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History of the Seattle Art Museum


Seattle Art Museum “In 1991, the Seattle Art Museum opened downtown in a building designed by famed architect Robert Venturi. In 2007, the museum moved to a newly expanded building (expansion designed by AWA Architects of Portland) with rethought installations and exhibitions. From wall texts to videos to computer screens and public programs, the Seattle Art Museum now offers multiple means and different perspectives to bring works of art to life. The installations create bridges between culture, time, and place. Surprises await you at every turn. Enter through a small door into a hauntingly beautiful Renaissance room of mellowed wood and be swept back to the 16th century in Northern Italy. The Wyckoff Porcelain Room dazzles the eye with wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling Asian and European porcelain arranged by color. Nearby, a spirited masquerade transports you to Africa in the midst of a celebration. Asian works of the most exquisite artistry are presented across time, and include contemporary as well as historic art. Masterpieces by Northwest Coast Native American artists are presented adjacent to major works by other American artists. The museum’s world-class Modern and Contemporary art collection is installed in frequently updated rotations, bringing new and surprising works to museum visitors.”

Asian Art Museum “The original home of the Seattle Art Museum, this Art Deco building was completed in 1933. Following the opening of the Seattle Art Museum downtown, the Seattle Asian Art Museum (now the Asian Art Museum) opened in 1994 as a showcase for the museum’s world-renowned Asian collections and a community hub for Asian culture. The museum encourages visitors to view both venues within one week for the price of one admissions ticket.”

Olympic Sculpture Park “With the foundation of the Olympic Sculpture Park, the vision of a third SAM venue to showcase outdoor sculpture, including remarkable works collected by local museum supporters, became reality. The site was named by founders Jon and Mary Shirley for its exquisite views over Elliott Bay of the Olympic Mountains. SAM, in partnership with the national land conservation organization The Trust for Public Land, purchased the last remaining undeveloped property on Seattle’s central waterfront in December 1999. It is a place that evokes the beauty of our city and the inspiration of artistic genius. The park, designed by Weiss/Manfredi, immediately gained international attention, with seminal works by Richard Serra, Alexander Calder, Claes Oldenburg, Louise Bourgeois, and other artists.”


A brief history of the Seattle Art Museum (Seattle PI)

Published by Seattle Post-Intelligencer (online) - Thursday, May 3, 2007

1908: The Seattle Fine Art Society, the parent institution of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), is founded.

1928: The Fine Art Society is renamed the Art Institute of Seattle under president Carl F. Gould, an architecture professor at the University of Washington.

1931: The Art Institute becomes the Seattle Art Museum under Richard E. Fuller. He and his mother, Margaret E. MacTavish Fuller, offer the city $250,000 to build a museum. The city agrees to service and maintain the building if the Fullers and the institution are responsible for its construction, operation and collections. Gould is retained as architect and construction begins. The Fullers spend $325,000 to complete the Art Moderne structure in Volunteer Park.

1933: Seattle Art Museum opens June 23, 1933 with Fuller's Asian art holdings. There are 33,000 visitors on the first day. In its first year, the museum has 346,287 visitors, an extraordinary number since only about 365,000 people live in Seattle. In the midst of the Depression, the city reneges on its promise to match the Fullers' $250,000, so the museum opens at half its projected original size.

1935: Seattle banker Manson F. Backus gives etchings by Dürer, Rembrandt and Whistler.

1943: Sherman E. Lee becomes the assistant and then associate director of SAM. His contacts in Japan and with collectors bring the museum many of its most treasured works of Japanese art.

1944: The museum's first large-scale traveling exhibition, “India: Its Achievements of the Past and of the Present,” occupies 12 of SAM's galleries for three months.

1951: Mrs. Donald Frederickson donates the most significant work of Japanese art in SAM's collection. The 17th-century “Deer Scroll” is a portion of a scroll considered a national treasure of Japan. The remainder of the scroll is in the collection of the Japanese emperor.

1958: Local gallery dealer Zoe Dusanne is responsible for the addition of Jackson Pollock's “Seas Change” and four other gifts from Peggy Guggenheim. Dusanne helps bring many important works into SAM's collection through the 1960s.

1973: Fuller, after serving 40 years as director and major financial supporter of the museum, retires.

1978: “The Egyptian Masterworks of Tutankhamen” attracts nearly 1.3 million visitors.

1981: Katherine C. White, a legendary collector of African art, transfers her comprehensive collection to SAM at the time of her death. With one of the largest holdings in the United States, the museum instantly becomes as well known for African art as it was for Asian art.

1986: SAM opens its Jacob Lawrence retrospective. It travels to five cities, breaks attendance records in each one and reintroduces Lawrence on the national scene.

1989: Virginia and Bagley Wright donate their collection of Japanese folk textiles. This gives the museum one of the finest collections of textiles outside Japan.

1990: Jonathan Borofsky's giant “Hammering Man” is commissioned. John Hauberg donates his renowned collection of Northwest Coast Indian art, transforming SAM into a major player in the field.

1991: SAM opens downtown. The Volunteer Park building is closed for extensive renovations.

1994: The Seattle Asian Art Museum reopens in Volunteer Park.

1997: “Leonardo Lives: The Codex Leicester and Leonardo da Vinci's Legacy of Art and Science” opens, lent to the museum by Bill and Melinda Gates. The exhibition is seen by 236,217 people.

1999: SAM and the Trust for Public Land announce they have raised $17 million to buy the waterfront site for the museum's future sculpture park.

2005: SAM closes downtown for expansion.

2007: Olympic Sculpture Park and expanded downtown museum open.

Source: Seattle PI


notes by David Strand during research in SAM archives

Seattle Fine Arts Society

The Seattle Fine Arts Society was founded in 1908.

The Seattle Fine Arts Society was a separate organization from the Society of Seattle Artists, whose first recorded exhibition took place in 1904.

“…the Society of Seattle Artists was active in town before the organization of the Fine Arts Society (or Fine Arts Association, as it was then called) and gave every incentive possible to the formation of the new society. Among the original membership there were five from this artist group: Mrs. Herman H. Field, Mrs. Grace Elizabeth Kent, Miss Jessie Fisken, Miss Imogene Cunningham (Partridge) and Mrs. E. W. Andrews. There was some talk later of the amalgamation of the two groups but this never really eventuated. The Seattle Artists were turning out good work and when the Fine Arts Society was in good running order every effort was made to acquaint the public with what was being done.”

“Extracts from the Articles of Incorporation of the Seattle Fine Arts Society”

Article I: The corporate name of this corporation shall be “The Seattle Fine Arts Society.”

Article II: This corporation shall not have any capital stock. Membership in it shall be not be transferrable, and shall be only for the life of each member or until his membership shall be otherwise terminated, according to its by-laws, which shall prescribe the classes of membership, the privileges of the different classes of membership, the conditions thereof, and the causes and conditions of terminating membership in said corporation.

Article III: The purpose and objects for which this corporation is formed are: To promote and cultivate the Fine Arts, and to that end to maintain in the city of Seattle, art rooms or buildings, art library and art instruction; to acquire works of art and exhibit paintings, sculpture, engravings, and other works of art; to provide lectures and generally to foster art in all its branches.

Article IV: The officers who shall manage the affairs of the corporation shall be : A Board of Directors and a President, a First Vice-President, a Second Vice-President, a Secretary and a Treasurer. Such officers shall, with the exception of the board of directors, be elected annually for a term of one year. The Board of Directors shall be elected for a term of three years; at the first election three members shall be chosen for one year, three for two years and three for three years. The election of directors shall be held annually.

In 1925, the function and financial backing of the Seattle Fine Arts Society was called into question. In order to carry on, the Society issued the following -

“The Seattle Fine Arts Society has been endeavoring for a number of years to meet the civic need for an organization to care for the art interests of the community. This has resulted in the following:

1. The holding of free art exhibitions almost continuously during the last ten years for the benefit of the general public.

2. Co-operating with the public schools by exhibiting the work of their art departments to the general public, and by holding exhibitions of artistic merit to supplement the courses of study in the schools.

3. Assisting the city engineer and other public officials and civic organizations in the aesthetic phases of their work and endeavoring in other ways to make Seattle more beautiful and attractive to its citizens and visitors.

4. Promoting creative art in the community by exhibiting work of local artists and craftsmen and by encouraging them in other ways.

5. Providing lectures on art subjects for members and the general public.

The growth of the city has increased these demands and forced the Society to enlarge the scope of its work. This means getting greater financial support if the organization is to function as a city institution. Those who actively connected with the work of the Society believe that in a city of this size such an organization fills a definitive civic need.

You are asked as a citizen of Seattle, interested in its civic welfare, to assist the Society in determining whether it should continue as a civic institution…”


“In recognition of meritorious work by individual artists, the Society arranged for one-man shows to be put on from time to time and in order to bring the work of local artists before a wider public, plans were made to have special exhibits during the summer months when tourists from other parts of the country might be in town.

Other exhibits sponsored by the Society were those put on by the Seattle Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Many members of this organization were very active in the Fine Arts Society.

From the groups of Seattle artists and those in other northwest localities, the Annual Northwest Artists' Exhibitions were developed. Exhibits were entered from all the northwestern states and British Columbia and there was a healthy rivalry between the neighbor towns…It was about 1915 that the Northwest Annuals first began…”

Source: “A Seattle Heritage: The Fine Arts Society” by Anne H. Calhoun, published 1942.

From Fine Arts Society to Seattle Art Museum

“The desire for an art gallery for the city of Seattle grew stronger as the membership expanded and the activities of the Society broadened. It was felt that in a town of Seattle's size and importance this was a definite civic need and there were many discussions as to a desirable location for such a building and different plans were considered from time to time whereby such an end might be attained. At one time Mr. H. C. Henry offered a donation which, with added subscriptions, would enable the Society to put up its own building and the location suggested was on Fifth Avenue across Seneca Street from the Y.W.C.A. At another time Mr. C. H. Frye spoke of the possibility of working together with the Society for an art gallery at the south end of Volunteer Park. The question of cooperation of the Fine Arts Society and the State University in the erection of such a building came up at times but the problem of state or municipal authority entered in here.

Other organizations in town were interested in the civic need and the Seattle Chapter of the Archaeological Society of America proposed that that organization, the Fine Arts Society, the Drama League, the Musical Arts Society, the Historical Society and the Ladies' Musical Club join together toward the achievement of the desired end. The Auxiliary of the Cultural Arts (a woman's organization, since disbanded) also was most desirous of having an art gallery for Seattle and offered to contribute to the Society ten percent of the proceeds from a series of lectures it was putting on to be used toward the erection of a fire-proof art gallery.

In 1922 an amendment to the by-laws was voted which read, “All money received by the Society shall be used for the purposes provided in the Articles of Incorporation…In case of the dissolution of the Society all property shall be given to the city towards the founding of a Municipal Art Museum…”

Other sites, besides those already mentioned, that were considered at different times as desirable locations for an Art Museum were: Eight Avenue between Pike and Pine Streets, Seventh Avenue and Pine Street, Seneca Street between Third and Fourth Avenues, the south side of the Denny Hill regrade, Fifth Avenue and Union Street, and “a central location on First Hill. The question of the purchase of the St. Nicholas School was considered but voted down.

At one time a committee was appointed to approach the Library Board in regard to an Annex of the Fifth Avenue side of the Public Library lot to be used as art gallery. This could be turned over to the Library at cost when the growth of the Library made it necessary. And so the Fine Arts Society and others interested planned–and lived in hope.

Upon moving to the gallery at 117 Harvard Avenue North, the Board of Trustees carried on their monthly meetings there. In 1903 Dr. Richard E. Fuller was elected President and soon after his installation he reported to the Board that he and Mr. Raymond G. Wright were to see about a renewal of the lease on the property and a committee was appointed to study the question of a permanent home. An application for assistance was made to the Carnegie Foundation but was later withdrawn until a more definite plan for the future could be outlined. Mr. Lawrence Vail Coleman, Director of the American Association of Museums with headquarters in Washington D.C. was engaged to come out and make a survey of the situation in Seattle. Mr. Coleman made a thorough canvass and turned in his report, and at the meeting of the Board of Trustees, October 6, 1931, the President reported that as a result of this survey he and his mother, Mrs. Eugene Fuller, had offered the city of Seattle $250,000.00 for a new building. “Provided the City of Seattle deems it desirable to have the much needed civic art museum constructed on the site of the pergola in Volunteer Park, we are willing to contribute jointly the sum of two hundred and fifty thousand dollars to the project…in the development of a plan of cooperation between the institution and the city along the lines already established by precedents, such as that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the City of New York.”

The city gladly agreed to the terms of the proposed gift and when all legal technicalities between the city and the donors were attended to Mr. Carl Gould was engaged as architect and the present beautiful building took shape.

As the people of Seattle now look upon this beautiful art museum in Volunteer Park on Capitol Hill and realize what it means to them and to their children, there is a warm sense of gratitude to the donors for what they have done for the city and a deep-felt realization that at last a dream has come true.”

Source: “A Seattle Heritage: The Fine Arts Society” by Anne H. Calhoun, published 1942.

City Accepts Fuller Gift

From Quarterly Bulletin of the Art Institute of Seattle (1932)

President's Message

“Your Board of Trustees recently decided “that the present public service rendered by the Institute is not commensurate with the expense of operation,” and therefore recommended that “the Institute operate in as economical manner possible and retain only such staff as may be necessary in preparing for entering the Volunteer Park Museum.”

It is with considerable regret that we view any curtailment of our present very faithful staff, but from the standpoint of common sense the decision is undeniably absolutely sound. Our new building will offer Seattle the potential service which cannot be approached in our present quarters, yet the actual expense of our maintenance is approximately as high. In fact although our annual attendance has increased greatly in recent years, reaching about eighteen thousand, the dollars spent on the cost of operation amount approximately to the same figure. To furnish a striking comparison, the attendance should be instead nearly six hundred thousand to reach the exceptionally high efficiency attained in both of the art museums in San Francisco.

Our ultimate success depends not upon our present service, but on the educational material that we have to offer on entering the new building. When we take that step we become a truly civic institution and we must be prepared in material as well as in personnel to meet that opportunity. For sentimental reasons we cannot imperil our ultimate success by diverting funds from the purchase of equipment for the sake of retaining a relatively ineffectual tradition.

In recent months, our membership has greatly decreased. Much as we need support, we do not intend to take any drastic steps to counteract this rather natural reaction to the present financial conditions. Instead, we will postpone solicitation for new members until our physical equipment guarantees them adequate service to Seattle and an organization of which they may be truly proud.

During the transitional period in the coming year, we will have headquarters in down-town offices. With the acquisition and classification of collections of educational material such as reproductions, slides, etc., our service to the schools of the city will steadily increase. Although otherwise the precise scope of our activities has been definitely determined, we expect to have some lecture series and some current exhibitions such as the Northwest Annual.

We do hope that our members will agree with the decision of the trustees and will join with us in preparing for the future in order that we will at last be able to give adequate service and inspiration to Seattle.”

-Richard E. Fuller, President

City Accepts Fuller Gift

“An important phase of the Art Institute's existence opended during December, with the ratification by the city council of an ordinance accepting the Fuller gift of $250,000 for the erection of a museum building in Volunteer Park.

The city ordinance, now in effect, is in the nature of a contract between the city and the Institute, governing operation of the new museum and setting forth the relationship of the board of trustees of the Institute to the city government and vice versa. For the benefit of Art Institute members a summary of the contract is here presented.

Probably the outstanding feature of interest to members is the fact that while the Art Institute assumes full civic status, the control of the museum is vested in the board of trustees of the Art Institute, and that elections to that governing board shall be at the discretion of the trustees. The mayor, city comptroller, president of the city council, president of the park board and the president of the school board shall sit on the board of trustees as ex officio members.

It is to be understood that all collections, libraries, objects of art and the museum itself shall remain in perpetuity the absolute property of the Art Institute of Seattle. The city acquires not title to these properties of the Institute; but will maintain service to the museum as to any other municipal building, providing water, light, heat, electric power, and janitor and custodian service, and will in addition keep the building in repair. No monetary grant will be made to the museum by the city.

All supervision and direction of the museum and the objects contained in the museum will be vested in the board of trustees of the Institute, who shall at the end of each fiscal year submit to the city a report of its operations and transactions during the previous year.

The selection of objects to be displayed in the new building will remain the province of the board of trustees of the Institute or its designated agents, and decisions made by directors of the Institute as to arrangement or choice of exhibitions shall be final and conclusive.

Duties of the Institute

The duties of the Art Institute to the public are defined in a section which states that on at least four days of each week, the exhibition halls of the museum shall remain open free of charge between the hours of 10am and 5pm on weekdays, or between 2 and 6pm on Sundays or holidays. At all times teachers and students of the Seattle public schools shall be admitted free of charge to all advantages offered by the museum. Where it is deemed necessary the Institute is authorized to raise operating expenses by use of an admission charge on three days each week.

Rules and regulations governing conduct within the museum shall be made by the board of trustees.

Civic Control Vested in Park Board

Such share as the city maintains in the control and direction of the museum shall be vested in the Board of Park Commissioners.

The ordinance provides that the building shall be completed within 18 months from ratification of the contract, which was signed by the mayor on December 11, 1931 and went into effect on January 11.

Termination of Contract

The agreement between the Art Institute and the city may be terminated by the latter three years from the date of an ordinance passed to conclude the city's participation in the museum; the Art Institute may withdraw from affiliation with the city three years after declaration to the city of intent to do so.

Institute Retains Identity

Members of the Art Institute will be particularly gratified to note that the Institute at all times maintains its identity as a public enterprise, and that is control remains vested in its board and directorship.

In joining again in thanks to Mrs. Eugene Fuller and Dr. Richard E. Fuller for their generous gift members of the Art Institute should hold in mind the co-operative spirit of the mayor and the councilmen of the city of Seattle, the board of park commissioners, the members of the mayor's commission which recommended the acceptance of the Fuller gift, and the legal committee which studied and clarified all phases of the contract which so clearly defines the relations of the Institute to the city.

Source: Quarterly Bulletin of the Art Institute of Seattle (1932) from Seattle Art Museum Library

Seattle Art Museum Pavilion

The Pavilion Era Ends [SAM Members' News Nov '87 - Jan '88]

“After a run of nearly 25 years, the Pavilion will close its doors in December, and the museum will concentrate its exhibitions at Volunteer Park. This will ease preparation for the new downtown museum's galleries. The galleries at Volunteer Park will continue to feature new exhibitions in addition to the permanent collection galleries.

The Pavilion was formerly the United Kingdom Pavilion during the 1962 World's Fair, and in 1963 was remodeled by the office of Paul Thirty, Architect, to make it suitable for the display of paintings and sculptures. A bronze plaque on the building states: “This building was remodeled for the permanent display of art with funds donated by PONCHO and from a bequest of Richard Dwight Merrill. It is the property of the City of Seattle and is to be operated by the Seattle Art Museum for the recreation, education, and inspiration of everyone.” Renamed the Seattle Art Museum Pavilion, it first opened on May 1963, for the preview of Seattle Decoration and Design Show, a special exhibition that was held from June 1 through September 2 as a “trial run.” More than 114,000 persons visited the Pavilion during the first three months. Dr. Richard Fuller, then president and director of the Seattle Art Musuem, remarked in the 1963 annual report: “We consider the trial run a remarkable success and hope that it may be continued.”

September 13, 1964, saw the gala preview of Ancient Sculpture from India. Assembled from 21 museums in India, the exhibition consisted of 20 tons of stone and terra-cotta sculpture. Because of its size and weight, this was a complex exhibit.

The building in Volunteer Park had neither the space nor structural strength to display the art. In accepting the privilege and responsibility of being one of five American museums to participate in the circuit of this important exhibition, the Seattle Art Museum elected to install the exhibit at the Pavilion. In order to accomplish this, storage area adjacent to the Pavilion was rushed to to completion one week before the opening date.

However it was not until June 4, 1965, that the Grand Preview and Opening of the Pavilion finally took place, initiating a regular schedule of exhibitions. This occasion celebrated the opening of a group of three shows: Walter Issacs Memorial Exhibit; A Decade of New Talent, a survey of American painting; and Contemporary Art, featuring selections from the museum's permanent collection. The ceremony was officiated by Mayor Braman, who presented to the Seattle Art Museum a resolution of appreciation from the Municipal Art Commission.

The first truly major exhibition to be held at the Seattle Art Museum Pavilion opened in July 1965 - the notable and expensive The Responsive Eye. This “op art” show was assembled by William Seitz for the Museum of Modern Art, New York and was the first exhibition sponsored by the newly formed Contemporary Art Council of the Seattle Art Museum.

In its official 22-year history, the Pavilion has been the site of 230 exhibitions, and has welcomed more than 2,175,000 visitors through its doors. Outstanding exhibitions have included 557,087 (1969); Skagit Valley Artists (1974); American Art 1900-1950 (1977);The Art of Chivalry: Arms and Armor from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1982); Yo nu Bi: The Beauty of Japanese Folk Art (1983); Praise Poems: The Katherine White Collection (1984); States of War: New European and American Paintings (1985); and the unprecedented A Thousand Cranes: Treasures of Japanese Art from the Seattle Art Museum (1987). Also featured at the Pavilion have been numerous one-person shows such as the Ernst Ludwig Kirehner retrospective in 1968. At that time the museum acquired its Kirchner painting, Woman and Girl, which was a prominent work of art in the exhibition. Among the many artists showcased in exhibitions over the years were Jackson Pollock, Jean Arp, Helen Frankenthaler, and Claes Oldenburg.

The Pavilion's PONCHO Gallery, remodeled and renamed in August 1977, has hosted the Documents Northwest exhibition series since August 1983. Originated by Bruce Guenther, former curator of contemporary art, Documents Northwest: The PONCHO Series has featured to date 23 Northwest artists in solo exhibitions. Norie Sato, Robert Maki, George Tsutakawa, and Debra Sherwood are just a few of the artists featured in this series. Documents Northwest: The PONCHO Series: Patrick Siler continuing through November 15, will be the final Documents Northwest exhibition at the Pavilion. The series will continue in one of the North Galleries at Volunteer Park, beginning with an exhibition of recent sculptures and works on paper by Peter Millett on December 3.

Northwest '87, an exhibition of 51 recent works by 27 Washington and Oregon artists, also closes at the Pavilion on November 15. This exhibition is dedicated to the 25th anniversary of the Seattle Center.

We hope you will take the time now to make a last visit to the Seattle Art Museum Pavilion.”

Source: SAM Members' News Nov '87 - Jan '88 from Seattle Art Museum Library

Exhibitions of Northwest Artists

The Annual Exhibition of Northwest Artists

From 1914 - 1974, an annual juried exhibition of Pacific Northwest artists in painting and sculpture from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska.

The Betty Bowen Memorial Award

[from “The Betty Bowen Memorial Award Tenth Anniversary Exhibition, June 18 - July 17, 1988 Volunteer Park - by Vicki Halper, Assistant Curator of Modern Art ]

“When Betty Bowen died prematurely in 1977, artists in the Northwest lost a dear friend. Praised as “vibrant, efficient, zany, relentless” by architecture and design critic Rae Tufts, she worked tirelessly for many causes, above all, the care, feeding and preservation of the artist.

Close friends of Betty Bowen established a memorial fund at the Seattle Art Museum where she had worked from 1954 to 1973. In 1979 the Bowen Committee awarded its first annual grant to a Northwest artist, chosen, then as now, through competition. In June 1988, the announcement of the tenth winner of the Betty Bowen Memorial Award will coincide with an anniversary exhibition showing recent work of the current and previous winners. Both the exhibition and its accompanying publication are supported by the Betty Bowen Memorial Fund and PONCHO. Two former winners are now residing in New York–Charles Stokes (1979) and Debra Sherwood (1985). The remaining seven continue to flourish in Washington. They are: Jeffrey Bishop (1982), Joan Ross Bloedel (1981), Mark Calderon (1986), George Chacona (1987), Joseph Goldberg (1980), Randy Hayes (1984) and Norie Sato (1983). Most of these artists have had one-person exhibitions at the museum, generally within the Documents Northwest format. The 1988 winner, whose identity is secret until the exhibition opening in June, was chosen in March from a list of approximately 400 artists.

Although the composition of the Bowen Committee has remained virtually unchanged since shortly after its inception (members are Morrie Alhadeff, Peffy Goldberg, Ann Gould Hauberg, Dottie Malone, Llewelyn Pritchard, and Kayla Skinner), the range of its choices is broad. The anniversary exhibition will include abstract and figurative painting, and mixed-media sculpture. The depth and the breadth of the work are a tribute to a women who was both dedicated and eclectic in her interests and tastes.”

Source: Seattle Art Museum Members' News April-June'88, from Seattle Art Museum Library.

Documents Northwest: The PONCHO Series

[from Seattle Art Museum Calendar November 1984 - by Bruce Guenther, Curator of Contemporary Art]

“In its first year, the Documents Northwest exhibition series has established at the museum a new standard for the presentation of the art and artists of our region. Inaugurated as part of the museum's 50th anniversary celebration, the series will continue to showcase six Northwest artists annually. Each will have a one-person exhibition accompanied by an illustrated publication. The Documents Northwest publications are distributed widely in the region and mailed to over 150 museums and libraries nationally to broaden awareness of the art and artists of the Northwest.

Moving from the cool geometry of Jeffrey Bishop's watercolors and the elegant silence of Norman Lundin's drawings to the ferocious women of Gregory Grenon's paintings and the highly evocative installations of Diane Katsiaficas, the initial round of exhibitions declared the museum's intention to highlight the best from the rich diversity of the area's artistic production. The choice of artists reflects a desire to balance younger artists just beginning to attract attention and artists well established in the region. Additionally, an attempt is made to introduce Seattle audiences to artists whose works have not been seen here before, such as Robert Helm and John Buck this past year. It is my hope that as the Documents Northwest series continues it will create an extended survey of the Northwest Contemporary art scene, and through the distribution of its publications enhance the national reputation of the artists and their artworks.

The initial funding support from the National Endowment for the Arts and PONCHO's continued generous support has been essential in making Documents Northwest a reality. To them I would like to extend our gratitude. I would also like to acknowledge the important contribution members of the Seattle Art Museum staff–Deborah Barringer, Viciki Halper, Suzanne Kotz, Michael McCafferty, and John Pierce–make to insure that each exhibition is a success.”

Source: Seattle Art Museum Calendar November 1984, from Seattle Art Museum Library

In Transition: The Years Leading to the Downtown Building

The Westlake Building Project

“The Museum entered into a Tripartite Agreement dated August 14, 1979 with the Westlake Development Authority, a public authority chartered by the City of Seattle (City), and Mondev, U.S.A., Inc. for development of a two block area in the City. The development, commonly known as the Westlake Project, would combine a multi-level downtown shopping center with a public art museum. In addition, the Museum has entered into an agreement for design services related to the proposed museum. Actual development of the proposed project is contingent upon approval by the Seattle City Council.”

Report of the Chairman

Langdon S. Simsons, Jr. (Chairman) - 1983

“Our fiftieth anniversary marks a year of decision and action to bring into reality the long overdue expansion of the Seattle Art Museum.

Ten years ago, the Board of the museum approved a statement of direction calling for the museum to be the “preeminent regional resource for the enjoyment and appreciation of the visual arts,” and to project “a new public image–the image of an open inclusive community resource for the enjoyment of all.” The statement recognized the imperative need to expand the size of the museum to provide a greatly enlarged exhibition space, increased storage and work spaces, and public services such as restaurant and membership lounge. Today, only three percent of our collection can be exhibited at any one time.

Now ten years later, after the disappointment of losing the Westlake Mall site but with the gift of the downtown J.C. Penney property, instigated by Board Vice-President Richard Hedreen, the Board has realized its two immediate goals of confirming a site for a new, expanded art museum and of selecting an architect of international stature to design the new museum.


Seattle now stands to become the site of the next great American museum. But to bring this dream into reality will still require rigorous and skillful planning on the one hand and major capital funding on the other.


“Our objective in building a new museum, as suggested by the Commission on Museums for a New Century, will be to offer “rich encounters with reality, with the past, with what exists now and with what is possible. Men and women come together in cities in order to become more human and into museums to discover that collective experience charged with moral energy is still alive and well in America. The act of contributing to the richness of the collective human experience is at the very heart of what museums are all about. Museums are gathering places, places of discovery, places to find quiet, to contemplate, and to be inspired. They are our collective memory, our chronicle of human creativity, our window into the natural and physical world.”

This is what the new Seattle Art Museum is all about.”

Source: Report of the Chairman 1983, from Seattle Art Museum Library.

[from the Seattle Art Museum Calendar May 1986 - Letter from Acting Director Bonnie Pitman-Gelles]

”…The progress in our plans for the new museum raises an important question for all who have a stake in the museum's future-staff, board, volunteers, members, and the community alike: What will be the use of the building in Volunteer Park once the new museum is constructed? Within the museum family this issue has been hotly debated for the past several years.

Volunteer Park has been the museum's home for more than half a century. Seattleites are strongly attached to the location and have been assured of its place in the museum's future.

Last fall the staff and board's long-range planning committee considered alternatives for the future use of Volunteer Park, which ranged from a decorative arts museum to a museum for Northwest crafts. The staff and board carefully constructed criteria with which to study and select the most compelling suggestions for the building's use. Those criteria included how best to use the museum's collections, community interest and audience appeal, and operating cost.

In late March three proposals were selected for presentation to the full board of trustees. These were an Asian art museum, a museum for the art of the Pacific Northwest, and a plan to exhibit selections from the Asian art collection together with special thematically related exhibitions drawn from other areas of the museum's permanent collection.

The third proposal was recommended and unanimously approved by the board of trustees. This proposal will increase exhibition space for the museum's Asian collections and other permanent collections. The exhibitions at Volunteer Park will support and complement the permanent collection installations at the downtown building. For example, an exhibition may be drawn from the museum's collection of European decorative arts to demonstrate the strong influence of Chinese ceramics.”

Source: Seattle Art Museum Calendar May 1986 Page 2, from Seattle Art Museum Library

Vote for a Better Seattle [from Seattle Art Museum Calendar September 1986 - Letter from Acting Director Bonnie Pitman-Gelles]

“In a few days, the museum and citizens of Seattle will together face one of the most critical steps towards making the new downtown facility a reality. On September 16, the Seattle community will be asked to vote on Proposition #1, a $29.6 million tax levy to support the construction of the Seattle Art Museum Downtown, located on the southern half of the block bounded by University and Union streets and First and Second avenues. Private donations now stand at over $13.3 million, wand the museum will have approximately $12 million to raise from private sources to ensure the completion of the project once the levy is approved. With your continued support, we can open the door on success; the passage of Proposition #1 is the key.

This project and campaign, we feel, demonstrate something special: the innovation and spirit that represents the best of Seattle and holds the most promise for the future of a vital city. The downtown museum, designed by Robert Venturi, will become the cultural focal point for this city's diverse and dynamic population. It will provide a substantial increase in gallery exhibition space and feature state-of-the-art facilities for music, film, and educational programs.

Its appeal includes its ready accessibility–within walking distance from work for many and within easy distance of all major buse lines. We have combined our efforts to pass Proposition #1 with Proposition #2, which will provided needed housing in Seattle, because we believe in the integral values of art and in making Seattle a better place to live.

Organizing a public campaign to pass the levy is a new role for the museum. So many individuals have been involved in making this campaign as successful and exciting as it has been. We have been fortunate to have the leadership of Downtown Project Executive Director Doug Hurley and his staff to implement the many pieces of this effort and the help and support of individuals involved in passing Proposition #2 as well.

The museum staff and trustees have generously given their time to work on the campaign. And thanks are also due to the hundreds of volunteers who came forward to assemble yard signs, ring doorbells, host coffee hours, and work on phone banks.

For five months, we have told the story of why we need a new facility and the ways in which the new building will benefit the Seattle community. We hope the people of Seattle will respond with a vote in our favor.


When is the vote? –Tuesday, September 16, 1986

Who can vote? –Any registered voter in the City of Seattle.

What percentage of the vote is needed for passage of the levy? –A simple majority of the voters who turn out for the election.

How is the levy listed on the ballot? –As Proposition #1

What will the levy cost taxpayers? –The levy will run over eight years. It will cost owner of a home worth $80,000 approximately $12 per year.

What is Proposition #2? –Proposition #2 is a $49.9 million levy that will provide housing for Seattle's needy families and individuals. The museum supports the passage of this levy and is part of a joint campaign to urge passage of both propositions.

Why do we need a new museum? –The museum has simply outgrown its facility in Volunteer Park. Since its founding in 1933, the museum's collection has from 2,000 to over 14,000 objects. Currently, the museum can exhibit only 3% of its permanent collection; 97% of our artworks are held in storage.

Where will the new museum be built? –The museum will be built on the souther half of the block bordered by First and Second avenues, and University and Union streets in downtown Seattle.

Why was a downtown site chosen? –The Board of Trustees has studied the issue of site selection for a number of years. A downtown site was chosen to make the museum accessible to the largest number of people. The downtown facility will be within two blocks of every bus line in the city, and near the commercial and retail centers of town.

Why not expand facilities in Volunteer Park? –The Volunteer Park facility site on city parkland that was determined to be undesirable for further construction.

When will the new museum be completed? –According to current schedules, the new facility would open in late 1989 or early 1990.”

Source: Seattle Art Museum Calendar September 1986, from Seattle Art Museum Library

The Downtown Project [from Seattle Art Museum Calendar October 1986 - Letter from Acting Director Bonnie Pitman-Gelles]

“We made it!

After months of hard work and preparation, yard sign building, coffee hours, and doorbelling, Proposition 1 was passed by Seattle voters on September 16. The approval of the $29.6 million levy is our go-ahead to begin the design and construction phase of the Seattle Art Museum Downtown. It was an important victory for the museum and the community, and on behalf of the Board of Trustees and staff, I would like to express our gratitude to our supporters.


Fundraising for the downtown project is also making great strides forward. Phase I of the three phase capital campaign surpassed its $10 million goal this spring, ending with a total of $13.3 million raised in gifts and pledges. We are now in the midst of Phase II, which involves securing $50 million in major donations from individuals, corporations, and foundations. It is exciting to note that we are already one third of the way to meeting that goal. Recently we are able to announce a $1 million anonymous pledge to our campaign. The final phase of the capital campaign will begin next year. We are all grateful to the Phase II co-hairs, Faye Sarkowsky and Bagley Wright, and to their committee for this important work.”

Source: Seattle Art Museum Calendar October 1986 Page 2, from Seattle Art Museum Library