A Small Museum Climbs onto the Global Stage

Article excerpt

The Seattle Art Museum is having a pretty heady year. Not only did SAM just open its newly remodeled downtown space, expanded by some 70 percent - thanks to a creative partnership with Washington Mutual Bank - it broke the traditional notion of a unified campus by adding the outdoor Olympic Sculpture Park down on the waterfront. It also plans a $4 million remodel for the edifice showcasing its renowned Asian Art collection next year.

All of this would have been ambitious enough for a relatively small, regional museum preparing to mark a modest 75th anniversary in 2008.

But, the piece de resistance in SAM's annus "terrificus" is the March gift announcement: nearly 1,000 works of art, worth over $1 billion, from more than 40 local private collections, including several landmark assemblages of Pacific Northwest, early and postwar American art.

In a momentous few months, this previously respected but limited institution has landed in an international spotlight with panache, revealing its emerging arts leadership in the region and illuminating the complex strategies smaller museums increasingly employ to stay modern and engaged with their communities.

"SAM is exceptional among regional museums," says Bruce Altshuler, director of the Program in Museum Studies at New York University, "both for its resident collecting community and having significant existing collections of its own on which it can draw."

Specifically, the museum has cultivated its Pacific Northwest, Asian, and African collections to impressive heights, says Kevin Maifeld, director of Arts Leadership at Seattle University.

While many museums often pursue art's "greatest hits" - works by European old masters, for instance - to attract audiences, SAM has gone after what it hopes will be the new masters of the next century.

A question of leadership

Strolling through the airy new downtown building gives a sense of the balancing act - old and new, staid and quirky, European and cross-cultural - of the new SAM. Tourist traffic on the "Arts Ladder," an ascending staircase of artworks, is brisk on a recent, sunny summer day.

Many of these art-lovers are from out of town, attracted by the media hype surrounding the new building and donations. "We heard the new museum was more on a par with the bigger museums," says Pamela Blunt, a visitor from Arizona. "We'd really like to see a great world-class museum in such a livable city," adds her companion, Mark Surratt.

These stairs, full of both elegant masterworks from the Asian collection alongside unusual new works, are only one of several routes into the various new galleries. First, though, visitors pass beneath Cai Guo-Qiang's "Inopportune," a dangling fleet of seven jazzed up full-size autos jammed with exploding light sticks.

Farther up the stairs, a small group lingers on a landing, experimenting with the painted installation, "Cartoon Forest," a series of vertical painted woodsy canvases. …