SAAM reopens in Volunteer Park

"This is a special time," said Mimi Gates, director of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). Gates, who's been at the helm of SAM for more than a decade, was speaking at a Friday, Jan. 13, reopening tour of the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park. "In terms of the art museum overall, we're moving full speed ahead."

The Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM) had been closed for much of 2005 for needed renovations and upgrades, upgrades that included a new roof and new skylights. SAAM opened to the public on Saturday, Jan. 14.

With the closing of SAM downtown earlier in the month - SAM will remain closed in order to complete a large expansion project, one that will greatly expand the museum's current floor space - the Seattle Asian Art Museum will serve as the focus of SAM's activities for most of the year.

"This museum will be the vital center for all of SAM's activities for most of the year," Gates said. While the space will not contain any of the permanent exhibits normally found in the downtown facility, exhibitions scheduled throughout the year feature a mixture of western and Asian programs. In addition to the Volunteer Park and downtown locations, SAM is scheduled to open the Olympic Sculpture Park on the waterfront adjacent to Myrtle Edwards Park in the fall of this year.


The Seattle Art Museum was founded in 1908 as the Seattle Fine Arts Society, which later morphed into the Art Institute of Seattle in 1928. It gained its current moniker in 1931 under the leadership of Dr. Robert Fuller, a passionate local art collector.

SAAM's building, which has a commanding presence in Volunteer Park with a view of the reservoir and the Space Needle, was built in 1932 when Fuller and his mother offered the city $250,000 towards a new museum building if the city would agree to service and maintain it. Noted architect Carl Gould, who had been president of the Art Institute of Seattle and was himself an architecture professor at the University of Washington, was brought on to design the structure.

It opened on June 23, 1933, and was an immediate success. More than 30,000 visitors attended on the first day; in its first year of operation attendance was nearly 350,000, a huge number given that Seattle's population at the time was roughly 365,000. The collection leaned heavily on Chinese and Japanese art collected by Fuller with his own money. Fuller served as the museum's director until 1973.

The art deco building was expanded in 1947 with an extension on the northeast corner of the building, and again in 1954 when an additional gallery was built at the back of the structure. Another major expansion took place the following year. Following the Seattle World's Fair in 1962, a branch museum opened at the Seattle Center, which remained in use through 1987.

As the museum's collection grew to contain notable pieces of modern art, photography and, following a major donation from the estate of Katherine C. White, African works, the need for a larger building became pronounced. In 1978, when the touring exhibit "The Egyptian Masterworks of Tutankhamen" attracted more than 1.3 million visitors, serious efforts began for a larger, downtown facility.

In 1991, the Volunteer Park building was closed as the museum moved to its new home downtown. Designed by noted architect Robert Venturi, the building attracted both high praise as well as criticism. The giant Hammering Man sculpture at the main entrance also generated a wide variety of emotional responses.

The Volunteer Park location remained closed for three years. Following extensive renovations, the building reopened in 1994 as the Seattle Asian Art Museum. With the space dedicated to SAM's Asian collections, more than 1,000 objects were able to be displayed.

SAAM opens with four new exhibitions. "The Orchid Pavilion Gathering: Chinese Painting from the University of Michigan Museum of Art" features roughly 60 paintings that trace the evolution of Chinese painting over nine centuries. Another gallery holds "Chinese Calligraphy and Painting by Ch'ung-ho Frankel and Friends. Frankel, who was on hand at a pre-opening tour of SAAM on Friday, Jan. 13, has been practicing the art of calligraphy for more than 80 years. An ongoing exhibit traces Buddhist art, with roughly 100 works from six Asian countries. And "Tooba, "a striking video installation by Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat, contrasts an enclosed, earthly paradise with a mountainous landscape.

Gates pointed to SAAM's building and the ongoing efforts to keep the old structure in good condition. More work will be done at a future date to replace the electrical and plumbing systems, as well as install a central humidity control system. This second phase of work is slated to begin in 2008.

"We're bound and determined to keep this building in the same shape as all our other buildings," Gates said. "It's a challenge. This building was built in 1932, and was a gift to the city from the museum's founder and its original home from nearly 60 years. These galleries have a wonderful intimacy. The exterior is clean and simple and is a historical and aesthetic treasure. Just about everyone's played on the camels out front!"

Doug Schwartz is the editor of the Capitol Hill Times. He can be reached at or 461-1308.

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