The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) is the largest art museum in the Pacific Northwest, and it is still growing. After relocating to its present home in 1991, it is undergoing a massive new expansion program that will include a building addition and a sculptural park by the waterfront. The current building was designed by noted architect Robert Venturi of the firm Venturi Scott Brown. Its postmodern style incorporates fluted limestone exteriors along with marble, granite, and terra cotta. The result is decent enough, but the design is tame and inconsequential when compared to more recent landmarks like Gehry’s EMP and Koolhaas’ Central Library, which have raised the bar for architectural excellence in Seattle to new heights.
The Hammering Man (similar to one in Frankfurt), a dynamic sculpture by Jonathan Borofsky, stands 48 feet tall and is the virtual symbol of the museum and the adjacent construction site. The curve of the building demarcates the main entrance, with the gigantic letters of the museum name chiseled above. The fourth floor displays a chronological order of galleries of Western art. The artworks from older periods (Renaissance, Baroque) are relatively minor in scope. The collection perks up with its 20th-century works, including hits by Warhol, Pollock, and Lichtenstein. Leftover spaces are allotted for Northwest Modern art, photography, and prints. The third floor rounds up an eclectic overview of non-Western art, which feels stronger than its Western collection due to its novelty and diversity. The "rest of the world" includes selections of Asian, African, Latin American, and Native American art. The second level is reserved for special exhibitions.
The ground floor contains the gift shop, while the cafe is on the mezzanine level next to the grand stair. There are free gallery tours and tea ceremonies on certain days. The museum is closed on most Mondays, and is open late until 9pm Thursdays and Fridays. The entrance fee has risen to double digits over the years, so it is worth it to go on the first Thursday of the month for free admission.
The original Seattle Art Museum (from 1933 to 1991) is now the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Designed by Carl Gould, the building has a pleasing Art Moderne appearance. Located northeast of downtown Seattle in Volunteer Park in the Capitol Hill district, you can visit for free if you have a ticket for SAM.
Though the Seattle Art Museum has a pleasant enough accumulation of art, it is mediocre in comparison to great galleries like the Metropolitan in New York or the Art Institute of Chicago. It is interesting that it is expanding barely a decade after getting into its new digs. The incoming annex, which will include some free public galleries and a high-rise office tower, was designed by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture of Portland, Oregon and is scheduled for completion in 2007. Perhaps with the realization of these grand expansion plans, SAM will take its place amongst the top echelon of art museums.