A small museum climbs onto the global stage

The Seattle Art Museum's ambitious expansion illustrates how small regional museums can stay engaged with their communities.

The Seattle Art Museum is having a pretty heady year. Not only did SAM just open its newly remodeled downtown space, expanded by some 70 percent – thanks to a creative partnership with Washington Mutual Bank – it broke the traditional notion of a unified campus by adding the outdoor Olympic Sculpture Park down on the waterfront. It also plans a $4 million remodel for the edifice showcasing its renowned Asian Art collection next year.

All of this would have been ambitious enough for a relatively small, regional museum preparing to mark a modest 75th anniversary in 2008.

But, the pièce de résistance in SAM's annus "terrificus" is the March gift announcement: nearly 1,000 works of art, worth over $1 billion, from more than 40 local private collections, including several landmark assemblages of Pacific Northwest, early and postwar American art.

In a momentous few months, this previously respected but limited institution has landed in an international spotlight with panache, revealing its emerging arts leadership in the region and illuminating the complex strategies smaller museums increasingly employ to stay modern and engaged with their communities.

"SAM is exceptional among regional museums," says Bruce Altshuler, director of the Program in Museum Studies at New York University, "both for its resident collecting community and having significant existing collections of its own on which it can draw."

Specifically, the museum has cultivated its Pacific Northwest, Asian, and African collections to impressive heights, says Kevin Maifeld, director of Arts Leadership at Seattle University.

While many museums often pursue art's "greatest hits" – works by European old masters, for instance – to attract audiences, SAM has gone after what it hopes will be the new masters of the next century.

A question of leadership

Strolling through the airy new downtown building gives a sense of the balancing act – old and new, staid and quirky, European and cross-cultural – of the new SAM. Tourist traffic on the "Arts Ladder," an ascending staircase of artworks, is brisk on a recent, sunny summer day.

Many of these art-lovers are from out of town, attracted by the media hype surrounding the new building and donations. "We heard the new museum was more on a par with the bigger museums," says Pamela Blunt, a visitor from Arizona. "We'd really like to see a great world-class museum in such a livable city," adds her companion, Mark Surratt.

These stairs, full of both elegant masterworks from the Asian collection alongside unusual new works, are only one of several routes into the various new galleries. First, though, visitors pass beneath Cai Guo-Qiang's "Inopportune," a dangling fleet of seven jazzed up full-size autos jammed with exploding light sticks.

Farther up the stairs, a small group lingers on a landing, experimenting with the painted installation, "Cartoon Forest," a series of vertical painted woodsy canvases. Visitors can see themselves digitally inserted into the "forest" on overhead monitors.

But while SAM may be a media darling at the moment, the vision and work behind all the news has been decades in the making, particularly the donations.

"All along, SAM has been grooming these collectors," says Sarah Clark-Langager, director of the Western Gallery and Western Washington University Outdoor Sculpture Collection, who worked at SAM in the 1970s.

Museums relying on local donors isn't new, she points out, but the evolution of wealthy, civic-minded donors in the Seattle area, fueled by the rise of corporate behemoths such as Microsoft and Boeing, has changed the scale and created a unique leap forward for SAM. The museum has had a tradition of local councils that encouraged people to join and learn about the arts.

"[It's] an arts powerhouse a long while in the making," says Ms. Clark-Langager.

Friends in high places

The renovations and exhibitions to support the new ambitions have all been driven by visionary leadership, adds Brian Allen, director of the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Mass. It helps that current director Mimi Gates, who has been credited with shepherding the museum's current golden moment, is married to William H. Gates Sr., father of Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

"She has been able to enlist a very civic-minded community to gather around the notion that Seattle deserved a world-class museum," says Mr. Allen.

Ms. Gates knows all too well that getting financing for things like maintenance needs is often a tough sell to donors who want to fund "sexier" items, such as a building with their name on it. But SAM has been able to establish an endowment to fund its ongoing operation.

Fostering cultural links

The Sculpture Park was a partnership with the city, and relationships of many different kinds are becoming key to the nonprofit's biggest future challenges.

"Our mantra is balancing ambition with sustainability," says Chiyo Ishikawa, SAM's deputy director of Art. Gates and Ms. Ishikawa point to upcoming partnerships with other museums such as the High Museum in Atlanta and the Denver Art Museum as a solution to soaring exhibition and insurance costs.

"The biggest challenge we face from here on out," says Gates, "is how to offer the kind of world-class exhibitions that meet the expectations we've set for ourselves."

Community leaders say the museum sets a tone for the city's cultural life.

"The opening of the Olympic Sculpture Park and the expanded downtown museum ushered in a dynamic new era for Seattle Art Museum and the city's cultural landscape, weaving art into the everyday lives of residents and visitors," Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels writes in an e-mail.

"They are part of our cultural fabric and will inspire for generations to come," he adds.

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