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Inside the renovated and expanded Seattle Asian Art Museum from floor to ceiling and its new lobby view of Volunteer Park

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.

(Image: Seattle Asian Art Museum)

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

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37 thoughts on “Inside the renovated and expanded Seattle Asian Art Museum from floor to ceiling and its new lobby view of Volunteer Park

  1. The renovation is gorgeous and an asset to the city and the park – all in all a huge success! I think this makes the neighbors who protested with their silly “Save Volunteer Park” signs look even more ridiculous in hindsight

      • it was hyperbolic – how was this restoration and minor expansion of the museum going to destroy volunteer park? Change is not always bad – the improved museum has made the park better – were they afraid of more visitors?

    • During the meetings with SAM I met a lot of elderly residents who had been involved with taking care of the park for decades – it was really interesting.
      The expansion is beautiful from the inside, looks like a corporate office from the outside and should have been accomplished without building further into a landmark park.

    • It is not ridiculous to have opposed expansion (but maybe supported renovation). Lots of people opposed it, you have to wonder why. As a Seattle native, I opposed expansion but not renovation. Bigger is not always better. More visitors/congestion in the park may not be welcome in the future. Yes it is impressive, but it will require upkeep and many more future tax dollars. They “tacked” on a glass cube to an old building. Bravo. Whatever.

  2. It was not hyperbolic.

    Here is part of the record and the concerns of people who desired seismic improvements but not a violation of our public process, privatizing public space and heading away from the Olmsted design firms original intent. Also from Friends of Volunteer Park site a quote regarding design intent: …”The Olmsteds intended that nothing man-made dominate the park’s beautiful, refreshing landscape setting. No building was to detract from visitors’ enjoyment of nature. ”
    This movement failed and the project is done. However, we can still have concerns over private use of public space, reduced access for the general public and reducing actual green space and enjoyment of nature in Seattle’s parks. Thanks to Jonathan Mark and the others who created the website and sustained a public campaign for several years.

    • You’re wrong.

      It was.

      You should all be ashamed.

      Glad that your ridiculous incoherent complaints were rejected for what they were.

      Here’s hoping your types continue to lose on these issues in the future.

      Oh, did I mention you are wrong, ridiculous, and should be ashamed of your unsupportable and incoherent views?

      Yeah. You’re wrong.

    • lol why the hell do we care of the intention of a dead planner – how about use your wealth and energy to add nature to low-income communities who have far greater respiratory issues and stress due to poor air quality and long commutes. Why focus on an area that has been historically and cucrrently wealthy. Seriously. This is disappointing. We need this in the duwamish, south end and beyond.

      • Also I do applaud the need to reduce the privatization of public space – but I don’t see you all trying to use that logic for the democratization and ownership of housing, sidewalks and streets. Do you fight against our racist police that makes the enjoyment of public space unequal?

        That’s the fight we need you in. Not dumb shit like this.

    • Thank you for the courage to still voice the opposition’s point of view. I am not rich, but I am native to Seattle, and have insights that some others might not have, about V. Park. Some of the comments, replying to you, are shameful. Renovating it would be one thing, and I supported that. But they did the typical bureaucratic sales pitch of why they needed bigger and more. Really? We will be paying for the upkeep forever more, and the use case was not compelling, if you go back the decades that some of us do. Yes it looks nice, but opposing it was not wrong or short sighted.

      • Where do you get the idea that “we” will be paying for the upkeep “forever more”? The SAAM is a private institution and that means (presumably) that they will be paying for upkeep.

  3. So anything with angles and big windows is considered ‘nothing more than an office building’? Volunteer Park is beautiful, and even more beautiful with the expansion of the SAAM (that was expanded into a part of the park that was rarely used and borders 15th). Volunteer Park will soon update their Volunteer Park Amphitheater, which will enhance the park experience even further. More here:

    looking forward to your old man yelling at clouds rants.

  4. Excellent article @jseattle! I love Volunteer Park as much as the next Seattleite—heck, I even had my wedding in the Conservatory! I love the old trees, water tower, and the museum, and though I supported the expansion, I understand peoples’ need to preserve city jewels like these, especially in the current climate of change. I often feel the “Seattle is Dying” aspects of daily life here. But I’m not convinced that the people upset about the 3,200 sq. ft. taken up by the expansion actually ever used that specific space, nor that those 3,200 sq. ft. has destroyed public access to the park. The park is so large… there’s generally plenty of room for everyone. I’m not suggesting opening the floodgates to chopping up the park for projects here and there, whittling away the open spaces until there’s nothing left of the Olmsted vision. Is it impossible to make room for the museum AND the park both being special? Am I crazy for believing the expansion actually enhanced both the park’s AND the museum’s appeal? We still have the park, paths, big old trees, dahlia garden, conservatory, wading pool, playground, and vast lawns.

      • Hint: Hey PD, of course you can express your opinion in any manner that you see fit. However, I would suggest that if you ever would like to actually change someone’s mind—to bring them around to your way of thinking, you might not use words like “ridiculous hysteria of the anti-museum crowd.” Just a thought. I personally love the expansion, and actually think it improves the look of the park from the east, but I would never discredit those who were apposed to it. Thanks!

    • Were you ever back there before the remodel…. probably not. It was a dark, boggy area with a gorgeous view of a blank wall and physical plant (outdoor parts of the AC/heating) that I never saw anyone using – probably because you couldn’t sit down without getting wet and there’s plenty of much better scenery in the park…. Pretty hard to not call any work done there an improvement.

      • Exactly.

        This is why the anti-expansion crowd’s weird insistence that an enlarged SAAM would “destroy” the park were so…weird.

        Well, weird, ridiculous, taken far too seriously by those in decision making roles.

        Ridiculous that their flimsy arguments should have been dismissed out of hand and the entire group should have been laughed out of every meeting.

        For one, the “view” was of a blank **cinder block** wall, and yes the lawn was ALWAYS muddy with obvious drainage issues that basically prohibited anyone from using the space.

        Second, the group would (and still does!) harp endless on the “encroachment” the enlarged museum makes on the park…despite the fact that the footprint of the museum, in the context of the park, is so minor as to be not even worthy of consideration.

        But that’s how it goes with these groups: latch onto anything at all that allows you to make your argument, because your real argument of “I don’t want this because I don’t want this and I deserve getting what I want even though it’s completely incoherent and ridiculous but I should get what I want because…reasons!” is, in the end, not a supportable argument.


        Here’s hoping these types continue to lose on the basis of their “arguments”.

  5. To jseattle, Thank you very much for this thorough article augmented splendidly by the photos. I sent it to family members in another state to suggest the renovated museum be a destination the next time they visited.
    I was disappointed to then read some of the “reader comments” that brought up negative past situations and harangued people rather than focusing on the excellence of the museum renovation and of the article. Please, everyone, we are being torn apart by negativity and divisiveness. Focus on the positive; put the negative past aside.

  6. Hello “Fan of Capitol Hill Seattle blog.” I couldn’t agree with you more. I was very lucky to get to be an early visitor to the new museum as they tested out the systems. And one of, if not the most powerful takeaway of my experience, is that the way they have now curated the exhibits does a spectacular job of showing how these different asian cultures have so much in common. My experience underscored how much we have in common, not in what ways we are different. The timing of this perspective is so relevant in these times. And considering the anger of some of these comments, pretty darn relevant. Let’s all go to this space, not to see art from all over Asia, but to see the common threads of humanity that connect us across borders and across time.

  7. yeah – it’s built, but I’m glad someone posted about the lack of public process too. For the expansion to be built, the park and the museum had to be considered one entity- I asked how many people signed off on that?
    A: two – the mayor and the parks director (his husband)
    it’s too bad the expansion couldn’t have been designed in the style of the front of the building actually

  8. Many of those advocating to protect park space are also museum members. They love the museum, just not more than the landmark public open space. There really was a sled hill where now there are office cubicles and a lunch room. No one said the park would be destroyed, but it is literally diminished.

      • A few days every 5 years, maybe and anyway really…… that’s the rationale now eh? really really…… maybe once in a blue moon someone put a toddler onto a plastic saucer there and dragged them around, but to call it a sled hill is pretty laughable. It’s not long, or steep or open enough for sledding.

    • There are better sledhills in the park. Really? A sled hill? My fondest memory of that part of the park was catching an old guy in the bushes masturbating while watching teenage girls play frisbee nearby. Such a loss to see that area utilized to the benefit of many rather than remaining a decrepit backwater of the park.

  9. Yes it’s over and done, and impressive.

    But calling the “losing” side out in such offensive ways is just childish and so much the new Trumpian way where the “losing” side is then humiliated and made to seem trash. Nobody wins, and bad feelings are just prolonged by such dialog.

    “History belongs to the winners” ever heard that?

    Just as in the recent impeachment trial, there was good evidence and reason to question things, and just because we lost in the end, does not mean the process was fair.

  10. A lesson we might all take from this is to look to President Trump’s inspiring recent commitment to supporting traditional beauty in architecture. This is the sort of thing we can all rally behind!

    • Hmmm. I just did a little research on the funding for that and it appears that they have raised 95% of the funding. And that was from some time ago, so I believe that your claim that this won’t be built because of SAAM’s legal bills is wrong. Excellent attempt of snarkyness though.

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