No matter what twists and turns the public process around its $49 million overhaul and expansion take, at the end of February, the treasures of the Seattle Asian Art Museum will be wrapped up, hauled off, and safely packed away leaving the old art deco landmark empty and ready for a much needed construction project to begin. The start of that construction and eventual reopening, however, will be a little further off after a “project pause” requested by Seattle Parks superintendent Jesus Aguirre in a letter sent to Seattle Art Museum director Kim Rorschach:
In response to continuing public scrutiny of the Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM) renovation and expansion project at Volunteer Park, we would like to take a “project pause” to enable us to respond to community members and the Board of Park Commissioners on an array of issues that have been raised during the public involvement process. That pause will help Seattle Parks and Recreation better understand some of the project’s driver and more carefully consider park impacts.
“Thank you for your ongoing partnership as we work together to ensure whatever final project is built is in the best interests of Seattle Art Museum and Seattle’s park and recreation system,”
“Don’t say we’re not pausing,” Rorschach told CHS this week. “We are following the city’s directions on this.”
But Rorschach said the museum’s move-out date is set in stone.
“It’s upon us,” Rorschach said. The museum’s collections are too intricate and valuable to change plans for storage and moving to temporary new homes.
The last day to visit for what will likely be years is Sunday, February 26th. That leaves you a month to go to Volunteer Park and see the last exhibition before the planned overhaul, Tabaimo: Utsutsushi Utsushi as well as Terratopia: The Chinese Landscape in Painting and Film, Awakened Ones: Buddhas of Asia, and Ai Weiwei: Colored Vases.
Some of the museum’s works will be on display at other sites and at the downtown Seattle Art Museum during the closure. “It’s important to us that the programming of the Asian Art Museum continues during this process,” a museum spokesperson tells CHS.
When the overhauled, expanded, and refreshed Seattle Asian Art Museum will reopen is still being planned for 2019 — but the date is more and more up in the air. “We already have been delayed in terms from what we have hoped for,” Rorschach said. Still to come are needed approvals from the city, the landmarks board, and the parks board.
The Seattle Parks letter first came to light in a thread on the Nextdoor service as some neighbors rejoiced at the idea that the project would be put on hold. “Superintendent Jesus Aguirre told SAM’s director to, essentially, go back to the drawing board,” the poster wrote.
Rorschach tells CHS the museum responded to superintendent’s letter this week and will be discussing the six questions raised:
- How does the expansion support the mission of the museum?
- Is SAAM’s business model financially dependent on the expansion? If so, are there alternatives to the expansion that would support the Seattle Art Museum in achieving its financial goals?
- What steps will be taken to ensure that underserved communities benefit from the project?
- How long has the expansion project been planned?
- What steps have been taken to assess Initiative 42 to ensure other feasible alternatives that do not expand into parkland have been developed and thoroughly considered?
- Is the SAAM expansion linked to museum visitation? If so, have you assessed the visitation to ensure that the current level of visitation justifies and expansion?
While details of the specific responses aren’t yet public, Rorschach said many of the answers have been part of the many community meetings the museum has taken part of over the past year on the project or on the museum’s site dedicated to the overhaul and expansion.
Rorschach tells CHS the most important answer is yes, the expansion of the amazing old building is critical to the future of SAAM.
“We believe it is beneficial to the park and to Seattle for us stay in the building,” Rorschach said. “We’ve explored what else we could do without expanding and it just wouldn’t work.”
Rorschach said the biggest driver of the expanded footprint is the space needed for new climate control equipment.
The project that had been planned to begin by the end of this year has been designed to expand the 1933-built museum by more than 13,000 square feet by extending the backside of the building 3,600 square feet into the park. The museum will to add more display space to represent South Asia and India as well as fix infrastructure issues including a climate control system and seismic upgrades, while making the museum ADA accessible. The expected two-year project has faced a wave of opposition from neighbors but also strong support by others as well as SAAM board members and communities supportive of the museum’s mission to be a world-class showcase for Asian art. In December, we heard from all sides at a public hearing on the construction. Earlier this month, the national The Cultural Landscape Foundation criticized the plans in a letter calling for the project to be stopped and redesigned to keep the building’s existing footprint. Doug Bayley, co-founder of the Volunteer Park Trust nonprofit set up to help protect and improve the park, says the criticism is off the mark and that “the Olmsted’s vision for Volunteer Park was to be a civic center for passive recreation and culture” —
In its 100 year history, there have been many changes to the park, reflecting changing public taste and a changing world. The museum has enhanced the park since it opened eight decades ago. Its cultural importance has grown along with it’s internationally recognized collection. Much of this collection cannot be shown for lack of space, air conditioning and humidity control.
You can read his full response in this CHS Community Post.
SAM’s Rorschach is confident the museum can push through the last remaining challenges to the project.
“The key thing is we’re doing this fulfill our public service mission,” she said. “We have a building that doesn’t function very well as a museum. We have to modernize this now.”