bridges-waterfront
Image: Paul Warchol

The Olympic Sculpture Park simultaneously carves up the landscape and reimagines the Seattle waterfront.

At the center of Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park, which opened last January, I am standing so close to the base of Alexander Calder’s 39-foot-tall sculpture Eagle that I have no choice but to stare straight up. There’s almost no chance that Calder—a Philadelphia-based artist who constructed the piece back in 1971—was inspired by the Port of Seattle’s massive cranes, but the resemblance is uncanny. The sculpture’s thick, red-painted steel strips, held together by rows of rounded bolts, seem as industrial as the machinery that dominates the landscape at the other end of Elliott Bay.

Yet the fact that Eagle ultimately landed here is evidence that the working waterfront has undergone a monumental transformation. Eight years ago this wedge of earth, which once held a polluting fuel facility owned by Union Oil of California, was reclaimed by the Seattle Art Museum. Some $85 million later, it’s a dazzling setting for large-scale works, a lush, zigzagging landscape where another sculpture (22 in all) is revealed at every turn: A giant blue typewriter eraser by Claes Oldenburg leans at a 45-degree angle as if on the run from technological extinction, and Richard Serra’s Wake , five undulating slabs of rusted steel, toys with visitors’ sense of balance and space.

Visitors can connect to the cityscape from within the building.

For the past few months, I’ve been reading article after article about how this sculpture garden and the renovation of the museum’s building—expanded this year to include 66 percent more gallery space—are going to put Seattle on the map of major art destinations. Indeed, the city is in the midst of an artistic renaissance, infused with an enthusiasm for the arts that is felt not only at SAM, but also in the alternative galleries of downtown’s Belltown neighborhood; in urbane, aesthetically minded new hotels; and even in restaurants where, clichéd as it is to say, the food is raised to the level of art.

Much of this creative energy arrives courtesy of the tech boom of the 1990s, which made Seattle home to some of the world’s richest art collectors. Until recently, however, many of these patrons were tempted to donate their works to other cities’ institutions—where the pieces would actually be shown.

“People aren’t going to give art to a museum if they think [the art] is going to remain in the basement,” Mimi Gardner Gates, SAM’s director (and Bill Gates’s stepmother), told the New York Times last January, alluding to SAM’s space constraints. Recognizing the potential for art flight, Gates met with former Microsoft CEO Jon Shirley and his wife, Mary, who are avid collectors of contemporary sculpture, and together they conceived the idea for the garden. Gates then set about raising funds—eventually soliciting more than $180 million—to build the park and renovate the building. Along the way she convinced local tycoons to pledge more than a thousand pieces to the museum, from a seminal 1772 portrait by John Singleton Copley to works by influential 20th-century artists like Mark Rothko.

To experience this artistic renewal myself, I decided to book a room at the recently opened Hotel 1000 downtown, which boasts technology that allows you to choose the digital art displayed on your flat-screen television and a minibar that electronically informs the concierge when you’re out of peanuts. More impressive are the floor-to-ceiling windows that yield a south-facing view of the city and Puget Sound beyond, which I can see from the massive soaking tub in the center of the bathroom.

The new SAM was built both around and above the museum’s original building. The older, smaller structure, completed in 1991 by Robert Venturi (a Philadelphia architect known more for his rejection of modernism’s austerity—“less is a bore,” he famously wrote—than for his buildings), houses a series of windowless rooms with low ceilings. By contrast, the new galleries, designed by Portland-based architect Brad Cloepfil, who was recently chosen to recreate the Museum of Arts & Design in Manhattan, feature walls of glass that allow visitors to connect to the cityscape from within the building. In spite of the two structures’ differences, the project manages to feel seamless, if not the product of a single vision.