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
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
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
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
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. …