Until the early 1970s, the Seattle Art Museum had been firmly led by one man, Richard Fuller, but things were about to change. Many people would lead the museum as directors and board members over the next decades and the museum would experience many firsts — new curatorial departments, new types of exhibitions, and a new permanent home in downtown Seattle.
A Changing of the Guard
In 1973, after 40 years, Dr. Richard Eugene Fuller (1897-1976) retired from the Seattle Art Museum. "Through the early 1970s, the museum had essentially remained the product of the interests and vision of one very generous and far-sighted man" (Sims, 15). In the 1972-1973 Annual Report, Fuller described his tenure as that of a "benevolent dictator," acknowledging the influence and control he had over the institution, from making up the difference when the budget wasn't balanced, to singlehandedly choosing many of the works in the permanent collection, to guiding the museum in the way he best saw fit. "It has been my privilege to serve as President and Director of the Seattle Art Museum for most of the past forty years. During that time the growth and development of the Museum has been far beyond my expectations when my mother and I presented the building to Seattle in 1933" (Annual Report, 1972-1973, 6).
Fuller settled into a director emeritus role, and John H. Hauberg (1916-2002) became the new President of the Board, while Assistant Director Thomas N. Maytham (1931-2019) took on the role of Acting Director. The post-Fuller years saw a museum trying to redefine its identity. It changed its management style, increased the size of its board, and looked to increase public support and membership. At the end of 1973, Maytham resigned and was succeeded in 1974 by Willis F. Woods, who came to Seattle from the Detroit Institute of Arts. In 1975, SAM hired its first Curator of Modern Art, Charles Cowles (b. 1941), a former publisher of Artforum. This signaled a real commitment to contemporary art.
Richard Fuller died on December 10, 1976, at the age of 79. Hundreds gathered at St. Mark's Cathedral to memorialize him. It was truly the end of an era.
Woods oversaw the planning, staffing, and realization of the largest exhibition in SAM’s history, Treasures of Tutankhamun, held at the Seattle Center’s Flag Pavilion in 1978. More than 1.3 million people visited the exhibition. The exhibition traveled to six venues between 1976 and 1979. Seattle's exhibition presentation was designed by Neil Meitzler and Michael McCafferty and was cited nationally as the finest in the United States. The exhibition raised the stature of the museum and fueled plans for an additional museum space.
A More Public Institution
Woods resigned in the fall of 1978, after leading the institution for nearly six years. In his remarks in the 1978-1979 Annual Report, Chairman John Hauberg thanked Woods for bringing SAM through a transition — from an essentially private institution to a more public one.
Bagley Wright, President of the Board, became Acting Director as a national search began. At the end of 1979, amidst plans to create another museum site in the Westlake area of downtown, the museum hired Arnold Jolles, former Assistant Director for Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as its new director. Other staff changes occurred. Charles Cowles resigned in 1980 and Bruce Guenther was hired as the new Curator of Contemporary Art. In 1980, the museum established a Department of European and American Decorative Arts and hired Julie Emerson as its first Curator.
New Ways to Support Northwest Art
In 1977, friends of SAM's Public Relations Officer and enthusiastic supporter of Northwest artists, Betty Bowen (1918-1977), established the annual Betty Bowen Award as a "celebration of her life and to honor and continue her efforts to provide financial support to the artists of the region" (Ament, "A Great Lady Honored"). The award offered a $1,500 unrestricted prize to a visual artist working in Washington, Oregon, or Idaho. (In 2022, the award had grown to $15,000.)
In the mid-1970s, annual Northwest art exhibitions at the museum, like The Northwest Annual, changed in scope and became more selective, and the organization was criticized for what was seen as a diminishment of support for local artists. In 1983, Curator of Contemporary Art Bruce Guenther launched Documents Northwest: The PONCHO Series, making Northwest art a focal point again. Guenther produced 18 solo exhibitions that were applauded by the local art community for their focus on contemporary local art and high quality of work. After Guenther left SAM, curators Vicki Halper, Patterson Sims, Rod Slemmons, Trevor Fairbrother, and others continued the series through 2004.
The Katherine White Collection
In 1981, SAM hired Pamela McClusky as its Curator of Ethnic Art. She helped the museum acquire the Katherine White Collection, a collection of hundreds of African sculptures, decorative art objects, and textiles, along with Native American, Oceanic, and Mesoamerican art. The collection was described as "one of the most important private collections of African art in the world" (Annual Report, 1980-1981, 1). A $2 million donation from the Boeing Company accompanied the collection, guaranteeing its future. Board Chairman Hauberg stated, "The White Collection is literally the most important single collection which the Seattle Art Museum has acquired since Dr. Richard E. Fuller began to build our outstanding Asian art collection nearly fifty years ago" (Annual Report, 1980-1981, 1). Almost instantly, the museum became as internationally known for its African collection as it has been for its Asian one. With such a growing collection, an additional museum site became a critical necessity.
The Westlake Project
Following on the heels of the successful Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition, the museum pursued expanding its space. It considered expanding the building in Volunteer Park but recognized that the space it would require wouldn’t work "because of the smallness of the Park [and] the desire of its neighbors to maintain the quietness of its atmosphere ..." (Annual Report, 1977-1978, 3). Two other sites were considered: downtown Seattle and the Seattle Center. Mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939) settled the issue when he offered the museum space in the Westlake Project — a large retail project being developed in downtown Seattle. The museum trustees passed a resolution to build a $15 million facility on the site. The museum received challenge grants from both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities in pursuit of the project. However, the project did not proceed. In a Seattle Times article, board member Bagley Wright commented that, "the City’s proposal presented insurmountable problems of economical design" (Gilmore, "Divorce: Westlake ..."). Further, legal problems persisted that finalized the project’s end for the museum: a lawsuit against the Westlake Project went all the way to the Washington Supreme Court. The court ruled that the City of Seattle could not condemn property, as it had planned to do, for what was considered largely a commercial project.
Undeterred, the museum carried on. An anonymous donor stepped forward and offered a "large, unspecified gift to buy land for the museum — as long as the museum isn’t built at Westlake" (Gilmore, "Divorce: Westlake ..."). In 1982, the gift of a half block at what was then the J. C. Penney building was initiated by Board Vice President Richard Hedreen. However, soon after, the Penney’s site was exchanged for the Arcade Building (also called the Plaza Building Block) site on a larger entire city block, one block south. The museum had found its second permanent location. In September 1984, the museum announced that award-winning Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi (1925-2018), of the firm Venturi, Rauch, and Scott Brown, would design the new building to be located on the block between 1st and 2nd avenues, and University and Union streets. Local architect Jim Olson (b. 1940), of Olson-Sundberg, was also involved.
New staff were hired. In the spring of 1987, Arnold Jolles resigned as director and the museum hired Jay Gates (b. 1945), from the Spencer Museum of Art, to oversee the downtown museum project. Patterson Sims, from the Whitney Museum of American Art, became Associate Director for Art and Exhibitions. Chiyo Ishikawa was hired in 1990 as SAM’s first Curator of European Painting and Sculpture. And, in anticipation of a large gift of Northwest Coast Native art from long-time trustee John Hauberg, the museum hired Steven Brown as its first Curator of Native American and Ancient American (Mesoamerican) art.
The New Museum
On December 5, 1991, the new Seattle Art Museum downtown opened its doors and saw 10,000 visitors on opening day. The new building was four times larger than the Volunteer Park space, occupying 155,000 square feet. The final price tag was $64 million. The new galleries displayed African art, Northwest Coast Native American art, modern and contemporary art, decorative arts, Northwest art, and Asian art, and showcased many recently acquired gifts and accessions. The Hauberg gift of more than 200 Northwest Coast Native American works was installed and became the foundation of SAM’s Native American art collection. American art was acquired via the assistance of Ann and Tom Barwick, Northwest art was accessioned with the assistance of curators Barbara Johns and Vicki Halper, with funding from the Henry Luce Foundation, and a spectacular Japanese teahouse, designed and underwritten by the Urasenke Foundation of Tokyo, was installed. Major bequests and donations of decorative arts were acquired through the generosity of Seattle Ceramic Society members: Blanche M. Harnan, Martha and Henry Isaacson, Dorothy Condon Falknor, DeEtte McAuslan Stuart, and Kenneth and Priscilla Klepser.
Devoting a Space to Asian Art
Now that the downtown building was open, the museum turned its attention to the original building in Volunteer Park. The Gould-designed building was a Seattle icon, and the Landmarks Preservation Board granted it Seattle Landmark status in 1989. SAM had an impressive Asian art collection at its heart that had been growing in size and significance since the Fullers presented the original founding collection nearly 60 years earlier. An Asian art-focused museum was imminent, and it was garnering attention. Contemporary art collectors Virginia and Bagley Wright had also built an impressive collection of Japanese textiles, which they donated. The generosity of Frank S. Bayley III strengthened the Korean art collection, which now filled several galleries. The Bodde Family, with assistance from Mr. and Mrs. Charles M. Henderson, donated their large collection of nineteenth and early twentieth century Chinese shadow puppets. In 1993, shortly before the building reopened, the new Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM) was the site for the premiere opening of the Asian Pacific Economic Conference (APEC). Heads of state of many Asian nations and President Bill Clinton attended. Mary (Mimi) Gardner Neill (later Gates) (b. 1943), a Chinese art scholar and former Director of the Yale University Art Gallery, was selected as the museum’s new director after Jay Gates resigned in 1993. Neill opened the Seattle Asian Art Museum on August 13, 1994, with 13,000 people attending opening ceremonies and events.
Not content with two museum sites, in 1999, the museum raised $17 million and purchased the last six acres of undeveloped land on the Seattle waterfront in partnership with the Trust for Public Land. It intended to build a sculpture park. The following year, Jon (b. 1938) and Mary Shirley (1939-2013) purchased Alexander Calder’s (1898-1976) monumental sculpture, The Eagle (1971), for the museum with the intention of it someday being sited at the waterfront park. The Shirleys endowed the park with a $20 million gift and named the park the Olympic Sculpture Park. A capital campaign began that eventually raised $220 million with more than 10,000 gifts — the largest cultural fundraising campaign in the history of Seattle. The New York City-based architectural firm, Weiss/Manfredi, was selected as the park’s architects.
The downtown museum continued to grow. It hired Nicholas Dorman as its first staff conservator and charged him with overseeing the creation of a state-of-the art conservation studio. In 2004, SAM hired its first Curator of American Art, Patricia Junker, indicating that historical American art would now be an area of focus. During this time, SAM created its new vision statement: "SAM Connects Art to Life," a statement that endures.
In addition to the Olympic Sculpture Park, which was underway, the museum began to envision a larger, expanded downtown museum site. Although the downtown space had only been open for a little over a decade, the museum’s collection had grown dramatically, and the current space was no longer adequate. The museum hired Portland-based Allied Works Architecture to create an expanded space that would merge with the Venturi-designed structure and nearly double the current exhibition space.
On January 20, 2007, the Olympic Sculpture Park opened with a two-day celebration that hosted thousands of visitors. The park included works by Richard Serra (b. 1939), Teresita Fernandez (b. 1968), Roxy Paine (b. 1966), Beverly Pepper (b. 1924), Ellsworth Kelly (b. 1923), Anthony Caro (b. 1924), Louise Nevelson (1899-1988), Mark di Suvero (b. 1933), Tony Smith (1912-1980), and Louise Bourgeois (b. 1912). The park also included Mark Dion's (b. 1961) Neukom Vivarium, a laboratory-like structure enclosing a 60-foot Western hemlock nurse log. The park included Northwest native plantings labeled with their Latin and common names, as well as their original Lushootseed names. The Seattle firm, Charles Anderson Landscape Architecture, developed the plantings. Weiss/Manfredi and the Olympic Sculpture Park won numerous awards including Time Magazine's Top 10 Architectural Marvels, the Veronica Rudge Green Prize in Urban Design, and the American Institute of Architect's Honor Award for Architecture.
Shortly thereafter, on Saturday, May 5, 2007, the newly expanded Seattle Art Museum downtown opened to the public with a 35-hour marathon, hosting 13,000 visitors in the first few hours. The $80 million renovation expanded the museum to 268,000 square feet and allowed for 2,400 works to be on view — three times as many as were previously displayed. The opening exhibition, SAM at 75: Building a Collection for Seattle, featured more than 200 newly acquired works donated by collectors in many different collecting areas. A highlight of the new building was its Porcelain Room, which included more than 1,000 European and Asian porcelain objects from SAM's collection. The room itself was conceived to blend visual excitement with the historical concept of a Kunstkammer, a kind of collector's cabinet, and included European pieces from Seattle Ceramic Society members’ collections as well as Asian porcelain objects from SAM’s deep collection of Asian art.
In 2009, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director Mimi Gates, who had led the museum for nearly 15 years, retired. She had overseen the early days of the Seattle Asian Art Museum, opened the Olympic Sculpture Park, and overseen the expansion of the downtown Seattle Art Museum. In the SAM Annual Report, 2008-2009, she discussed one last gift — "the museum marked its diamond anniversary in 2008 with an unprecedented effort that resulted in more than 1,000 works of art gifted or promised to the collection" (Annual Report, 2007-2008, 2). Gates became Director Emeritus and created the Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. The Gardner Center launched an ongoing program called Saturday University, which brought world-renown scholars, authors, and artists to the museum on Saturday mornings.
Enjoying New Spaces
In its new space SAM hosted higher-caliber exhibitions. In 2008, the museum exhibited, in terms of tonnage, the biggest show it has ever squeezed through its doors: Roman Art from the Louvre, a traveling exhibition of 180 objects from the Paris museum. Fifty tons of monumental statues, marble reliefs, gold jewelry, fabulous silver, tile mosaics, and various status symbols of ancient Rome filled the new 14,000-square-foot Special Exhibitions gallery.
That same year Curator of Native American Art Barbara Brotherton, who had replaced Steven Brown several years earlier, curated and organized, S’abadeb — The Gifts: Pacific Coast Salish Art and Artists, with works that represented 70 tribes and groups of the Puget Sound region. The show was the first to focus on this area in such a large-scale way. Seattle Times art critic Sheila Farr wrote that it’s "probably the most significant exhibition the Seattle Art Museum has organized and certainly the most relevant" (Farr, "Coast Salish Artists...").
Artist Titus Kaphar (b. 1976) became SAM’s first Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Prize winner in 2009. The Knight/Lawrence Prize is awarded bi-annually to "an early career Black artist ... in the first decade of their career who demonstrates artistic commitment and great promise" (Seattle Art Museum, "Knight/Lawrence Prize"). Kaphar was awarded a solo exhibition in SAM’s Gwendolyn Knight & Jacob Lawrence Gallery and received a $10,000 cash award. Gwendolyn Knight (1913–2005) and Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) were renowned artists who lived and worked in Seattle for much of their lives and provided support to Black artists.
In 2011, the museum hosted its most well-attended exhibition since King Tut — Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris. The exhibition was ranked the fourth highest attended exhibition in the U.S. that year. Board President Maggie Walker (b. 1953) summed it up:
"The year 2011 will go down in the Seattle Art Museum’s history as one of monumental achievement. We celebrated record attendance and an ensuing boost to the local economy through our exhibition Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris. More than 405,000 visitors came from near and far to see this collection of 150 works that had never before left French soil. Membership reached an all-time high of 48,000 [households]" (Annual Report, 2010-2011, 2).
Celebrating the museum’s 80th anniversary in 2013, Curator of Chinese Art Josh Yiu curated A Fuller View of China, Japan, and Korea at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, which told the story of the collections' beginnings with a focus on SAM founder and long-time director Richard Fuller. This installation demonstrated how Fuller, his family and friends, and other more recent Seattle collectors had built SAM’s celebrated Asian art collections.
That same year, the Olympic Sculpture Park unveiled a monumental sculpture that rivaled the other large works sited in the park — Echo (2011), by Jaume Plensa (b. 1955) — a gift from SAM Trustee Barney A. Ebsworth (1934-2018). In 2014, SAM acquired 85 works from the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection of post-war American and European art, which raised the profile of the museum’s modern and contemporary art collection to an unprecedented level. In 2016, under the guidance of Curator of African and Oceanic Art Pamela McClusky, SAM opened its Australian Aboriginal galleries, featuring works from the collection of Margaret Levi and Robert Kaplan. SAM was the first American museum to have permanent galleries dedicated to this area of art. During this time several administrative changes happened. Derrick Cartwright followed Mimi Gates in 2009 and was succeeded by Kimerly Rorschach, who joined SAM in 2012 as its new Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO. Rorschach was tasked with leading SAM through its next building project: renovating and expanding the Seattle Asian Art Museum.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
SAM had been participating in racial equity work since the mid-1990s, and in 2015, under Rorschach’s leadership, SAM joined the Turning Commitment into Action Racial Equity Learning cohort facilitated by the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture and the Office for Civil Rights. The next few years were transformative for SAM in the ways it changed its approach to audience, staffing, and exhibitions. It launched its Equity Team — made up of diverse staff from all levels and departments — and publicized a collective commitment: "We are responsive to cultural communities and experiences, and we think critically about the role art plays in empowering social justice and structural change to promote equity in our society. We are dedicated to racial equity in all that we do" (Seattle Art Museum, "Equity at SAM"). The museum formalized the role of exhibition advisory groups, a practice it had been doing in an ad hoc manner for decades. In 2017, the museum’s Equity Team and leadership integrated an equity statement into its strategic plan, and in 2020, made Priya Frank, who has been leading the Equity Team and community programs work since 2016, SAM's first Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.
In 2019, Amada Cruz succeeded Rorschach as the next Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO, becoming SAM’s first Latina director. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the museum commissioned Seattle artist Kimisha Turner to create a mural at the entrance to the museum entitled, It Ain’t Just a River in Egypt (2020), and accessioned the 40-plus-foot-long work into its collection. In September 2021, Constance Rice became the new chair of SAM's Board of Trustees, making her the first Black woman to chair a board of a major art museum in the United States.
Restoring the Heart of SAM
Planning since the mid-2000s, in 2017, the time was finally right to restore, enhance, and expand "The Heart of SAM," the museum’s iconic art moderne building in Volunteer Park, now the Seattle Asian Art Museum. The museum chose Seattle firm LMN Architects to lead its first overall renovation and expansion since the building opened in 1933.
On February 8, 2020, the museum opened its newly renovated and expanded Asian Art Museum. More than 10,000 people visited during the opening weekend, experiencing the new thematic reinstallation of SAM’s Asian art collection in the upgraded galleries. "Organized to highlight artistic traditions that connect cultures across Asia, rather than grouping art by modern nation states, the museum’s curation is the only of its kind in the Pacific Northwest and one of only a few museums in the United States dedicated to Asian art" (Seattle Art Museum, "Seattle Asian Art Museum ..."). The site had more gallery space, more space for programming, and a new Asian Paintings Conservation Center, the first of its kind in the Western U.S.
A Worthy Institution
In 2020, SAM celebrated a landmark gift from the Friday Foundation in honor of Richard E. Lang (1906-1982) and Jane Lang Davis (1920-2017). The collection of 19 paintings, drawings, and sculptures spanning 1945 to 1976 "serve as significant examples of mature works and pivotal moments of artistic development from some of the most influential American and European artists of the post-war period, including Francis Bacon, Lee Krasner, Clyfford Still, Philip Guston, Joan Mitchell, David Smith, and others" (Seattle Art Museum, "Frisson"). This gift, along with the Wright gift of 2014, made SAM a serious player in the world of contemporary art.
What started as a community effort to connect Seattleites interested in the arts was now an institution with three distinctive sites, a permanent collection of more than 25,000 objects representing global artistic practices over many centuries, and a reputation for being one of the most forward-thinking museums in the country.