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The Seattle Art Museum Settles In

A year after its opening, the informal, Robert Venturi-designed building thrives in its bustling downtown setting

FOR decades, the Seattle Art Museum seemed stuck with the image of a smug and elitist institution tucked away on a hilltop in lush Volunteer Park, far above the city's bustling business district.

Now, about a year after it nearly quadrupled its exhibition space by opening a new building just two blocks from Pike Place Market, the museum has an entirely new personality.

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You can see it in the architecture of the new downtown facility, designed by the acclaimed architectural team of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. It's artistic, all right - but playful and inviting, seldom high-brow.

Opinions differ as to the building's fit amid Seattle's older architecture, but it is clearly in tune with the Pike Place Market, an old-fashioned farmer's market and major tourist attraction.

Mr. Venturi, who won the Pritzker Prize for architecture last year, suggested at the opening of the museum that making it "loveable to a wide range of citizens" was perhaps the "chief goal" of the project.

In some respects - especially in its modified art-deco motifs - the facade is a take-off on the museum's original art-deco building. Although they both feature fluted limestone, the new museum seems to delight in breaking out of the regularity and formality of its predecessor.

At ground level, the new building adds an arcadelike ribbon of red sandstone, pink granite, and brightly glazed terra cotta. At top, on its prominent south side, the words SEATTLE ART MUSEUM are incised billboard-like in letters 14 feet high.

Instead of a palatial landscape in a park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the new museum is shoehorned into a steep hillside between First and Second Avenues. Making a virtue of this awkward topography, the building is a box with a rounded southwest corner. Staircases inside and outside hug the south wall, connecting the museum's exuberant First and Second Avenue entrances.

The stairway on the inside, dominated by monumental Chinese statues, reflects the more solemn and contemplative mood of the original museum. For those who enter on First Avenue, this stair offers a welcome respite from the hubbub outside and a pleasant transition to the exhibits, located on the second, third, and fourth floors.

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Although modest collections of traditional Western art take up half the permanent exhibit space in the new museum, it is superb collections of African, Northwest coastal native American, and Asian art that really distinguish it.

Harry Parker, director of the San Francisco Fine Arts Museum, says, "There's something I had never experienced before" in the way the "immensely important" African and native American collections are juxtaposed in the new museum to allow easy comparison.

David W. Steadman, director of the Toledo Museum of Art, says the challenge for the new Seattle museum was: "How do you get people to interact with material that is so very alien to them?" They've done this with large video displays and other interactive media to introduce collections and provide background information near the exhibits.

Careful documentation of the African art is particularly helpful to the public. The late Katherine White, who donated the collection in 1980, noted meticulously - often on videotape or photos - how various objects were used in African villages.

For instance, beneath the display of an ox mask from Guinea-Bissau, an illustrative photo complements an explanatory note. The note says the mask was used in playful ceremonies that likened the energies of young villagers to the strength of oxen that must be harnessed, however reluctantly, to the will of the community. The photo shows an African youth on his knees, wearing the mask and imitating an ox. Standing next to him is an adult villager, ostensibly trying to tame the "ox." Together, the note and p hoto give those viewing the mask a clear sense of what they're looking at - beyond its intrinsic beauty.

In some ways, Seattle is in the vanguard of museums trying to anticipate the challenges of a new century. Insurance costs have curtailed the lucrative "blockbuster" exhibits of the 1980s, and relatively few museums can compete these days in an overheated market for historically significant pieces of European and North American art. Hence the increasing interest in collections that go beyond traditional Western art and in new educational technologies and material that will make them more readily appreciat ed.

America's changing demographics are also a factor. Many grant givers are looking more favorably on requests from museums that reach out to new racial, ethnic, and cultural constituencies.

This means "more and more, museums will have to improve on their track records for being inclusive," says Robert Mitchell, public relations and marketing director for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The Boston museum opened the country's first gallery of Nubian art, which has been well received.

It is symbolic of this outreach sensitivity that rituals were performed in front of the new Seattle museum by representatives of the area's native American and African communities as part of dedication ceremonies last December.

Outreach was not exactly a passion of Seattle Art Museum's patriarchal founder, Richard E. Fuller. But Mr. Fuller, who served as museum director for more than four decades, was nonetheless an ardent collector of Asian art. The museum is planning to renovate its original building in Volunteer Park, where most of its vast Asian collections will be displayed.

The new downtown museum reflects the city's commitment to the arts, as well as its recent phenomenal growth. The $62 million project was a private-public partnership, anchored by a $29 million bond levy, the largest successful public referendum for an art museum in America. The fund drive brought gifts from many private patrons, including $2 million from Mrs. Illsley Nordstrom of the Nordstrom retail chain.

Former Seattle Mayor Charles Royer, who helped pass the bond levy in 1986, says people are now visiting the new downtown museum "who previously didn't even know there was a museum in the city." For many other Seattle residents, he says, going to the original museum "was like going into someone else's home. They feel more comfortable in the new facility, because they helped pay for it."

*For hours and exhibition information, call the museum at (206) 654-3100.

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