City of Spectacles

Infused with millions of dollars, Seattle’s reinvigorated arts scene gives visitors a whole new perspective.

By Jessica C. Voelker May 19, 2009 Published in the October 2007 issue of Portland Monthly

The Olympic Sculpture Park simultaneously carves up the landscape and reimagines the Seattle waterfront.

At the center of Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park, which opened last January, I am standing so close to the base of Alexander Calder’s 39-foot-tall sculpture Eagle that I have no choice but to stare straight up. There’s almost no chance that Calder—a Philadelphia-based artist who constructed the piece back in 1971—was inspired by the Port of Seattle’s massive cranes, but the resemblance is uncanny. The sculpture’s thick, red-painted steel strips, held together by rows of rounded bolts, seem as industrial as the machinery that dominates the landscape at the other end of Elliott Bay.

Yet the fact that Eagle ultimately landed here is evidence that the working waterfront has undergone a monumental transformation. Eight years ago this wedge of earth, which once held a polluting fuel facility owned by Union Oil of California, was reclaimed by the Seattle Art Museum. Some $85 million later, it’s a dazzling setting for large-scale works, a lush, zigzagging landscape where another sculpture (22 in all) is revealed at every turn: A giant blue typewriter eraser by Claes Oldenburg leans at a 45-degree angle as if on the run from technological extinction, and Richard Serra’s Wake , five undulating slabs of rusted steel, toys with visitors’ sense of balance and space.

Visitors can connect to the cityscape from within the building.

For the past few months, I’ve been reading article after article about how this sculpture garden and the renovation of the museum’s building—expanded this year to include 66 percent more gallery space—are going to put Seattle on the map of major art destinations. Indeed, the city is in the midst of an artistic renaissance, infused with an enthusiasm for the arts that is felt not only at SAM, but also in the alternative galleries of downtown’s Belltown neighborhood; in urbane, aesthetically minded new hotels; and even in restaurants where, clichéd as it is to say, the food is raised to the level of art.

Much of this creative energy arrives courtesy of the tech boom of the 1990s, which made Seattle home to some of the world’s richest art collectors. Until recently, however, many of these patrons were tempted to donate their works to other cities’ institutions—where the pieces would actually be shown.

“People aren’t going to give art to a museum if they think [the art] is going to remain in the basement,” Mimi Gardner Gates, SAM’s director (and Bill Gates’s stepmother), told the New York Times last January, alluding to SAM’s space constraints. Recognizing the potential for art flight, Gates met with former Microsoft CEO Jon Shirley and his wife, Mary, who are avid collectors of contemporary sculpture, and together they conceived the idea for the garden. Gates then set about raising funds—eventually soliciting more than $180 million—to build the park and renovate the building. Along the way she convinced local tycoons to pledge more than a thousand pieces to the museum, from a seminal 1772 portrait by John Singleton Copley to works by influential 20th-century artists like Mark Rothko.

To experience this artistic renewal myself, I decided to book a room at the recently opened Hotel 1000 downtown, which boasts technology that allows you to choose the digital art displayed on your flat-screen television and a minibar that electronically informs the concierge when you’re out of peanuts. More impressive are the floor-to-ceiling windows that yield a south-facing view of the city and Puget Sound beyond, which I can see from the massive soaking tub in the center of the bathroom.

The new SAM was built both around and above the museum’s original building. The older, smaller structure, completed in 1991 by Robert Venturi (a Philadelphia architect known more for his rejection of modernism’s austerity—“less is a bore,” he famously wrote—than for his buildings), houses a series of windowless rooms with low ceilings. By contrast, the new galleries, designed by Portland-based architect Brad Cloepfil, who was recently chosen to recreate the Museum of Arts & Design in Manhattan, feature walls of glass that allow visitors to connect to the cityscape from within the building. In spite of the two structures’ differences, the project manages to feel seamless, if not the product of a single vision.

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SAM’s new downtown facade.

As I move through the rooms, I’m accompanied by SAM’s deputy director, Chiyo Ishikawa, an angular wisp of a woman whose asymmetrical haircut is right at home in the postmodern galleries. I’m struck by the many ways technology figures into the renovation. First, it paid for much of the art, including Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat , on loan from Microsoft moneyman Paul Allen. (“I wish we never had to give it back,” Ishikawa wistfully tells me.) Second, the museum has incorporated technology directly into the exhibits. Knowing how chummy the place is with Microsoft, I feared the gallery spaces would be junked up with computer screens offering “interactive experiences.” But the curators have employed computers and film only where they augment the art instead of competing with it. In the Australian aboriginal art room, for example, the paintings, with their white dots forming shapes against richly colored backgrounds, are accompanied by a silent film projected on the floor. The short shows 17 aborigines, all painting one of the gallery’s canvases at once. Ishikawa says the pairing allows viewers “to see these paintings in relation to the earth.” The film also adds an element of animation to an otherwise static piece.

When I’m finished exploring, I duck into SAM’s new restaurant, Taste, for a quick lunch before walking the few blocks to Belltown. Most of this once-edgy downtown neighborhood has given itself over to swanky condos, upscale wine bars and boutiques, but the blocks along Second Ave between Virginia and Vine Sts remain a hipster stronghold, where a few galleries have popped up among the dive bars. Among them is McLeod Residence, a gallery that opened in January and has since garnered attention for its focus on—once again—the integration of art and technology. Rather than lament the influx of Microsoftees and Amazonians to the neighborhood (which inevitably raises the rents), local artists Lele McLeod and her friend Buster Butterfield McLeod, who changed their names “to begin a new family made up of friends,” chose to embrace it. Now they set up weekly cocktail salons at which geeks and painter-types meet to chat and hash out ideas for projects.

Lele, a smiling nymph in a blue minidress, walks me through the exhibit Interactivity, a series of works in which the viewer is an active participant. My favorite piece is Biomimetic Butterflies —rows of mechanical butterflies rigged with magnets that cause them to flap their wings in response to movement in the room. “The pattern on the wings was generated by an algorithm,” Lele explains.

I then head to Pike Place Market, just a half-mile away, where I have a dinner reservation at newly renovated Matt’s in the Market, whose minimalist approach to cuisine (buy the freshest, then quietly embellish with sauces and spices that make the food’s subtlest flavors sing) has made it a favorite among gourmands. When owner Matt Janke closed down for six months to expand the tiny space—from 23 seats to a whopping 55—fans feared its charm would be lost, but the intimacy has been preserved. I devour a lemony grilled ahi tuna appetizer, then move on to succulent scallops and massive shrimp in a light beurre blanc.

Back in the hotel room, I flip a switch, and the electronic window shades rise to reveal the day’s last bits of light leaving the city. It occurs to me that perhaps old Seatown will never be an art destination on par with New York or Berlin, but those cities will never have what’s framed by these windows: the Port of Seattle with its massive cranes, their long necks making them appear like a herd of mechanical giraffes. After my perspective-shifting weekend, the city itself has begun to seem like a work of modern art, one that is still in the process of evolving.

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