The museum, known simply as SAM, operates in three locations. Apart from the main building on First Avenue, there are also a sculpture park at 2901 Western Avenue and the Seattle Asian Art Museum at 1400 E. Prospect Street. SAM has just reopened its galleries in celebration of its 75th anniversary and frankly, the space is a little overwhelming. There are two floors of galleries (third and fourth floors) but the exhibit with the most impact is Cai Guo-Qiang’s Inopportune: Stage One and Illusion (2004). Using ten identical Ford Taurus’s in sequence, he stages an interesting explosion with light and space. The sheer ambition of it is breathtaking and it uses up all the space in the Brotman Forum and the Ketcham Forum Gallery on the second floor.
The museum spaces upstairs are so large that one might prefer to do a series of visits and nibble away at the collection which numbers over 23000 pieces. For the 75th anniversary, it has received 1000 new pieces through donations and gifts. Some 200 of them are now on display.
The visit begins in the Wright Galleries for Modern and Contemporary Art. The space allotted to the genre is the largest in the museum which is appropriate considering the size of some of the works. As much as we enjoyed these galleries, there were others that we preferred. The American Art collection is a representative collection of some of the country’s finest art, silver, and furniture. Also particularly fine are the galleries for Native Art of the Americas. Here, the dominant field (as in all the museum) is in North-west work, but there is good representation from societies as diverse as Peru, Central America and New Guinea.
Upstairs, the permanent collection of African Art is particularly interesting in its study of dress and masks. We were, however, most taken with the Porcelain Room where a collection generally dating 1740 - 1760 is particularly well displayed. The European section with its emphasis on Renaissance art is fairly predictable; there are the requisites; a Reubens and a Van Dyke, but there are also a number of unattributed works.
The Simonyi Special Exhibition Galleries are more eclectic and contain many of the recent gifts, many of which are modern pieces. It’s quite a collection. SAM goes the distance to make your visit as interesting as possible. Descriptions of the works tend to be thorough, an audio guide is available and there are touch-screen kiosks where you can watch interviews with artists, listen to music or discover the history behind the work. You will need at least two hours to explore the space.