Emerald City | Seattle Art Museum
When we think about art museums in America, the first thing that usually comes to mind is New York. The Met, MoMA, and the Guggenheim are home to some of the most renowned and iconic works in history, from Washington Crossing the Delaware to Starry Night.
The National Gallery, the Smithsonians, and some of the museums in Florida fill out the rest of the East Coast, and there’s a little island of fine art in Chicago, but beyond that, the average person may struggle to locate the next great bastion of art.
Whether because of our own entrenched associations between art and the old northeast, or simply because the West is less of a tourist destination than, say, New York or the country’s capital, such nebulous unawareness is still undeserved.
The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) is one of the finest museums in the country, home to some of the most astounding works of classical and contemporary art, both American and international. Outshining even the Getty circuit and the smaller MoMA of San Francisco, SAM is the destination for artists and art enthusiasts on the Pacific.
History of The Seattle Art Museum
The hilly marshlands on the eastern shores of Puget Sound were inhabited for over four millennia by Native American nations before being visited by Euro-American settlers. The city of Seattle was founded on these lands in 1851 and grew slowly as a timber and mineral town until the end of the century. In 1896, the Klondike Gold Rush transformed the quaint frontier outpost into a wealthy transport hub for those seeking their riches in the Yukon. During the two world wars, the city entered into shipbuilding and aircraft construction, setting a foundation for a thriving machinery and tech industry which would culminate in the birth and rise of Amazon.
The history of SAM begins at the start of this rapid turn-of-the-century expansion with the founding of the Seattle Fine Arts Society in 1906. During the ‘10s and ‘20s, the society grew and merged with several other arts groups in the Seattle area to form a city-wide collective.
The Great Depression saw the entry of the Fuller Family into this growing community, which had recently been renamed the Art Institute of Seattle. The institute regularly met at the modest house of a deceased collector, and struggled to find a more ample and permanent location for both meetings and their assembled art collection. As a solution, the wealthy Fullers offered the city $250,000 to acquire a dedicated structure. A deal was reached by which the Fullers’ money would be used in the construction of a new edifice which the city would then maintain in perpetuity.
On June 29, 1933, the resulting art-deco structure, built on the top of Capitol Hill, opened to the public. On the first day, the museum admitted over 33,000 visitors, and by year’s end, the figure had topped 346,000—nearly 95% of the city’s population.
Popularity continued to build, and in 1944, SAM hosted an exhibition entitled India: Its Achievements Past and Present. This established Asian art as one of SAM’s key pillars, and the museum would come to be renowned as one of the foremost curators of world art.
Over the following decades, the museum continued to put on astounding exhibits including works by Van Gogh and artifacts from the tomb of Tutankhamun. A smaller gallery was also opened in Seattle Center downtown as part of the 1963 World’s Fair.
In 1991, having outgrown its original structure, SAM was moved to a new, more minimalist structure in the heart of Seattle. Three years later, the original building reopened as the new Seattle Asian Art Museum, dedicated to the institute’s extensive collection of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, and Southeast Asian art objects.
In 2007, the museum opened the Olympic Sculpture Park, along the Puget Sound waterfront to showcase some of the larger eye-catching artworks outside the confines of the main building. Since then, SAM has continued to uphold a standard of excellence in curation and collection unmatched throughout the western U.S.
Seattle Art Museum Collections
SAM maintains an extensive permanent collection with a level of diversity seldom matched in the art world. What sets SAM apart is the fact that the majority of these staple works come from outside Europe and the West. From Oceania, visitors can encounter antique inlaid shields and carved wooden sculpture. From Australia, the museum holds a number of tapestry and painterly works celebrating Indigenous patterning and textiles. A variety of traditional masks and sculptures can be found from across Africa alongside more contemporary works like Kane Quaye’s Mercedes Benz Coffin and Meschac Gaba’s Artist with American Inspiration: 4 World Financial Center.
As part of its connection with the Seattle Asian Art Museum, SAM also boasts a wealth of early Buddhist artifacts and art objects from feudal Japan. Mayan and Incan antiquities are also in abundance, alongside a sizable collection of intricate and delicate Persian miniatures. As part of its acknowledgement of a darker local history, SAM also holds a large collection of past and contemporary Native American art. Baskets, masks, carved wooden screens, clothing, jewelry, textiles, and more celebrate the continuing cultural and artistic vibrancy of Indigenous nations across the U.S. and Canada.
There are, of course, plenty of works by European masters as well, including engravings by Dürer and Rembrandt, paintings by Reubend and Monet, and various pieces of sculpture from Rome to the Renaissance. American artists are amply represented, and the museum boasts several key works from the Hudson River School including Church’s A Country Home and Bierstadt’s Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast.
Finally, SAM also contains a comprehensive collection of modern and contemporary art. Photographic works by Carrie Mae Weems, LaToya Ruby Frazier, and even Andy Warhol are displayed alongside mixed-media pieces by artists like Gary Hill and Howard Kottler. The museum even boasts pieces by Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, and Jacob Lawrence.
With such a vast permanent collection, visitors to SAM will be satisfied and awestruck whenever they go. Still, fantastic exhibitions are constantly rotating in and out and are well worth taking the time to see. As of late April, 2022 SAM has three temporary exhibits on display:
Lauren Halsey’s solo exhibition is a colorful mosaic of symbol, narrative, and myth, inspired by the gentrification of her home neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles. Icons of local economy and black-owned businesses are interwoven with stories of African diaspora and place-making narratives which transcend national and temporal barriers.
Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Time examines the portrayal of the human body, especially the female form, across time and space as both a sacred and quotidian nexus. The work of sixteen contemporary artists is combined with artifacts over four thousand years old to tell the story of how humans see humans in the changing world.
Finally, Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water focuses on the life-giving resource which covers seventy percent of our planet. A collection of aquatic works from the 7th century are placed alongside brand new compositions by over seventy artists to place in dialogue past and present conceptions and valuations of our blue places. Given the deepening crises of climate change and pollution, this is a potent tool for getting people to think differently about how we and our planet live together.
The Seattle Art Museum is a beacon of creativity, expression, and innovation on the West Coast, and a repository for some of the most influential and iconic art objects from across the world. Far from being caught in the cobwebbed shadow of the marble institutions of the east, SAM shines on its own and will continue to serve as a guiding light for a Pacific-facing cadre of creators.