Seattle Art Museum opens its Olympic Sculpture Park with a two-day celebration beginning on January 20, 2007.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 4/07/2007
  • Essay 8130
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On January 20 and 21, 2007, the Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park opens to the public with a communitywide free celebration.  Located on land formerly used by Unocal (Union Oil of California) Corporation for storing, transferring, and shipping gasoline and diesel fuels, the site required a massive toxic cleanup. Designed by the New York firm of Weiss/Manfredi and featuring a panoramic view of Puget Sound and the Olympic mountain range, the Olympic Sculpture Park inaugurates a third campus for the Seattle Art Museum and marks the culmination of more than a decade of planning.

Making a Park for Art

A $25 million donation from former Microsoft president Jon Shirley (b. 1938) and his wife Mary Shirley (ca. 1939-2013) funded an endowment enabling visitors to access the park without charge in perpetuity. The Shirleys also funded the first piece purchased for the park, Alexander Calder's (1898-1976) Eagle. The Seattle Times reported that "roughly 25 percent of the $85 million for the park comes from public sources: city of Seattle, Seattle Parks for All Levy, King County, Washington state, and the federal government through the National Endowment for the Arts, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Departments of Housing and Urban Development and of Transportation.  The rest came in donations from several thousand people, writing checks for $50 to $500,000" ("Where The Money Came From").  The park was the brainchild of Seattle Art Museum director Mimi Gardner Gates.

Unocal operated the fuel facility from 1910 until 1975, and spent the subsequent 10 years on environmental cleanup.  In 1999 the Seattle Art Museum and the Trust For Public Land collaborated to raise $16.5 million in private funding to purchase the site.  Additional parcels of land were later purchased with help from the City of Seattle and King County, yielding a final total of nine acres.  In 2001 Weiss/Manfredi was chosen over 51 other applicants from around the world to serve as the project's lead designers.  Construction began in the summer of 2005. 

In late 2005 the maintenance barn for the popular George Benson Waterfront Trolley was demolished amid public controversy in accordance with design plans for the park's lower portion near Myrtle Edwards Park, necessitating cessation of the trolley's operation for the foreseeable future.  In late 2006 the process of installing the sculptures began.

Come and Share

Seattle mayor Greg Nickels (b. 1955) and Washington governor Christine Gregoire (b. 1947) led the ceremonial opening procession from the Puget Sound shoreline up through the sculpture park to the Allen Family Foundation Plaza where, with the assistance of two young members of the Huchoosedah Indian Education program, they cut a ribbon and welcomed the crowd into the park.  Suquamish hereditary chief Jim Pratt led a welcoming prayer and Upper Skagit Elder Vi Hilbert addressed the crowd in Lushootseed, exhorting them to "come and share." For the remainder of the weekend singers, dancers, acrobats, and musicians performed on the half-hour, running the gamut from mariachi music to Iranian dancing to hip-hop to opera to synchronized jump roping.

The PACCAR Pavilion housed an installation of photographs by Seattleite Glenn Rudolph documenting the land's physical transformation from toxic cleanup site, to construction zone, to sculpture park.

In addition to Calder's Eagle, works included Richard Serra's (b. 1939) Wake, Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929) and Coosje Van Bruggen's (b. 1949) Tyewriter Eraser, Scale X, Teresita Fernandez's (b. 1968) Seattle Cloud Cover, Roxy Paine's (b. 1966) Split, Beverly Pepper's (b. 1924) Persephone Unbound and Perre's Ventaglio III, as well as major works by Ellsworth Kelly (b. 1923), Anthony Caro (b. 1924), Louise Nevelson (1899-1988), Mark di Suvero (b. 1933), Tony Smith (1912-1980), Louise Bourgeois (b. 1912). The park also includes Mark Dion's (b. 1961)'s Neukom Vivarium, a laboratory-like structure enclosing a 60-foot Western hemlock nurse log.

Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi of the Weiss/Manfredi designed the sculpture park, working with a complex site that stretches from Western Avenue, across Elliott Avenue, over railroad tracks, and ending with a shoreline restoration and salmon habitat abutting Myrtle Edwards Park. The park is replete with Northwest native plantings that are labeled with their original Lushootseed names, as well as their Latin names and common names. The Seattle firm Charles Anderson Landscape Architecture developed the plantings.  Lisa Corrin, at the time the Seattle Art Museum's curator of modern and contemporary art, selected the art.

Critics Weigh In

Local critics weighed in on every aspect of the park's aesthetics. Regina Hackett, art critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, described the park as "a 9-acre art history pop-up book.  Turn a corner, and sculpture jumps out at you over bridges and train tracks, rises to soar out of a valley and makes memorable intrusions into the waterfront's horizon line ... all of the high points are about space.  Sculpture has a tale to tell and needs space in which to tell it.  This park, with separate plots of land connected by ingenious design, is intended to show off the art it contains" ("Olympic Sculpture Park: The Art Meets The Challenge Of Outshining The Views"). 

Sheila Farr, art critic for The Seattle Times, called the park "a brilliantly crafted place that functions as a vehicle for art as well as offering an exhilarating experience in and of itself," adding that "it's important to note that many of the park's signature artworks were purchased or commissioned especially for it -- not just inherited from local collections."  Farr went on to opine that not all of the works in the park would stand the test of time, mentioning the Dion and Pepper pieces in particular. 

Architectural critic Trevor Boddy, writing for The Seattle Times, called the park "a major downtown public space to match (Seattle's) ambitions as a city ... The Weiss-Manfredi design accrues power from the pulsing presence of rail and car/truck traffic across the site.  The serrated edges of those transportation passages shape acoustic and visual boundaries around the park, making urban what could have been falsely bucolic, some all-green lamination laid over these portside rough edges.  Rough edges are central to Seattle's identity" ("Architectural Review: From Sculpture to Structure"). 

Seattle Post-Intelligencer architecture critic Lawrence Cheek wrote, "Radically transforming a polluted, disheveled and disconnected site, New York architects Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi have created the best public space in Seattle ... Retaining walls, a geological necessity on such a steeply plunging site, have been designed as if they were sculptures themselves ... The architects play intriguing games with perspective here -- sighting down a row of panels, you're never sure whether they're marching into the ground and tilting into increasing angles, or if it's just a trick of the distance.  Ambiguity is one of the qualities that lifts working architecture onto the plane of art, and it has been served up in a wonderfully graceful and non-threatening manner here" ("Welcome To The Best Public Space In Seattle").

Clean Soil, Touching Art

And finally Marty Wingate, garden critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, described the Northwest native plantings employed throughout the park's four regions (Valley, Grove, Meadows, and Shore), adding, "Previously, the site of the park was fit for neither art nor garden ... the contaminated soil had to be excavated and 200,000 cubic yards of new soil brought in ... . Now, the clean soil, contoured land, and more than 80,000 plants create the best natural water filter.  The storm water that seeps through the layers ends up in Elliott Bay cleaner for its trip" ("Landscape Design Is Built In Our Northwest Environment").

In the weeks following the opening of the Olympic Sculpture Park, the Seattle Art Museum wrestled with the reality of interaction between the sculpture and its enthusiastic public.  Signs admonishing park goers not to touch most of the art appeared, especially around Richard Serra's 300-ton Corten steel Wake.  "Wake has attracted the most finger marks, along with small scuff marks from kicks delivered low by little feet," Regina Hackett wrote in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer January 27, 2007.  Seattle Art Museum chief conservator Nicholas Dorman told Hackett, "We want to be friendly and positive, but we're encouraging people to think before they touch, as touching art has consequences" ("Olympic Sculpture Park: It's Not A Hands-On Experience").

Transforming the Quality of Urban Life 

On March 15, 2007 Harvard University Graduate School of Design announced that Weiss/Manfredi had been awarded the Veronica Rudge Green Prize in Urban Design for its work on the Olympic Sculpture Park. The Veronica Rudge Green Prize recognizes excellence in urban design with an emphasis on projects that contribute to the public realm of a city and improve the quality of urban life.  This marked the first time in the award's 18 year biannual history that a project in the United States had received this honor. 

An article announcing the award in the Harvard Graduate School Of Design's online magazine stated, "Transforming a dilapidated brownfield site, the park creates a new landscape for art within the urban infrastructure, reconnecting the city to the Puget Sound waterfront ... . The park not only brings sculpture outside of the museum walls, but brings the park itself into the landscape of the city.  The park becomes a piece of sculpture itself, reframing its urban condition" ("Harvard University's Graduate ...").


"Opening Weekend Events At The Olympic Sculpture Park," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 18, 2007; Regina Hackett, "Olympic Sculpture Park: The Art Meets The Challenge Of Outshining The View," Ibid., January 18, 2007; Lawrence W. Cheek, "Welcome To The Best Public Space In Seattle," Ibid., January 18, 2007; "The Key People Behind The Olympic Sculpture Park," Ibid., January 18, 2007; "Where The Money Came From," Ibid., January 18, 2007; Marty Wingate, "Landscape Design Is Built On Our NW Environment," Ibid., January 18, 2007; Lisa Stiffler, "In The End, The Site's Cleanup Took Tons Of Money -- And Dirt," Ibid., January 18, 2007; Regina Hackett, "Olympic Sculpture Park: It's Not A Hands-On Experience," Ibid., January 27, 2007; "Milestones On The Rocky Road To A Waterfront Park," Ibid., January 18, 2007; "Olympic Sculpture Park: SAM's $85 Million Waterfront Jewell Opens This Weekend," Ibid., January 18, 2007; "SAM's Olympic Sculpture Park Gets Urban Design Award," Ibid., March 19, 2007; "Harvard University Graduate School of Design 's Ninth Veronica Rudge Green Prize in Urban Design goes to Weiss/Manfredi For Seattle Waterfront Project," Harvard Graduate School of Design website accessed April 2, 2007 ( ; "Art Alfresco: A Guide To Seattle's Olympic Sculpture Park," The Seattle Times, January 14, 2007; Sheila Farr, "Art Review: A Critic's-Eye View Of The New Olympic Sculpture Park," Ibid., January 18, 2007; Sheila Farr, "The Art and Artists: A Walking Guide," Ibid., January 13, 2207; Trevor Boddy, "Architectural Review: From Sculpture To Structure," Ibid., January 18, 2007; Stuart Eskenazi, "Park Design, Trolley Barn At Odds," Ibid., March 21, 2005"About the Olympic Sculpture Park," and "History of the Park," Seattle Art Museum website accessed April 2, 2007 (

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