As I move through the rooms, I’m accompanied by SAM’s deputy director, Chiyo Ishikawa, an angular wisp of a woman whose asymmetrical haircut is right at home in the postmodern galleries. I’m struck by the many ways technology figures into the renovation. First, it paid for much of the art, including Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat , on loan from Microsoft moneyman Paul Allen. (“I wish we never had to give it back,” Ishikawa wistfully tells me.) Second, the museum has incorporated technology directly into the exhibits. Knowing how chummy the place is with Microsoft, I feared the gallery spaces would be junked up with computer screens offering “interactive experiences.” But the curators have employed computers and film only where they augment the art instead of competing with it. In the Australian aboriginal art room, for example, the paintings, with their white dots forming shapes against richly colored backgrounds, are accompanied by a silent film projected on the floor. The short shows 17 aborigines, all painting one of the gallery’s canvases at once. Ishikawa says the pairing allows viewers “to see these paintings in relation to the earth.” The film also adds an element of animation to an otherwise static piece.
When I’m finished exploring, I duck into SAM’s new restaurant, Taste, for a quick lunch before walking the few blocks to Belltown. Most of this once-edgy downtown neighborhood has given itself over to swanky condos, upscale wine bars and boutiques, but the blocks along Second Ave between Virginia and Vine Sts remain a hipster stronghold, where a few galleries have popped up among the dive bars. Among them is McLeod Residence, a gallery that opened in January and has since garnered attention for its focus on—once again—the integration of art and technology. Rather than lament the influx of Microsoftees and Amazonians to the neighborhood (which inevitably raises the rents), local artists Lele McLeod and her friend Buster Butterfield McLeod, who changed their names “to begin a new family made up of friends,” chose to embrace it. Now they set up weekly cocktail salons at which geeks and painter-types meet to chat and hash out ideas for projects.
Lele, a smiling nymph in a blue minidress, walks me through the exhibit Interactivity, a series of works in which the viewer is an active participant. My favorite piece is Biomimetic Butterflies —rows of mechanical butterflies rigged with magnets that cause them to flap their wings in response to movement in the room. “The pattern on the wings was generated by an algorithm,” Lele explains.
I then head to Pike Place Market, just a half-mile away, where I have a dinner reservation at newly renovated Matt’s in the Market, whose minimalist approach to cuisine (buy the freshest, then quietly embellish with sauces and spices that make the food’s subtlest flavors sing) has made it a favorite among gourmands. When owner Matt Janke closed down for six months to expand the tiny space—from 23 seats to a whopping 55—fans feared its charm would be lost, but the intimacy has been preserved. I devour a lemony grilled ahi tuna appetizer, then move on to succulent scallops and massive shrimp in a light beurre blanc.
Back in the hotel room, I flip a switch, and the electronic window shades rise to reveal the day’s last bits of light leaving the city. It occurs to me that perhaps old Seatown will never be an art destination on par with New York or Berlin, but those cities will never have what’s framed by these windows: the Port of Seattle with its massive cranes, their long necks making them appear like a herd of mechanical giraffes. After my perspective-shifting weekend, the city itself has begun to seem like a work of modern art, one that is still in the process of evolving.