definitely a reaction against the wildly exhibitionistic buildings of the Bilbao Guggenheim era, as well as an expression of Gates' determination to have a building that worked for the art and the curators, not an ungainly tribute to some architect's eccentric vision.

Gates admits that some more drama needs to be gotten into the SAM entrances. Others have said that it's not easy for first-time vistors to spot the building or find the parking garage. But it clearly works well inside, with light, pleasingly proportioned, beautifully painted, unmonotonous galleries. The open entrance floor still seems too much like leftover space to me, and not particularly inviting for the wider community.

Best of all, SAM is just the right size for a museum, not a bone-wearying vastness. It is full of interesting nooks and new discoveries. The scale is just right. Being "right-sized" is a core value at SAM, one expressed by the way the curatorial teams worked together in designing the space and exhibits. Huge museums have feuding departments. Gates' goal for SAM is to be "big enough to have great collections, but small enough to have a unified vision." Come to think of it, that's a pretty good mission statement for Seattle and other big-little cities.

If the Gates revolution at SAM profoundly vitalized the museum and its staff and avoided the pitfall of "starchitecture," it also is trying to find a way to make a virtue of its eclectic collection. The museum, in addition to the earlier depth in Asian, Native American, and African art, now has a strong collection of modern art from Seattle's leading collectors and a good start on earlier American art. SAM tries, a bit too hard for my taste, to make an omelet out of this eclectic collection, juxtaposing small collections from one field with those of another. Sometimes it works; other times it just seems baffling, "less like crossing a bridge than like jumping off a cliff," in the words of one head-scratching critic, Lee Rosenbaum in The Wall Street Journal.

This diversity and complexity is a very contemporary sensibility. Museums have moved from presenting "master narratives," in the Sir Kenneth Clark mode of a grand march of masterpieces of the West, to a form of display that suggests "multiple narratives." Yiukiko Shirahara, the curator of "Japan Envisions the West," said the show depicts "catalyzing encounters with worlds outside the borders," and that seems a good description of what SAM is trying more broadly to do. The message lies in the dramatic spaces between works of art, rather than in isolated masterworks. When you lack the budget to have major works by major artists, this seems a good strategy.

At any rate, this "intermingling of cultures" is part of the Gates formula, and it serves to keep you mentally alert when touring SAM. It came to me, some days after touring the "Japan Envisions the West" show and the Gaylen Hansen retrospective, that the latter was an example of "Seattle Envisons the West," meaning the Wild West that Hansen both celebrates and spoofs. I suspect this cunning echo is just in my head, but there you are.

I also admire the way SAM now has the confidence to avoid the blockbuster game. The Portland Art Museum, under John Buchanan, went down this path to considerable acclaim, nabbing big shows of Rembrandt and the Stroganoff collection. No longer. Now, under new director Brian Ferriso, PAM is set on a course of interesting, eclectic exhibits that normally flow out of the interests of museum curators rather than the marketing department. It's also mending a frayed relationship with the local community and regional artists, as is SAM.

PAM's new course is risky. Tourism interests, as well as some funders and corporate donors, will keep up the pressure for big crowd-pleasers, particularly since both PAM (recently explanded) and SAM now have room for them. (In fact, there are some semi-blockbusters coming to SAM, such as an exhibit of three of Ghiberti's famous gilded door panels from Florence, and Roman Art from the Louvre.)

Instead, SAM, like the new PAM, will be playing from the strength of curators, building confidence and attracting outstanding new ones by letting them pull together shows, rather than importing touring gotta-see spectaculars. Seattle, famously insecure about art and normally needing the imprimatur of the world-class, will be tested; will the audiences come? SAM too will continue to be at risk for staying the new course of engaging the community rather than gazing at the stars.


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