ArtSEA: Seattle’s waterfront makeover brings new art to Alaskan Way

Plus, plumbing issues permanently sink the Museum of Museums on First Hill.

a series of concrete sculptures shaped like jacks with a city skyline behind

Seattle artist Buster Simpson’s “Anthropomorphic Dolos” are installed as part of the waterfront renewal project. Located near the new Habitat Beach, the sculptures reflect anti-erosion strategies in a changing climate. (Brangien Davis/Crosscut)

We’ve arrived at midsummer, when we not only appreciate but expect sunny days — a thrilling audacity for Seattleites. Our garden tomatoes are turning red, and our own skin is perhaps a shade darker too. It’s the time of year when we’re magnetically drawn toward our local water bodies, like salmon upstream.

At last weekend’s Seattle Art Fair, Eunsun Choi’s interactive exhibit Touch Grass riffed on the Twitter meme — a shorthand insult meaning “get offline and go outside.” A regional adaptation might be “touch water,” given our many lakes and rivers and the Salish Sea lapping at the city’s doorstep.

ArtSEA: Notes on Northwest Culture is Crosscut’s weekly arts & culture newsletter.

Getting people to touch water is one of the goals of Waterfront Seattle. After years of construction, the waterfront renewal project is starting to make big reveals, this week with the fancy new entrance to the Colman Dock ferry terminal.

The new building, with its sunny orange accents, is a big ($467 million) improvement on the original, and recognizes a key fact of city culture: Locals and tourists want places where we can experience Puget Sound. 

Just south of the new terminal is the new Habitat Beach, a spot that invites the public to touch water — with hands only. Since the park is primarily intended to support marine habitat and the salmon corridor, no swimming or launching (or landing) of watercraft is allowed. 

When I visited the rocky slope of Habitat Beach in July, I encountered two quiet humans, three squawking seagulls and one giant red Lion’s Mane jellyfish, the last of which wasn’t so much exploring the pocket park as melting into it. It’s a lovely spot to escape the ferry traffic — though it is no pool barge…

The ambitious floating pool barge — one of the original Waterfront renewal designs that was scrapped in 2014. (City of Seattle)

Let’s pause for a moment to remember the pool barge, part of the original waterfront plan. This gloriously ambitious, evil-genius kind of vision saw locals and tourists boarding a giant floating swimming pool anchored along the waterfront. (Early plans also called for hot tubs and a lazy-river feature.) 

Lead designers at the Berger Partnership said the pool’s “wonderful absurdity” was what made it special. Indeed. The pool barge dream was winnowed down and finally scratched in 2014, yet I can’t help wondering what summers might have been like with the barge. 

The good news is there will be a lot of art incorporated into the new waterfront. We’ve already seen some of it show up, such as the Land Buoy Bells at Pier 62 (which I wrote about in 2021). The latest addition comes courtesy of longtime Seattle environmental artist Buster Simpson, whose “Anthropomorphic Dolos” are squatting just above Habitat Beach. 

Resembling jacks from the kids’ game, the concrete dolos are based on forms used to dissipate waves and protect shores from erosion. In this case they encourage visitors to gather and look west across the water. Nearby sit Simpson’s “SeaBearers,” pillowy concrete forms that look like feedbags or sandbags — intended as a reminder of both Seattle as a working waterfront and the dangers of rising sea levels.

The Museum of Museums on First Hill. (Agueda Pacheco Flores/Crosscut)

Speaking of rising waters … Just as I was finishing today’s newsletter, word arrived that the Museum of Museums, housed in a revamped mid-century medical building on First Hill, will close on Sept. 1. The reason for the sudden ending: massive plumbing issues. 

Experimental arts spaces are always living on the edge. This one, founded in 2019 by local arts entrepreneur Greg Lundgren and now run by artist Mary Anne Carter, at first faced lengthy permitting delays, immediately followed by COVID-19. But after a stuttered start, MoM earned a loyal local following for its eclectic mix of exhibits showcasing art by everyone from kids to Seattle up-and-comers to international art stars like Orly Anan. 

From the get-go, MoM organizers knew that developers could come for the block in the future. But in the end, the shut down came from the building itself. “Over the past 4 years, it has become increasingly apparent that maintaining a 77-year-old building comes with significant challenges,” Lundgren wrote in an email. “Our current issue extends beyond our ability to overcome.” 

Noting that the staff had spent days over the winter “hauling gallons and buckets of water out of the building,” he explained that attempts to mitigate the issue have failed because the main sewer line — a classic clay pipe — has collapsed and cannot handle rainwater downpours. “It feels like a ship with a hole in the bow,” Lundgren wrote, with palpable sorrow. “The deluge of Seattle rain will inevitably sink our ship.”

Exhibits — and there are some very good ones right now — will remain up through the end of August.

Paul Horiuchi's 1962 mosaic is the keystone of Seattle Center's Mural Amphitheater. (Daniel Spils)

It’s not a Seattle summer if you haven’t hit Seattle Center — whether taking out-of-town guests to the Space Needle or splashing around in the International Fountain or heading to Bumbershoot (which returns — reimagined — for its 50th anniversary this Labor Day Weekend). 

And the Mural Amphitheater, named for Paul Horiuchi’s 1962 mosaic, is firing up more reasons to visit the grounds (and bring a blanket): 

First up, KEXP kicks off its popular (and free) Concerts at the Mural series tonight (!) with smoky-voiced R&B singer Baby Rose and emerging Federal Way pop singer Zari Alexandria (Aug. 3). They’ll keep the outdoor music flowing throughout August, showcasing Olympia band Daisies (Aug. 10) and Seattle indie-rock faves Deep Sea Diver and La Fonda (Aug. 17).

This Friday (Aug. 4) the Movies at the Mural series continues with Clueless (which I have still never seen — I know!). Next up is the blockbuster that asks, “Is it safe to get back in the water,” and answers “Chomp!”: Jaws (Aug. 11). Bonus: All films are preceded by short films by students at Cornish College of the Arts, so you can support emerging filmmakers from the comfort of your picnic.

Also this weekend at the Mural is the Pacific Northwest Ballet Dance Film Festival (Aug. 5, 9 p.m.), screening 12 short films that showcase the intimacy of dance as captured on camera. Films were selected from submissions across the country and include members of the Seattle Dance Collective and Spectrum Dance Theatre. (Watch for a story on the fest’s origins on Crosscut tomorrow.)

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