Just under three years from the last time visitors stepped inside, Capitol Hill’s Seattle Asian Art Museum reopens this weekend with a lobby expansion that puts Volunteer Park’s trees and lawns fully on display in a $56 million renovation that has brought new life to the 87-year-old building’s Depression-era version of art deco grandeur.
Xiaojin Wu, the curator of Japanese and Korean Art for the Seattle Art Museum, says the reopening of SAAM includes a reinvention of how the creations and treasures are showcased that is “history amplified” and a new thematic approach that ignores international boundaries and highlights “an exchange throughout the region” of materials, styles, beliefs, and values. Modern photography is juxtaposed with ancient textiles. A ceremonial Indian elephant ankus glimmers in a case while a Chinese “Weeping Buddha” dances nearby.
10,000 free tickets for this weekend’s opening have already been claimed. A ribbon cutting ceremony, meanwhile, is planned for Saturday, February 8th.
But the real show begins next Wednesday, February 12th when the museum opens for its first regular hours and welcomes visitors for an exploration of the arts and cultures of Japan, China, Korea, the Philippines, India, and the nearby.
Visitors will find a building that was has been overhauled from floor to ceiling. Let’s start with the floor. The museum’s old carpeting is gone but don’t expect one of those Capitol Hill renovations like you’ll find in the neighborhood surrounding Volunteer Park where homeowners find a gorgeous hardwood floor beneath. While the museum was built in art deco style, the financial pressures of the Depression meant it was also built with economy. Back in the day, that meant cheap but mostly durable Masonite flooring. As part of the overhaul, LMN Architects has installed new flooring throughout the museum. Yes, it is the same Masonite squares like they put down 87 years ago. Another similar repetition has come in the museum’s theater where new seating has been installed made by the same manufacturer — and in the same style — as the originals.
There is something new above, too. The galleries of the museum were designed to be illuminated by skylight. That’s not a great strategy for light-sensitive artifacts. To echo the original design of the building, the overhaul included new “lightbox” illumination that mimics Pacific Northwest sunlight but that can be adjusted to suit specific displays and showings.
The project broke ground in February of 2018 after years of final planning — and smoothing out pockets of community opposition. CHS first reported on plans for the project in 2016 but it goes back to the mid-2000s when it was delayed due to the financial crisis and collapse of Washington Mutual which resulted in a “substantial” loss of revenue for the museum, city officials said. The project again hit a rough spot in early 2017 as city officials put a “pause” on the plan. Meanwhile, museum officials needed to close SAAM to prepare for moving out its holdings even with construction timeline still up in the air that winter. Legal wrangling with a group of park neighbors and green space advocates opposing the expansion finally wrapped up in the summer of 2017. And a new 55-year lease for the City of Seattle property promising wider access for the city’s schools was also settled.
The project finally broke ground in March of 2018 with funding coming from a mix of private giving and government grants and credits. A 2014 city ordinance established that Seattle would commit $11 million to help fund the restoration of its building, and due to inflation, in 2016 the city committed additional funds to the project. The lease agreement, meanwhile, stated that the Seattle Art Museum was responsible for $33 million of the cost of the $56 million project, including $6 million in tax credits deducted from the museum’s yearly taxes. Private donors including corporate sponsors ponied up $27.1 million. The rest of the $56 million came from city, county, and state funding.
Two years later, the expansion of the 1933-built museum has added more than 13,000 square feet by extending the backside of the building about 3,600 square feet into the park. Museum officials say the expansion allowed them to add more display space while creating a new “1,247-square-foot glass-enclosed park lobby” that rises above the grass and trees and will allow the venue to host large events. The core of the work was addressing infrastructure issues including a climate control system and seismic upgrades while making the museum ADA accessible and restoring Olmsted-designed pathways in the park near the museum. The museum, by the way, does not offer parking beyond what is available inside the park. Public transit or walking is suggested.
The seismic work was especially important for the central galleries where “brittle partitions” were holding the entire building up. Sam Miller of LMN Architects said the solution involved gutting the central galleries and lining the interior of the walls with a Kevlar wallpaper-like covering.
The original sandstone facade got a clean-up, two exterior fountains and a third inside the museum were restored, and the museum’s metalwork now gleams with light thanks to new, clear glass installed throughout the dramatic front entrance.
Meanwhile, another expansion put to use areas of the park near the museum’s loading dock to expand the work area. That along with a new freight elevator has expanded the museum’s ability to safely move and rotate its holdings and has also increased its storage ability.
Volunteer Park was the Seattle Art Museum’s first home after it was founded in 1931 with 1,926 works of art. After SAM’s downtown location opened in 1991, the Volunteer Park museum closed and reopened as the Asian Art Museum in 1994. Over the years the museum has seen a series of small improvements, but nothing on the scale of its current project. Today the museum is home to around 25,000 works of art.
Museum officials say that even with the expansion, only a small percentage of SAAM’s holdings are on display. Space is one issue. But the “vast majority” of materials featured in the museum are light sensitive and must be rotated on six-month schedules.
The expansion also added space for a new Asian Paintings Conservation Center. The new facility in the museum’s lower level is the first such facility “west of Michigan” and is powered by a $3.5 million grant from the The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The center allows SAAM to clean and restore works without having to ship them to Asia. “Visitors will be able to observe the center’s work through a viewing window and displays featuring conservation projects and processes,” SAAM promises.
During the three years since the museum was last open, the staff has been doing more than reorganizing the collection, and taking on cleaning and repair projects. Museum officials said the downtime provided a long period for research and study of the SAAM collection with many of the surprises now on display.
For many parts of its collections, the Seattle Art Museum’s conservation work has also involved repatriation. Some of SAAM’s most precious holdings were once part of Asian temples and important religious artifacts. With 1990’s Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, institutions are required to identify objects and make plans for repatriation or conservation, “based on the desires of Native communities.” There is no such act specific to the cultural treasures of Asia but there is increasing awareness and a desire to set right some of the wrongs of the past. Beijing’s National Museum of China in 2018 celebrated with a massive exhibit of “cultural relics that have been returned from overseas since 1949.” Museums like SAAM have also found solutions like “homecoming exhibits” that allow for temporary repatriation and agreements between venues and cultural organizations that allow for the access and study of objects as they are also appreciated as culture and art.
SAAM’s fresh start also emphasizes modern, living art. Its special exhibition galleries on the east side of the building will be re-inaugurated with Be/longing: Contemporary Asian Art which features a dozen artists from across Asia including Azerbaijan, Iran, India, Thailand, China, Korea, and Japan “who have worked or are working outside Asia.” SAAM says the exhibition “explores the artists’ experiences as both insiders and outsiders and their simultaneously Asian and international perspectives.”
Closer to home, SAAM has also geared up its educational programming. As part of its community agreements around the new lease with the city, school visits are now free and there is a new education studio ready to host hands-on lessons.
The new SAAM’s enhancements also include “interpretive technology integrated throughout the galleries and educational spaces,” with “interactive experiences, smartphone-enabled multimedia tours, and in-gallery video content.”
The effort to expand education arts access also means more free days at the museum. SAAM will now be “free to all” on the First Thursday, First Saturday, and Second Thursday of each month and free for seniors (65+) monthly on First Friday. Meanwhile, the standard $14.99 entry fee is “a suggested donation” for those who cannot afford the ticket.
The Seattle Asian Art Museum is located at 1400 E Prospect. It is open Wednesdays through Sundays. Free tickets for this weekend’s reopening celebration were claimed weeks ago but you might get lucky if you check with friends. You can learn more at seattleartmuseum.org.
BECOME A 'PAY WHAT YOU CAN' CHS SUBSCRIBER TODAY: Support local journalism dedicated to your neighborhood. SUBSCRIBE HERE. Join to become a subscriber at $1/$5/$10 a month to help CHS provide community news with NO PAYWALL. You can also sign up for a one-time annual payment.