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Parks letter calls for ‘project pause’ as Seattle Asian Art Museum prepares for February move-out day


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:

  1. How does the expansion support the mission of the museum?
  2. 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?
  3. What steps will be taken to ensure that underserved communities benefit from the project?
  4. How long has the expansion project been planned?
  5. 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?
  6. 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.”

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23 thoughts on “Parks letter calls for ‘project pause’ as Seattle Asian Art Museum prepares for February move-out day

  1. It is really disconcerting that a small group of unreasonable people has caught the ear of the Parks superintendent. The public process has gone on long enough!

    • Demonstrably false: the public process really never began. The Parks dept. has a Public Involvement Process which requires specific public involvement measures before developing anything in a park. Not just approval of one design (as here) or a choice of multiple designs, but real public input into assessment of the need for building in the park.

      All we are asking is for this project to be what was offered to the voters in the Parks and Green Spaces Levy, and which the voters approved. That means $9 million from the city to remodel for seismic safety and HVAC. Not $19 million from the city to remodel plus expand. (These figures are in addition to $2 million already provided by the city to design the renovations.)

    • Seems reasonable to me in a town as progressive as Seattle to want the best forward thinking expansion for our museum. SAM has done just the opposite with the proposed design and the way they unveiled it to the public.

      This is not rocket science… go to our website: and see what other museums around the world are doing. And where is the sustainability in the proposed design?

      If you want to stand with us go to: and take action.

    • Guys, they went through the review process A DECADE ago. This is such an absurd response to a TINY commonsense expansion that will make the park MORE beautiful. Have you even seen that facade? It’s horrendous. You probably haven’t though, because *nobody likes hanging out over there.* It’s the deadest part of the park. The museum is literally falling apart, the only other options other than taking up a slightly larger footprint would be to substantially ruin the art deco building you claim to love so much.

      Just a bunch of mansion dwellers getting their panties in a twist.

    • Turns out Knute Berger of Crosscut is an unreasonable person. He just stated today:

      “Conceptually, the new SAAM restores and updates a landmark building and enhances its use. But it should not, and need not, do so at the expense of our protected heritage park. Such landscapes, whether city parks or national parks, are too often regarded as white boards ripe for scribbling. They are rare public cultural commodities, places that should be immune from wrecking balls and encroachments. In this case, we have two treasures that should be able to mutually thrive. If it takes hitting the pause button to get it done right, so be it.

      See more:

      Art buffs vs. park preservationists — can we all get along

  2. They should just leave the building empty and let the squatters take over. The neighbors will come back begging for the redesign. There are already homeless campers surrounding the park might as well let them live in it now too.

  3. Just what think of what could be accomplished if these and the “concerned neighbors” about the Madison Valley PCC could harness this outrage for something other than an art museum or an upscale grocery store. Next up, general strike because Lululemon discontinued their favorite yoga pants.

  4. Innumerable iconic locations somehow manage to function with infusions of starkly modern architectural elements juxtaposed with UNESCO World Heritage sites. For example…

    It would serve Seattle Parks right if AAM built a new museum somewhere else, pulled out of Volunteer Park, and offered to sell AAM’s historic building to Parks for $1. Parks would be stuck with a huge tab for maintaining it, though they could try to make it pencil by renting it for special events.

    • I have read that the museum building is owned by the City and that the museum has free use of it.
      Seems like so many of the proponents of the present design think that opponents are trying to stop any expansion. I don’t think that is the case. My opposition is to the character of this intrusive design.

    • Dennis is correct. It is a 100% city owned building. SAM uses it for free, with free parking. The city maintains the building and grounds and also spends over $200,000 per year to pay for SAM’s utilities and provide engineering and housekeeping staff.

      This is spelled out in a 1933 agreement which also provided for specific public benefits, namely that the public should be admitted free of charge on 4 days per week. We are researching the subsequent updates to this agreement to see what happened to that.

      SAM staff sometimes argue that this is not a subsidy because SAM originally donated the building to the city. That is true but that was 83 years ago. City property should be managed in the public interest, not out of an attempt to repay the philanthropy of rich people generations ago.

    • @mud baby… modern isn’t the problem. Insensitive ugly, bad design modern taking parkland is the problem. Your example of the Louvre Art Museum is exactly the point. SAAM should be hip and expand underground and try and keep the same footprint like other museums around the world are doing. Why is what they propose so backward and old school? The times have changed… let’s see some reflection of real modern in their thinking.

  5. The Louvre has a large glass pyramid that is beautiful and iconic.

    Seriously this debate is much ado about nothing; a small, modern, functional, visible addition that will brighten the east facade of the museum and that portion of the park, that is presently dark and largely unused.

    The naysayers are predictable harpies that fail to make sense and must not be allowed to derail a carefully designed and considered project. They speak for a small few and not the neighbors or community at large.

    SAM is trying hard but design is not a public vote. This reminds me on a smaller level of the vote against mass transit in the 70’s that would have had the majority paid by the Feds. NIMBYS ruined that and we pay deeply now and play catch up with a costly light rail system.

    If the museum were to leave, who maintains and upgrades the building?

    Rather than say no or maybe, we should say thank you for this project and the large bolts of private money paying for it.

    • The city has pledged $29 million towards this project and the city already pays for upkeep of the building to the tune of several million a year. Getting the building upgraded and even rented to make money for the city is doubtful to be an issue, but more like a scare tactic. And stop with the name calling already… makes you seem petty.

    • Here is the financial break down:
      $19.0M Requested from the City of Seattle
      $2.0M in original funding from Seattle for Design and Planning
      $5.0M in estimated Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits
      $1.5M Requested from Washington State Building for the Arts
      $1.4M From King County
      $20.1M in Private Contributions
      $49M – TOTAL

  6. Great. More of the “Seattle process” of never getting anything done while you listen to every bleeding heart a-hole coming out of the woodwork. It lost us the monorail. Got us a light rail that goes places no one wants it to go. Now the “Seattle process” will lose us a wonderful museum for years. Idiots..